When I was still living in New York City, one of my uncles would always take me to McCarren Park to people watch. We would play games, eat mazurka and watch pick-up baseball games in the afternoon. Anytime he visited us in the city, he would spend the most amount of time with me. He didn’t speak a bit of Polish, but he was very patient with me. I taught him some basic phrases in Polish and he would help me with my ESL work. Even though he was in no way related to me, he always treated me like one of his own children and I enjoyed spending time with him.
The last time I was in NYC, I called him and we went to lunch in Greenpoint. It was nice to see him again, but he looked extremely tired. When it came time to order, he just asked for a salad and I knew something was definitely wrong. I asked him how he was feeling and he mentioned that he had not been given very good news during his last visit to the doctor. He went on to tell me that he was diagnosed with atherosclerosis on top of his diabetes. He had suffered two minor heart attacks since I had last seen him and his prognosis was not promising. I was upset at the thought of losing someone so dear to me and it was hard for me to leave him back in NYC.
A month ago, my aunt called me to let me know that my uncle was doing worse. He had also suffered a stroke and was having difficulties remembering basic things. Even though I had prepared myself and told myself that he could pass away at any time, hearing that his health had failed him even more was disheartening. I thought of my uncle, so vibrant in McCarren Park while we played tag. I remembered all the amazing times I had with him and it was hard to think that such a light would finally go out.
On September 6, I received the phone call that I had dreaded. My uncle had passed away, a heart attack early in the morning. Though it was not shocking news, it was news I didn’t want to hear so soon. It took awhile for it to sink in, I think mostly due to the distance between myself and my family. As I often do, I turned to books to find the words for how I was feeling. I came across a collection of Walt Whitman’s poems and searched for the one that I knew would help me more than any other.
Every time I lose someone close to me, it reminds me of Whitman’s “To One Shortly to Die,” which is one of my favourite poems. If you haven’t read it:
From all the rest I single out you, having a message for you,
You are to die—let others tell you what they please, I cannot
I am exact and merciless, but I love you—There is no escape for
Softly I lay my right hand upon you, you just feel it,
I do not argue, I bend my head close and half envelope it,
I sit quietly by, I remain faithful,
I am more than nurse, more than parent or neighbor,
I absolve you from all except yourself spiritual bodily, that is
eternal, you yourself will surely escape,
The corpse you will leave will be but excrementitious.
The sun bursts through in unlooked-for directions,
Strong thoughts fill you and confidence, you smile,
You forget you are sick, as I forget you are sick,
You do not see the medicines, you do not mind the weeping
friends, I am with you,
I exclude others from you, there is nothing to be commiserated,
I do not commiserate, I congratulate you.
This poem has always given me some form of comfort, the type of comfort that can only come from words. The nature of the poem, confronting the truth, head-on and then offering comfort after. It is the perfect poem for the solitude that one seeks after the death of someone you care about and it will, hopefully, offer me solace once again.