My Uncle Bear died yesterday. I was at my daughter’s horse show when I got the call from Mom. Dad was crying too much to tell me himself.
I wonder what it’s like to lose a younger sibling. I have no younger sisters or brothers myself, so I will never know that feeling. I imagine it to be different — very different — from losing parents or even an older sister. I imagine it’s like a giant swoosh of air, like a wind tunnel, where you experience everything that brother meant to you. Your childhood, your parents, your relationship to everyone else in the family.
My Uncle Onofre, which is Uncle Bear’s real name, was the reckless one — the one who acted on impulse, made friends easily, never took life too seriously. From Dad’s memoirs, he wrote this about his little brother:
He was a jolly kid who made friends with practically the entire adult population in the neighborhood. He was always helping some neighbor with his fields, or his animals, or with house chores. People all around were always talking about what a hard worker he was and they were always after him to come help them. He was always willing.
The strange thing about Onofre’s industriousness and generosity was that around our own home we had trouble getting him to do anything. My mother would say about him that he was “el candil de la calle, obscuridad de su casa,” which translated says, “the light of the street but darkness in his house.” But people loved him. He was always whistling. He loved to whistle “Cielito Lindo” so much that some of the boys nicknamed him “Cielito” and it stuck. Years later, people from Costilla who had known him would ask, “Whatever happened to your brother, Cielito?”
Cielito, Uncle Bear, Uncle Onofre. He went on to raise a large family. All his sons served in the military. Uncle Bear lived hard, smoked like mad, got Diabetes — the “silent killer” among Chicanos. Dad always says, given Uncle Onofre’s happy, carefree outlook on life, he should have outlived all the rest of them. But Onofre believed in living life to the fullest, and for him that meant not worrying about how long a life you lived, just that it was lived joyously.
Dad called his little brother about ten days before he died. Onofre could still talk on the phone.
“Hi, Cielito,” Dad said to Onofre.
“Hi, Conde,” Onofre said back.
“Cielito” means “little sky” or in a religious sense, “little heaven.” It captured in its wide blue umbrella all that was Dad’s little brother.
“Conde” stood for “Condemnado” — condemned one. Like the way you might call a beautiful sister “fea” (ugly) or a genius brother “tonto” (stupid), Uncle Onofre called my devout father, “condemned one.”
Tomorrow morning I’ll drive my mom and dad through Dad’s ancestral homelands of Taos and Costilla, to southern Colorado. We’ll attend rosary and services on Wednesday morning, visit all afternoon with cousins and other family we haven’t seen for years. We’ll laugh and cry. We might even sing. Just in his honor.
by Michael Ondaatje, from The Cinnamon Peeler
Griffin calls to come and kiss him goodnight
I yell ok. Finish something I’m doing,
then something else, walk slowly round
the corner to my son’s room.
He is standing arms outstretched
waiting for a bearhug. Grinning.
Why do I give my emotion an animal’s name,
give it that dark squeeze of death?
This is the hug which collects
all his small bones and his warm neck against me.
The thin tough body under the pyjamas
locks to me like a magnet of blood.
How long was he standing there
like that, before I came?
by Mary Oliver, from Why I Wake Early
It’s not my track,
I say, seeing
the ball of the foot and the wide heel
and the naily, untrimmed
toes. And I say again,
to no one but myself, since no one is
with me. This is
not my track, and this is an extremely
large foot, I wonder
how large a body must be to make
such a track, I am beginning to make
bad jokes. I have read probably
a hundred narratives where someone saw
just what I am seeing. Various things
happened next. A fairly long list, I won’t
go into it. But not one of them told
what happened next–I mean, before whatever happens–
how the distances light up, how the clouds
are the most lovely shapes you have ever seen, how
the wild flowers at your feet begin distilling a fragrance
different, and sweeter than any you ever stood upon before–how
every leaf on the whole mountain is aflutter.
by Mary Oliver, from Why I Wake Early
All afternoon, Sir,
your ambassadors have been turning
into lakes and rivers.
At first they were just clouds, like any other.
Then they swelled and swirled; then they hung very still;
then they broke open. This is, I suppose,
just one of the common miracles,
a transformation, not a vision,
not an answer, not a proof, but I put it
there, close against my heart, where the need is, and it serves
the purpose. I go on, soaked through, my hair
like corn, or wheat, shining and useful.
-Related to post, Practice: Growing Older – 20min