“Hey, it’s Pop, how ’ya doin?” Dad asked with a raspy Abruzzi accent on the other end of the phone.
“I’m doin’ okay,” I said, almost expecting what would come next.
“Uncle Pete died today,” Dad said softly.
I wondered for a moment if the tone in his voice came from sadness, even crying … something I never saw Dad do. Ever. What do you say when you hear this kind of news? “I’m so sorry Dad. How did it happen?”
“Well, he was real weak, and he had an infection. He just couldn’t fight it any more.”
I knew Uncle Pete was sick, and that it didn’t look good. Still, the sadness visited quickly, and tears came with intense feelings of loss. A big part of my life, a part that was always there, was gone. Then suddenly I smiled. I rembered my Uncle Pete was the most joyful man I ever knew. He was forever sanguine, even during trying times like Aunt Emma’s battle with breast cancer. I never saw Uncle Pete lose his temper. I never saw him depressed or melancholy. The man was just up.
I smiled even more when I remembered the last time I was with him.
It was an Indian summer day in Southeast Michigan, the kind of day when the men in our Italian family gathered, dressed in their white A-shirts and shorts, and sat in their circle on the patio with the chair back in front of them. They gathered to tell stories of the old country, sip strong red wine, complain about stupid politicians and factory bosses, and occasionally throw a game of brisco or tre-siete with one-dollar stakes. As a boy I loved hanging around and watching them.
Those warm memories came rushing back that September day in 2002 when I visited Uncle Pete with Dad, his friend Anelio, and Anelio’s brother Livio. It was just like the old days – the compares sitting at the table, drinking the wine, talking. But this time I was part of it. I heard Anelio and Uncle Pete praise me for how I was living my life, the family I was raising, and my business success. I heard about their pride in seeing me come through my divorce and build a new life with Jill. I saw Dad smile quietly as the other men spoke.
For that one afternoon, it was like the best days of my boyhood happening all at once, sharing the camaraderie I used to watch with wonder. I savored every moment, knowing that the three thousand miles between this place and my home all but guaranteed this would never happen again.
I don’t know if Uncle Pete, a faithful Catholic most of his life, is in heaven or not. For that I lean on the mercy of our heavenly Father. But deep down, I believe the joy I knew in him was indeed the fruit of the Spirit, and one day we’ll reunite to drink the wine of Cana.