My only uncle, Alex (or affectionately, Sascha), was and always will be my favorite uncle too. He was a psychoanalyst and also swore he was a vampire, “nibbling and nibbling and nibbling at your neck,” having come from Romania (or as he claimed, Transylvania). He practiced both therapy and dracula, loudly, in public places — and likely was insightful with his patients in the quieter privacy of his office, or RV, when he decided at one point to follow his gypsy heart and be a wandering psychoanalyst. He was a Jewish intellectual and comic who lived life to its utmost, and swept you up in his wild adventures, which seemed frequent. He loved horses, helping people, and laughter. He and my dad also loved Jewish delis with their enormously tall sandwiches.
As kids, we went to numerous such delis with both of them in mostly Jewish neighborhoods in big cities, where the Jewish waitresses and waiters would yell at you in Yiddish, and there was big bowls of big (free) dill pickles on every table, and my dad and Alex would embarrass me by trying to stuff unbelievably overstuffed pastramis on rye into their mouths while telling Jewish jokes we’d heard a million times — many involving deli food. Of course, first Alex would always do a pre-sandwich schtick that was even more embarrassing. He’d take a straw in one of those white wrappers, tear off the end, scrunch the wrapper down the straw and ease it on to the table into a tiny white accordion-like ball, then suck water into his straw, and drop one or two bits of liquid on to the paper. As the paper began wriggling, Alex would jump up from his seat and scream at the top of voice in those always-crowded delis, “A snake! Ahhhh!! A snake!”
He also took me under his wing when I most needed it, as he did so many others; showed up on my doorstep, from thousands of miles away, unexpectedly, and then sat on my front stoop to talk about politics and Freud late into the night; scooped me up and took me to extravagant restaurants or plays, and then would decide we had to rush off for a fast drive through hills or by the ocean; gave me advice and comfort and joy whenever I asked (or even when I didn’t). He was fully alive every minute, even when those minutes were painful.
Alex, like my dad, didn’t believe in gods and heavens per se but instead held to a sense of wonder at all we know and don’t know — at the beauty and mystery and humanity of the world. And so when he was nearly at the end of his life, he used to proclaim that after his death, he would reappear at just the right moment for us in the form of a pastrami on rye. That would be his signal that he was there for and with us, with good counsel and good humor. Several years later, my youngest sister started going into labor for what would soon become her precocious daughter just as she, my mom, and my dad were eating pastrami on rye at a Jewish deli (it’s true!).
I’m more of a rationalist. I don’t believe in such signs, other than as the silly stuff of family jokes. But today, this long long long Thursday, May 2, 2013, after hours with my dad in his dispiriting nursing “home” where he still lies tethered to breathing, feeding, and other tubes some eight months-plus since contracting severe West Nile Virus from one damned mosquito, I and another sister arrived back at my mom’s assisted living facility to find her at dinner with her longtime best friend. We saw them in the distance, across the dining hall, and both of us paused, sort of catching our breath before perhaps the most difficult yet in a series of difficult conversations these days. Right next to us, almost simultaneously, we both saw the menu for that night’s dinner: pastrami on rye. My mom’s “home” of these past eight-months-plus, since she’s quite sick too, rarely serves that particular food (it’s true!). My sister and I both looked at each other, then both laughed nervously, incredulously.
My only uncle, Alex, was and always will be my dad’s only brother — his big brother who was also his best friend, and who took good care of my dad in many ways. They loved each other dearly. I don’t think my dad ever quite got over the loss of Alex, his confidant, his mentor, and maybe his shrink in certain ways, and someone who could make my dad laugh.
Earlier in the day, my sister and I asked my dad if he wanted pastrami on rye — as part of the preparations around what was his decision this afternoon to likely reach the end of his life soon. This was hours before we knew what was on the menu at my mom’s place (an hour from where my dad lies, immobilized and increasingly “ready” to move on to whatever adventure Alex is now scampering through). I said I could somehow try to mash up the pastrami enough to, perhaps and hopefully, give him what they call “pleasure food” — a small taste, for flavor, but not really to swallow. He can’t do that anymore.
There’s so much he can’t do anymore, this dad of mine. My only dad, who is, was, and always will be my favorite dad.
I can hear one of my dad’s favorite jokes in my head: a wandering Jew, lost in the desert for days on end without food or drink, is nearly about to die from lack of water. Suddenly a genie appears. The genie says [and here, my dad always had 3, 4, or 10 minutes of embellishment], “You have three wishes. Whatever you desire, I will grant you.” The thirsty Jew, with great relief, responds, “Thank God! I’m saved! Make me a malted!” “Poof,” exclaims the genie, “You’re a malted!”
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If you’ve run across this blog post as a reposting somewhere, you can find other blog-musings and more polished essays at Outside the Circle, cbmilstein.wordpress.com. Share, enjoy, and repost — as long as it’s free as in “free beer” and “freedom.”
(Photo by Cindy Milstein, East Lansing, Michigan, 2013)