I miss my uncle.
He would be seventy-three today. I remember that quite clearly because my grandma told me all about him when I was a teenager. I was born the same day he was.
Today is my forty-third birthday. And it shows. Graying hair, a salt-and-pepper beard, a pot belly—what else could I expect after a long life training to be a couch potato, and passing with flying colors? My GP is not exactly cheering up with the latest results of my annual check-up exams.
This is the day we fear death the most. Maybe I can’t speak for others; but I can certainly speak for me. I fear death. It’s not for the almost certain pain and suffering that come with it, neither for the prospect of an afterlife—or for the lack of one. What I fear the most is oblivion. The lack of a place in the memory of those who survive us.
I didn’t know why I woke up missing my uncle.
He died seventy years ago.
I never met him, of course. The first time grandma told me about him was on my tenth birthday, one year after my grandfather died. She was a harsh, no-nonsense woman; to be very honest, I have never liked her very much.
Until that day in May, when she was peeling tangerines in the living room of her small apartment, waiting for her favorite soap opera to begin. It was a Thursday, and I would only celebrate my birthday on Saturday, so I was pretty much doing nothing there. I had already done my homework and I was just hoping fervently mom could get there as quickly as possible to take me home.
Then, without taking her eyes off the small black and white screen—it was the seventies, you must remember that—she told me how Washington (that was my uncle’s name) was less than three years old when he was playing with a wooden toy and a bookshelf toppled over him in their living room. It was solid, heavy jacaranda, not these MDF planks you see everywhere today. He died instantly.
She told me the story matter-of-factly, as if she were telling the exploits of her beloved soap-opera heroine. (No, I’m not being fair: she would have been much more emotional if she had described those things.) But what could I expect after all? More than fifty years had passed since that tragedy, and she had five children to take care of at that time. Not to mention that she was pregnant with my mom then.
I ate a tangerine in silence and thought of Uncle Washington. To this day I can’t feel the smell of a tangerine without thinking of him.
Yesterday was the birthday of my oldest uncle. Eighty-three years old. (Talk about big families—birthdays always seem to happen non-stop all-year-round.)
I drove mom and my cousin Angela to the nursing home where he lives. He has Alzheimer’s for three years now. He can’t remember anything or anyone from his past. Aside from that, he’s okay: physically fit, cheerful and talkative as always. Loves watching westerns and war dramas on TV.
That night, I asked mom about my lost uncle. I reasoned she wouldn’t remember him in the flesh, of course, but naturally her parents would have told her something about him. Or one of her brothers and sisters.
She looked quizzically at me for a while, and then she told me I must be joking, right? Because she never had a brother called Washington. Never.
She was the youngest sister. My mother didn’t look her seventy-two years old, and she not only hadn’t have a single plastic surgery but also had to fight a brain tumor that almost took her life a decade ago (she still has the scars of four surgeries to prove it). Hell, she looks better than I do.
So you can imagine what happened later.
I talked to all of them. My two aunts and the other two uncles whose memory is still apparently untouched. I figured that mom could have suffered some minor trauma due to the surgeries, and she could very well have had some kind of amnesia and forgotten all about her brother. Since it was apparently the only thing she couldn’t recall, I didn’t find unreasonable to ask for help.
It didn’t work.
Nobody in the family remembers my uncle Washington. My aunts and uncles had pretty much the same reaction of my mom.
I started to think if everything had been a kind of dream, of delusion. I have a very fertile imagination, and, to make matters more interesting, not only I write science fiction stories, as I also translated some Philip K. Dick novels to Brazilian Portuguese a few years ago.
That could explain a lot to my shrink—oh, yes, I see a shrink. Twice a week.
Case closed, is that what you think?
But, just in case, I decided to give it a last shot.
At the time of the supposed demise of my uncle Washington, my grandparents lived in a small town 200 miles from Rio de Janeiro. I drove there in a weekday to check on the birth registers at the notary’s office.
To find that the old office was completely destroyed in a flood twenty-five years ago, before all records could be digitized. All records there were lost.
There is no trace of my uncle’s passage upon this world.
I couldn’t sleep that night. I cried, cried like a child, and I couldn’t explain why.
It took me several sessions of therapy and one bloody episode of Star Trek to figure it all out.
I celebrated my birthday alone.
I had dinner with my parents and then went home early. I divorced my second wife five years ago, no children, many regrets and a whole lot of work to do, so I let all the whining to my shrink. I showered, served myself a cold glass of Coke Zero and a giant slice of strawberry pie I had strategically bought earlier and sat in front of the TV. I would have a long, cozy night ahead of me, watching old and new episodes of House, Fringe, Stargate: Atlantis, Battlestar: Galactica, whatever suited my fancy and the cable channels’ programming.
Late at night, I started watching an episode of Star Trek: The Original Series called Who Mourns For Adonais? I never cared especially for this episode, but as I watched it, I realized something was nagging me in the back of my mind and I couldn’t quite get what it was.
Then, as the episode was coming to its end, when the god Apollo admits its defeat to Kirk and his crew, he sadly pronounces that there is no room left in the universe for gods. Then he begs for his fellow deities that take him—and he fades away.
Just after driving the alien away, Kirk makes his all-too-frequent pseudo-philosophical ending remark: “Would it have hurt us, I wonder, just to have gathered a few laurel leaves?”
And then I started crying all over again.
But now I understood why I was crying about.
Old gods die when they are no longer remembered. All that Apollo wanted was to be remembered (ok, that Apollo on Star Trek wanted to be worshipped and he was a little rough on the edges, but you got the gist of it). The thing is, What if there is no afterlife? What if all there remains of us are memories? What if nobody remembers us after we are gone? Where do we go to?
That is why I decided to write this piece, today, just after my birthday—and my uncle Washington’s birthday—and tell this story, even though I know so little of him except for the fact he was chubby, had thin, blonde hair, and was playing happily with a wooden toy when he died.
Because I want people to remember him—even if they are no relatives of his. Even if they read this story and they think it’s 100 per cent fiction. It doesn’t matter in the end. Because all I want is to create an Afterlife for my uncle Washington, it that’s not asking too much. Just in case.