If Uncle Gerry can help you in any way, you know the number.
-- Uncle Gerry
I think it's stupid to assign so much significance to last words, those final utterances of a dying man. As if his impending death adds an unprecedented depth to his sentiments. Stupid. And, yet, after I spoke into the phone -- "Uncle Gerry? It's me. It's Barb" -- and pressed the receiver so hard against my ear it hurt, my entire body ached with the need to hear one word, any word. I heard his voice as he half-gasped, half-moaned -- " Aaaaaahhh ." He made this sound twice. I almost said "I love you," but there wasn't time. Marcia was back on the phone. "I'll be up all night if you want to call later," she said. I removed the phone from my ear and glared at it as if it were somehow responsible for the sounds I'd just heard. I slid from my chair, onto my knees, and crawled from my desk to the drawers on the other side of the room. Silent, determined, I opened and searched the drawers, one by one, irritated by the steady stream of tears that blurred my vision. I finally found it between two folders, the 3- by 5-inch index card yellowed along the edges, creased down the middle from where it had once been folded. I held it in my hands, away from my face to protect it from getting wet, and began to read the handwritten words. Halfway through, when I reached the part that read, "I thought no one would ever cry over me," I made a tortured noise, not unlike the one I'd heard on the phone, and surrendered my body to convulsions, wails, and whimpers.
Uncle Gerry died in his sleep, eight hours after I tried to speak with him. For the rest of the day, I sat in my reading chair, my legs pulled in tight, my arms wrapped around my shoulders, rocking back and forth. My emotions vacillated between despair and puzzlement. When I wasn't sobbing, I wondered why I was taking it so hard -- I never even met him in person.
My dad's cousin Gerry was drafted and sent off to Vietnam when he was still a teenager. While there, he was exposed to Agent Orange, an herbicide that was used to disintegrate the jungle -- a toxic chemical substance that was later proven to cause a barrage of maladies in anyone unfortunate enough to have come into contact with it. People said it was the war that made him crazy. Could be. But I think it had more to do with what happened after he got back. Not the day he found his grandmother dead in the bathtub of her Brooklyn apartment and, with my grandfather's help, brought her body to the morgue. No, not that day; I am told he handled the situation like a man who'd grown used to carrying the dead. That was nothing compared to the bombshell dropped at the funeral. Gerry's dad, the man who was supposed to have died in the Korean War, which was the lie told to Gerry to spare him the truth -- that he and his mother had been abandoned -- materialized to pay his respects.
All of this happened before I was born. During my formative years, Uncle Gerry was just a guy who called once a week to talk to my dad or to check on my mother when my dad was temporarily stationed in some other Navy town. I was in high school the first time he called to speak with me . It was a few days after I'd hinted to my mom that something had happened to me, something involving a boy I knew, and, no, it wasn't "rape," I told her, "not really." She was hysterical for details, and I made her promise not to tell my father. She was quick to agree, probably because Dad had a lot on the line, a military job and a family to take care of, all of which would be lost if he did something stupid. Helpless and angry, Mom told Uncle Gerry, the family's protector-from-afar who had regularly insisted that should anything happen to her or any of her girls, she go to him instead of the police.
I didn't know why he was calling for me. We chatted about life, about school and stuff. Uncle Gerry was funny, he appreciated my irreverence, and that first day, we spoke for almost an hour. An underlying hint of a smile was evident in his tone and his laugh, a surprising gravelly giggle in contrast to his sonorous voice, was infectious. At the end of the conversation, his motives became clear. "Give me a name, Barb." I pretended not to know what he was talking about. "Come on, honey. I don't even need a full name. Just a first name, a nickname even. Where he hangs out. That will do." I pleaded ignorance and ended the phone call.
A few days later, Uncle Gerry called again. This time, he chatted with Mom for a few minutes before asking for me. Again, we spoke at length about life in general, mostly about how lucky I was to have my dad for a father -- Dad represented everything Uncle Gerry had ever wanted to be. "Listen, honey," Uncle Gerry coaxed me, "I'm not looking to whack the kid, just to smack him, you know, send him to a hospital for a few weeks. He won't even know what hit him. Come on, now. Give me his name."
I never did.
The knowledge that I could, with a word, punish someone who had wronged me gave me a sense of empowerment. After a year, Uncle Gerry stopped asking me for a name. Instead, at the end of each of our talks, he'd say, "Anyone giving you a hard time? Hmm? You tell Uncle Gerry if anybody fucks with you, and I'll take care of it."
Uncle Gerry was a tough guy. He was known in New York as "Do Daly," the bouncer at many clubs, the guy who did the dirty work to collect money owed to the Hells Angels. He was big, over six feet tall and muscle thick. He had his mother's liquid- blue eyes and jet-black hair, which he wore to his shoulders. He was a champion of women in a misogynist-meets--Don Quixote way. Uncle Gerry didn't think before he punched, especially if a woman's honor was at stake. Nearly every one of his arrest stories begins with, "This guy was harassing a lady in a bar." He had broken every bone in his hands countless times beating men unconscious. Once he was arrested for assaulting a police officer in a bar. Uncle Gerry had the man up against the wall by the throat and shoulder when the guy choked out the words, "I'm a cop!" My uncle's defense to the judge was, "Your honor, this man was being very rude to the young lady." When the judge asked Uncle Gerry what he should do with him, Uncle Gerry responded, "Your honor, I believe a severe verbal reprimand is in order." And that's all he got. Uncle Gerry was also a charmer.
Since that first phone call over a decade ago, my Uncle Gerry and I spoke regularly. We sent each other cards, pictures; sometimes he'd send me money. He told me how wonderful my father was, had always been. He confessed to me his fear that he would not be forgiven for his sins, to which I'd say, "I don't believe in Hell." At some point during every conversation, he would tell me how much he loved me. How much fun he had talking to me.
In recent years, Uncle Gerry's tiny Latina wife, Marcia, nursed her giant husband as his body deteriorated like the foliage in that jungle 40 years ago. When she spoke with my father a few hours after Uncle Gerry was no more, Marcia said, "Who will protect me now?" As if she hadn't realized he'd become an invalid.
Uncle Gerry was my glass box to break in case of emergency. Just knowing he existed made me feel safe. The offer stood -- if I wanted someone, anyone, out of my life, all I had to do was make one phone call, no questions asked. I like to think that, in a fatherly way, Uncle Gerry was proud of me for never having taken him up on it.