I came home from our vacation this past week to learn that my godfather, my Uncle Joe, had passed away.
It was sudden for me as I hadn’t had the opportunity to see him these past few years. There were no issues between us, but circumstances just prevented it. I did think about him, though, and can say that growing-up, he was easily my favorite grown-up to be around.
My uncle had a politically incorrect comedy style that mixed the deadpan delivery of Norm MacDonald with the long-form pranks of Andy Kaufman. Whether he was telling toddlers that their birthday presents were actually his or placing the unwrapped Christmas bows on our family dog until her fur was completely buried beneath ribbons and glitter, Uncle Joe would always leave me in hysterics and leave so many others questioning what was wrong with him. The more they questioned, the harder he would laugh and the more he would give them a reason to question. He taught me a lot about humor and how to push a joke so far that it goes from eye-rolling to epic.
My memories aren’t just comedies, though. I can recall how he would always leave a five dollar bill under my teddy bear or another random toy when he’d come to visit. It would be at least an hour after he left before I would find it. He was always generous but never in a condescending way or one that required some huge show of appreciation. I learned that from him too. You do good things just to do them, not for a big outpouring of recognition.
Our interactions were less like an adult to a kid and I felt, even at a young age, that he treated me like he treated everyone else – good and bad. He taught me the best way to deal with kids most times was to not act like they’re just kids. I treat my own daughter and her friends the same way he treated me.
Perhaps the most treasured memory I have of my Uncle was from when I was around eight years old. Years before he would move to a house on the beach and begin sailing around Long Island, he dipped his feet in the proverbial waters with a large in-ground pool. He was so proud and it instantly became a major spot for our entire family.
So, I made a book about it. The title was a stroke of pure third-grader genius. It was – wait for it – Joe’s Pool.
I drew the pictures, wrote the story, and then stapled the pages down the middle so they could be folded over. Always a tough nut to crack, my Uncle wasn’t one to give false praise. So I was nervous when I presented it to him.
When I did, he began thumbing through it with a smile and gave his signature response – a loud and somewhat jarring:
He then led me to the side of his new swimming hole and opened the storage unit where he kept all the supplies. I watched as he put my first ever literary masterpiece on top of the extra filters.
This is very important. I’m keeping this right here.
Since that day, I’ve written books and contributed to many magazines. No writing I have ever done, though, ever made me feel as special as that. In many ways, his approval in that moment, even with a slight hint of ironic sarcasm, paved the way for who I am today.
Now here’s the twist. I didn’t just remember that story after he died. I always remembered it. If you had asked me a month ago about the first book I ever wrote, I would have told you that exact tale right down to the extra filters. It wasn’t buried away. It wasn’t forgotten. It was in my head and, when it came up, it was there.
It just didn’t come up much. It didn’t have much reason to. When people are alive, you think about them in that moment. You think about how they feel about you today or what things were like the most recent time you saw them. It’s about you and it’s about now.
The people in our lives are characters in our movie. Just as you might turn to someone next to you during a film and make a quick observation about what’s happening on the screen in that moment, you do the same thing with people around you. It’s not until the movie has ended, that you can talk about it as a whole. That’s when you truly look at the totality of it all and see how the moving parts all came together to paint a full picture.
That’s what I was able to do now. Suddenly, these stories took on a new meaning. I was able to see the profound effect my Uncle Joe had on my personality, humor, and goals. I saw beyond the moments themselves to the role he played in my life and was able to celebrate them for the first time.
I’m not writing this to say that I should have told him I loved him. I never did and can’t even imagine how awkward that would have been. He wasn’t wrap-your-arms-around-for-a-hug guy. I can picture him responding with a smirk and a sarcastic laugh. Maybe a dead pan “thank you” and a loud “sissy” as he walked away. In fact, I’m almost positive that’s how it would have went.
I’m also not writing this to say that I should have spent more time with him. To be honest, sometimes things are outside your control. Those things can prevent you from seeing loved ones or being there for those you want to be there for. He understood that. I understood that. I wish I had more time with him, but I won’t allow that to tarnish the time that we did have together.
I’m writing this because my Uncle never needed a pat on the back or a thank you. I never really gave him one and, until now, I didn’t realize how much credit he deserved for who I became today. Maybe he knew that. Maybe he didn’t. Maybe he knows that now. Maybe he doesn’t. What’s important, though, is that I do.
Just like my Uncle Joe, I try to leave an impression on everyone I meet. Just like him, I don’t do it for recognition. I do it to make the people around me smile more. If I can achieve that in any way even close to the way he did, I know he would be proud. And I would be too.