Monday, September 12, 2011

Uncle JJ

On this day in 1999, one of my favorite people passed away. His death was tragic and unexpected. Twelve years later I am still devastated on this day. I function and try to work through it, but my thoughts frequently wander to my beloved Uncle JJ.
Uncle JJ was married to my mother’s sister, whom I have blogged about in the past. They met when he was in the Navy, stationed in Germany. They lived in a bunch of really cool places including Paris and Belgium. He retired after a million years in the Navy, but wasn’t done working. He applied to the Sheriff’s Department and then worked for years at the jail in Norfolk, VA. 
Despite having been raised in New York City and spending so much time in the Navy and jail, he was never one to “celebrate diversity.” He could be a bigot, and be very loud about it. More times than I care to remember, he embarrassed me in public. He was opinionated and always right. He was obsessed about privacy and safety. He had a thousand locks on everything and God help you if you didn’t lock every single one, every single time. That bit of him, I attribute to a hostage situation he was involved in while he worked at the jail.
Even though he wasn’t perfect, I loved this man dearly. No one else has ever called me Baby Girl. No one else has ever told me story after story about his life, the wars he fought in, the things he witnessed at the jail. No one else taped my two-year-old voice over a long distance call, and would randomly play it any chance he could. No one else answered an email back faster than him. Heck, no one else ever printed off every email he ever received and put in a folder with a typewritten label that said “Incoming.” He was hilariously the most anal retentive person I ever knew. How many other people do you know that go outside with a clipboard and a form every week to keep track of electricity and water usage? You never know when they might try to rip you off!
After he retired, his anal retentiveness and focus on security got even nuttier, but we all just put up with it. There was an awful time when he considered leaving my aunt, but still… we forgave him. He got sick in the summer of 1999, and I’m not sure they ever figured out what was wrong. EN and I went to visit them that summer and I’m forever grateful we did. I can’t believe that quick trip would be the last time we would see him. My favorite memory of that trip is hugging EN on the deck and having Uncle JJ bellow out the door, “Not in front of my goddamn squirrels.” Such a romantic, he was. 
As a retired person, he mostly hung around the house. He and my aunt would make frequent trips to visit us, often several times a year. He was bored a lot and started tagging along with his long-time friend and neighbor on trips to the Shriner’s Hospital in South Carolina.
Rosy was a clown for many years, but also started transporting patients to the hospital in South Carolina for free medical care. I have no idea how many trips they took together. Uncle JJ went along to give Rosy a break from driving. While he drove, Rosy entertained the kids and their parents with magic tricks and balloon animals.
It’s really not known what happened on this September trip. They were so very close to the hospital and Rosy was driving. It is thought that he fell asleep at the wheel. The van rolled multiple times before catching fire. Rosy and the patient’s mother died instantly. My Uncle JJ died in the ambulance of a massive heart attack. The only survivor was the little girl they were bringing for treatment.
As long as I live I will not forget my father calling my house and refusing to speak with me when I answered the phone. He insisted on telling EN, who then had the thankless job of telling me. I hear those dreadful words like they were spoken yesterday.
I went into my brand-new job and told them I needed to take a few days off to travel to Virginia for my uncle’s funeral. EN and I got on the road after work and drove straight through without a map. We arrived in the middle of the night and seeing my heartbroken aunt devastated me even further. How would we ever get through the next few days?
I only recently found the folder of “Incoming Messages” that my aunt had given to me from my uncle’s office. I don’t remember ever having looked through them before. It was ironic to me that the last email he put in that folder was a response from my father, wishing him a good trip and responding to my uncle’s concerns about Hurricane Floyd, which was due to come up the coast that weekend.
What makes this ironic is that Hurricane Floyd did in fact hit Virginia Beach on the very day we were supposed to bury my uncle. My uncle, the man so obsessed with weather would be delighted to know this. While the winds whipped and the rain fell, we rushed to inform everyone that the funeral was postponed. JJ must have been pissing his pants laughing while doing his ridiculous Irish jig.
As is typical after a storm, the next day was beautiful. The funeral would have made him proud. It was a full-military funeral with 21 gun salute. Different clubs that he had belonged to were in attendance and the funeral procession was escorted by the Sheriff’s department. When we got out of our cars at the cemetery, the strangest thing happened. As we walked toward the spot where we would bury my uncle, the Blue Angels flew overhead, one plane banked off into the Missing Man Formation.
I don’t think it was planned and I’m fairly certain that my uncle was not important enough for the military to send out the Blue Angels. The sight of them flying overhead was breathtaking. Thinking about it now, I know if my uncle had been there to see it, he would have yanked his ever-present baseball cap off and said, “Kiss a duck!”
How I miss our political discussions. I would have loved to hear his thoughts about 9-11, about Obama’s presidency, about the war in the Middle East. But what makes me saddest is that he never got to meet Sugar and Spice. Every once in a while when they do something particularly crazy, I know he’s up there somewhere laughing his fool head off. 
Rest in Peace, Uncle JJ. You are missed.
Ice Princess

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