When I was a child, everyone used to say that my little sister took after my dad's mother in appearance and countenance. My older sister took after my dad when it came to being badass and she looked like my dad's side of the family. I was the spitting image of my mom, inheriting even her vivid green eyes...so I didn't inherit much from my dad's side as far as appearances come. Well, technically, I did inherit half of my genes from my dad's side, so I did inherit something...maybe something recessive. Okay, enough genetics. The point is, my sisters seemed to take after my dad's side of the family a lot more than I did.
However, everyone use to say that I was like my Tio Ze when it came to my personality. You see, moody preteen years aside, I had a jovial personality (I was a little bit of a jokester in my day). I was also extremely calm and patient...just like my uncle. As my father would say, I was like my uncle in the sense that a house could be falling around me and I would not be bothered by it. Truth be told, I kind of proud to hear this. You see, I LOVED my uncle. He was SO cool and SO awesome. Out of all of my uncles (12 total), he was one of my favorites and one that I could relate to. He got a lot of things that I get...like the importance of family, gardening, good times, good drinks, and plenty of good laughs.
My uncle passed away this morning and I can assure you all that this man is being missed by people all over the world...from Brazil, to the US, to Portugal, etc. He was a beautiful man and he had a beautiful heart. A few years ago, he had a stroke and was never able to walk again, even with the physical therapy and determination. I still remember the last time I saw him standing on his own. I stayed over my cousin's place for a weekend and my aunt and uncle were there too. My dad and sister's were abroad for the summer...and I stayed behind doing...you guessed it...research work with my organic chemistry professor. My uncle was a great person to be around. He had us cracking up the whole weekend. He had a great sense of humor and knew how to appreciate a good joke as he knew how to make one. He drove me to the train station with my aunt and the car ride was a perfect ending to a great weekend. I remember him standing by the car waving at me. That memory never left me.
He moved to Portugal with my aunt soon after...to live out the perfect retirement in the dream house he and my aunt had built. This house was beautiful, not because of the fancy interior decorating (my aunt has great taste in furnishings and could make Martha Stewart blush with how she keeps a house)...but because it was a home. My aunt took care of the place indoors...but outdoors was my uncle's domain. This man was an avid gardener who could make anything grow and took pleasure in the entire process. There wasn't a thing that this guy couldn't grow. He and my dad would walk through his garden as he proudly pointed out the latest fig tree clipping he had somehow grown into a tree in spite of the drought/hail/frost/you-name-it-natural-disaster. He would point out the "couves" (Brassica oleracea for us plant geeks) and remark that he would have more than enough to pass around when it came to the holidays. (In case you're wondering, the Portuguese eat A LOT of couves during the holidays.) His crops were, needless to say, pretty legendary even in a place like Jersey where everyone and their mom has some type of garden.
And share he did, whatever it was that he had to share. Whether it was a bumper crop of insert fruit or veggie here or pot upon pot of crabs, he would always call up his family and loved ones to make and share memories. He would always have us over and there was always plenty of stories, drinks, and soccer games. He was an avid soccer fan, a die-hard F.C.Porto fan. This was, of course, his only flaw considering how much my family prefers S.C. Braga...or, in my case, Sporting Clube de Portugal. Yet, this was never an issue with any of us. There would always be some good-natured gloating whenever someone's team lost...and the fact that we all liked opposing teams kind of made following soccer all the more fun. My cousin, another Porto fan, still has fond memories of staying up at crazy hours of the night with his dad watching games and championships.
He was so proud of his family. He was a great father-in-law who quickly welcomed more people into his family when his sons got married. Not just the women my cousins married...but their entire families. I'm talking families of "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" proportions...but in spite of how large his family got or how different their backgrounds were, my Tio Ze became their "Joe" with ease. He was just as generous with even the most extended of family and acquaintances as he was with his immediate family. He was the life of any party, regardless of how formal or informal. He was always ready with a joke or a story and everyone found themselves falling in love with him.
I was lucky. I knew him all my life. He was one of the "cool" uncles. He and my aunt knew exactly what to get us for Christmas and they always came over...or we went over their house. Though my sisters and I were born in a later crop of cousins (10 year gap between my sisters and I and most of my cousins on my dad's side), my cousins will still tell stories about the Tio Ze Santa Claus. All of my cousins counted him among their favorite uncles...as my sisters and I did. He always had a huge hug and kiss for us whenever he saw us and was always there for us. He also had a way with kids...almost like he could see the world as they did. In my earlier preteen years, I was moody and quiet. It's normal for American children to be like this these days, but this is strange among the Portuguese...who are a loud and happy people.
My parents were concerned with this, but had no idea what to do. I'm sure my uncle must have noticed something was up because I found myself alone one time looking over a balcony by myself, brooding before all these new vampire movies made it cool to brood. He came up to me and spoke with me as if I was an equal. I wasn't a kid anymore and he wasn't an adult. He was simply there for me, and talked with me as opposed to me. I don't know how long we were alone there for, but it had quite an impression on me. Perhaps it even served as a catalyst to get me out of my moody slump. He always seemed to know what to say, even if he wasn't always the most serious person. I mean, as jovial as he was, he gave my younger sister the advice she needed after my mom passed away and she was left alone at home with a grieving father (my older sister and I had gone off to college).
He just always knew what to say, when to say it, and how to say it. Perhaps his having grown sons was helpful. Perhaps he just understood. Perhaps it was his need to take care of the people around him. He knew what to say when my mother passed away. He knew what to do whenever my dad was in the hospital or someone he knew was in trouble or in need of help. He was simply one of those people who did what they could to take care of you, regardless of how much effort it took.
My uncle's only flaw (besides the Porto fanship) was that he seldom looked over his health. He felt he was healthy like a horse, so he never really followed up on his cholesterol (family thing, trust me) or other issues. He smoked as well. The stroke came unexpectedly and I remember worrying about him when the call came from Portugal. He had a tough time with it in the beginning, who wouldn't when you lose your ability to walk and can no longer do a lot of the things you love. He was somewhat paralyzed, could no longer walk, could no longer garden, had to take a bunch of medication, and was on a restricted diet. Anyone would have a tough time with all these changes. Yet, within enough time, he was back to himself. He was back to the quick-witted jokes whenever the opportunity came up. He was also still very loving. His nurses loved him and his caretakers never really had any complaints. My aunt had a tough time taking care of him not because he became a sore, sour man...but simply because it was hard to take him around places or lift him onto his chair, etc. without help. They both suffered immensely these past few years, but they remained the loving couple I always remembered.
When my uncle had the heartattack recently and was in hospice care, one of his biggest fears was leaving my aunt. He didn't want to die because he didn't want to leave her. Even when things got really bad, you could tell that he fought the inevitable. He wasn't afraid of death. He didn't fight to avoid death. He simply could not leave the people he loved behind. Several family members travelled from Europe, Brazil, you name it to see him before he passed. Every time a new face called to say they were coming, he somehow was able to regain some of his energy and what good health he had left. We could tell he was at peace. He received communion and was visited by the padre while he was in hospice and my aunt said that was one of the things he looked forward to.
In recent weeks, my aunt has been telling us that he kept mentioning that he saw the Blessed Virgin Mary. I believe that he did. As far as redemptive suffering goes, my uncle had more than his share. He was lucky in the sense that he had plenty of time to prepare himself for what was to come and I believe that he was ready to come home. You see, ever since he lost the ability to walk, I have always dreamed of him walking. I would always tell him that he would walk again if he believed in it and worked hard enough at it. I was convinced that he would...my faith in this was strong because I am a firm believer in miracles. He would often nod and tell me that yes, he would walk again.
Before his heart attack, I had a dream that started off as the others did. Only this time, he could not stand let alone walk. My whole family tried to get him to stand again and he just couldn't. Soon after, my uncle was placed in hospice care. This was a blow, but I prayed for him and even asked all of you guys to pray for him. Well, I even prayed the rosary for him and one night I dreamed that I was with the Blessed Virgin Mary. I was asking her for intercession on behalf of my uncle. She looked at me and her hands, which had been folded in prayer, opened. In her hands stood my uncle. I think it was his soul because he was bathed in radiant, golden light. What struck me the most was that he was standing. He was standing tall and proud, completely fine. After this dream, I stopped worrying. I knew he would be okay in one sense or another. My uncle was in good hands regardless of what happened.
Today, my uncle is walking again. God called him home because he was ready for an end to his suffering. His life, his eternal life, has just begun. I am sure that my mom is with him, baking the same bread he used to enjoy when he was over our house. They're talking about how proud they are of their children and looking out for us. He has all of heaven roaring with laughter and has probably already tried to put in a good word for F.C. Porto. He has his own little place in heaven and this place has a garden for his grape vines, his fig trees, his couves, and all the other wonderful things he enjoys growing. Most of all, he is watching over his family. His grandsons, thankfully, are old enough to remember him. If not, you can bet that they will have plenty of people who will paint vivid pictures of the great man their grandfather was and is. I will be one of these people.
I'll miss you Tio Ze, but I know you are no longer hurting and in a far better place. I am sorry I never got a chance to make you aletria this weekend and wish I could have seen you one more time. I'm still shedding tears for you, but I know you're okay and I am glad that you don't have to suffer any more. I know you are in a good place and am only sad because I already miss you.
My family coat of arms and a statue of Our Lady of Fatima from my uncle and aunt's home.
Anima eius et animae omnium fidelium defunctorum per Dei misericordiam requiescant in pace.