A eulogy I will not get to give, except here
My uncle, aged sixty-five as of just recently, died earlier this week from a cancer which tends to be detected in its advanced stages. It came on quickly and ended quickly. He was the eldest of three brothers (my dad being the middle) and of four children total. And he was a good man, one I enjoyed talking to and felt comfortable around—although given the geographical distance I have, relatively speaking, only ever learned fairly little about him and his life.
People have been sending condolences, saying how sorry they are for my loss, and I think, why express these things to me? What am I going to do with this information? Put it alongside all the other information about his life and now death, none of which I know how to deal with?
Of course the sentiments do help. But I can’t yet say exactly how. Grieving across the divide of space and time is a very tricky human art, and I’m a bit disoriented having to do a crash course in it. It’s one thing to be there for collective mourning: it’s another to conduct and shepherd myself through my own mourning an ocean away.
The last time the whole family was together was Christmas 2017, the end of a big year. My cousin had gotten married at the beginning of July; hardly two weeks later, my grandma suffered a stroke. While seeing her at Christmas certainly wasn’t the same as seeing her at the wedding, simply getting to be with her and know she was on the mend was a huge relief, and there was a special joy and gratitude to the family festivities, at least as I recall them. That’s not a bad last memory to have, but neither a transatlantic move nor a travel-restricting global health crisis factored into the potential future I was taking into account as we said goodbye. I’m thankful to say that she is still here. We expected my uncle to be here, too. A phone call between the two of them, facilitated by my parents, was the last full conversation he had. Lives take their turns.
Death is a strange concept. I read things like “we aren’t afraid to die, we’re afraid to die without having lived,” whose sources I forget. The faith I grew up in tells me that death on this plane of existence is an upgrade to a less flawed plane. I once asked a friend who had studied theology how we would all understand one another in the afterlife—that is, what language we would use—and he said we wouldn’t need language as the human brain knows it because we would have the language of love. My uncle no longer speaks the language his loved ones speak; he is learning a new one, just as our ancestors and more lately departed family did. I wonder if he would understand me were I to speak to him now, if he could reach back through his memory for a means of communication he used to be fluent in, if there is a translation.
The funeral was today. I was present in spirit. Spirit can count for more than we think it does. He leaves behind my aunt, my three cousins, and the three grandchildren they’ve given him (so far). I’ve never liked the phrase in obituaries ‘so-and-so is survived by.’ That makes it sound like life is a war we’re fighting—and sometimes it is, but that isn’t the point. The person’s soul survives, their spirit carries on, their essence remains. Certainly the family dynamic will always bear my uncle’s influence, the way he shaped it. If anything, we have one more commonality in how we all loved him. That seems like more than mere survival to me.
Michael Battista Gigliotti, 6 October 1956-25 October 2021. Requiescat in pace.
Image: taken by the author last Thursday