Age: 17, Grade: 12
School Name: Professional Perform Arts High School, New York, NY
Educator: Greg Parente
Category: Personal Essay & Memoir
I cannot tell you exactly what he looked like that final day.
For 17 years he’d looked the same, six foot something, heavy in a way that is strong, bushy bearded but gentle, and forever smiling. He reminded me of an oak tree. For 17 years, my Uncle Jason was the epitome of strength. So I really cannot tell you what he looked like that last day, except that if I did not know for sure that it was him, I never would have believed it. All I remember was thinking that skin should not look that yellow. Bones should not be that prominent.
I have gone to performing arts school since 7th grade, I pride myself on my poker face, on my acting abilities. But when your dying uncle waves a feeble hand at you, using whatever strength the tumors have not taken to gesture you closer, there is no hiding your heartbreak. I instantly felt my body go weak. I knew that what he was about to say must be of grave importance, since every single movement took an extreme amount of effort. I bent down by his green reclining chair so that my ear was close to his mouth, lips dry and cracked. My aunt would bring a sponge to them so the drops of water would slide down his throat since he no longer possessed the strength to drink through a straw. Perhaps he would bestow upon me some parting words of infinite wisdom, or a secret he needed to get off his chest and for some reason only entrusted with his teenage niece. Maybe he just wanted to tell me that he loved me one last time.
Whatever his message, I sat bracing myself to receive it. “Can you get me some grape popsicles from the store?” he asked in a rasping low voice. His body, now unable to digest solids or process sugars, was limited to a diet of medication, and sugar-free popsicles. The freezer was stocked full of them. “Can you get me some grape popsicles from the store”. Those were my Uncle Jason’s last ever words to me, because the rest of our time spent together would be him losing and regaining consciousness until he simply went to sleep and did not wake up. I didn’t know when he spoke those words that they would be his last, but I wouldn’t change them for anything. They are real life, and in real life, grape popsicles are more important than I love you’s. In real life things happen without explanation, or reason, or justice. In real life, a kind man with a wife and two young kids, is diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and dies two months later on a Tuesday morning.
In real life, at 2AM that same night, my grandma sits fretting over a deep dish chicago pizza, furiously typing a facebook post questioning why in the world anyone would want that much sauce on anything. My cousins and siblings run around the basement playing Harry Potter and eating strawberry pop tarts. My aunt lays asleep on the couch while “The Bachelor” reruns show on TV. Surely this could not be the family that had just lost their father, husband, uncle, son, hours before, yet there we were. I expected death to fill every room and hallway, but it had already made its visit. It came and took what it took, leaving all other life behind, because as much as the death of someone you love feels like your own, it’s not. We keep on living.
As the oldest kid, I was to be the adult of the children, my cousins and siblings, all six of them. I was to make meals, lay out clothes, find soap for showers, find games to play when the house grew too quiet, take to the movies when the house grew too dim, hold up in my arms when legs grew weak with grief. In the other world of adults who were past pretending to be strong, I was to make sure my aunt ate something, anything, insist on changing clothes, insist on showers, insist on taking deep breaths between screams and sobs that shook the house, insist on sitting outside for sunlight as to not marinate in the darkness. To speak at the funeral.
You will never understand the degree of goodness that existed in my Uncle Jason because I am incapable of putting it into words, but it was so much so that out of the hundreds of people that grieved for him, none felt they would be able to keep themselves together long enough to speak at the service. So my father asked me to. Standing in front of a crowd of shattered hearts while hands trembled, I shared the brightest memories I had with him, because there are so many more of those than the dark ones that came in the final days. There is so much more happiness than grief in the life of a person. I really believe that’s true. There is more to a story than just the ending, and even when that part does occur, and it breaks your heart, and you think there is no point in trying to heal that hurt, there are always grape popsicles to remedy.