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here and then there

Some of my relatives were here. And then there. Photo by Julie Seyler.


As I approach 60, I can’t help but speculate about how I’m going to leave this world. It’s not a morbid preoccupation, but a simple fact of life. As my generation grows older, more and more of us will die.

I’m fortunate to have been born into a large family. My father was one of nine children, and my mother, incredibly, was one of 21. Of course, there were two mothers in that family – my maternal grandfather had 10 or 11 children with his first wife, who was the oldest in a family of five girls. When she died (in childbirth, of course), he went back to Italy, married her youngest sister, and brought his new wife back to the United States where she bore him 10 or 11 more kids.

As Dad used to say: “He shoulda bought a TV.”

So now, as my aunts and uncles reach their 80s, and beyond, I’m learning what tends to kill my closest relatives. My generation’s on deck, and barring a catastrophic accident, there’s a pretty good chance that what’s killing them will also kill me.

First, my father’s side: Claiming primarily Irish lineage, they were talkers and jokers and partiers. True to stereotype, there seem to be an inordinate number of heavy drinkers among his siblings.

Take Dad’s older brother, Uncle Warren, a barrel-chested career cop who chain-smoked unfiltered Camel cigarettes, and drank Boilermakers (a shot of rye whiskey with a beer chaser). In his 60s, he got cancer of the larynx, and they removed his voicebox. The summer after his operation, Warren got an electrolarynx, a battery-operated device that resembles a microphone. You hold it up under your chin, and it vibrates to allow you to form robotic, but discernible words. Uncle Warren came to a backyard barbeque with Aunt Margie, a conservative ultra-religious woman, and used the electrolarynx to alternately tell jokes and goose his mortified wife.

About a year later, he developed cancer of everything and died at 68.

Dad’s youngest sister, Madeline, was diagnosed with liver cancer at age 64. The disease was swift and merciless, and she wasted to a frail shadow of herself before she died six months later. Dad died at 76 of congestive heart failure after a failed operation to repair a faulty valve. Uncle Bob, Dad’s younger brother and my namesake, died of lung cancer at 79. He briefly went through lung removal, and the indignity of chemotherapy, but still died within two summers of being diagnosed. Decades of heavy smoking, and heavier drinking, didn’t help any of them.

Dad’s oldest brother, Artie, died in his late 70s in a head-on collision as he drove the wrong way on a one-way street leaving an airport. There was no indication that drugs or alcohol were involved in the crash. Uncle Artie, the sweetest guy in the world, had spent years as a commercial pilot on transatlantic flights without a single incident. Uncle Norton, the next oldest brother and a heavy drinker for years, died of heart failure at 81.

So the score on my Dad’s side of the family: One brother, 80, and two sisters, in their late 60s/early 70s, still living and in good health. Cause of death for the six deceased siblings: Cancer (3), heart disease (2), accident (1).

My Mom’s side of the family is a different story. At 86, Mom thankfully has no serious life-threatening ailments. She does have creeping dementia, and takes medication for blood pressure and whatnot, but physically, she’s pretty much fine. Her older sister, Louise, died at age 90-something of old-age onset breast cancer. Her brother, Billy, died at 80-something of old-age onset kidney failure. Her father died in his 80s of old-age-onset diabetes. Another sister died of old-age-onset, period – at 98 or so, she just stopped breathing. Lots of them are still around, and getting older all the time. You get the picture.

So from my Dad’s side it looks like cancer or heart disease are good bets, but I don’t smoke or drink heavily so maybe I’m improving those odds. Thankfully, I look more like my mother’s side of the family. In fact, Mom says I look a lot like her dad (of the two wives and kids in litters), which gives me hope. If it weren’t for menopause, I suppose that might also give my wife (or her younger sister) jitters, but they’ll get over it.