I always look forward to The New York Times year-end edition of its Sunday magazine, which is devoted to reviewing the sometimes fascinating lives of notable people who died during the year. But everyday people also died this year, and in their own ways, their lives are just as special.
Take Uncle Jimmy, my wife’s godfather. Jimmy was 98, or 99, depending on whom you ask, when he passed away in November. (He thought he was 99, aiming for triple digits in March 2014.) He was first cousin to Maria’s mother on the paternal side, and first cousin to Maria’s father through his mother. I think that’s right, but I’ve never fully mastered the intricacies of old world Italian village relationships. The name on his birth certificate was Vincent, but everyone called him Jimmy. No one knows exactly why.
He was compact, and mostly bald, with an impish grin and an infectious laugh. It seemed as if Jimmy was always happy. He raked the leaves, and weeded the beds around his house until his early 90s, when bouts of dizziness, and occasional neck pain prevented him from continuing. Jimmy liked to tell how his father had died, at the age of 89, after falling out of a tree. He had climbed up to prune it, probably over his wife’s objections. But it was, after all, his tree.
“Who else was gonna do it?” Jimmy observed with a shrug and a smile.
He loved the ocean, and fishing from the jetty for scrappy rockfish that we would cut in chunks, dredge in flour, and fry in olive oil to a cinnamon-brown crisp. When things went wrong, like the day I was fishing with him and my line unspooled and got hopelessly tangled, Jimmy had the perfect words for it:
“It’s all wickety wackety. You can’t fix that. Cut the line!”
After his wife died, he refused to go back to the shore house because it held too many memories. So for the last 10 years or so, we could only see him at the home he shared in Nutley with his daughter (now retired herself), and her husband. Every time we visited, Jimmy would sit us down at the kitchen table, pull out the bottle of Drambuie, and insist that I drink shots, even if it was 10 in the morning. He happily joined me for at least one or two, at least until last year when his hands shook so much he spilled most of the liqueur before it got to his mouth.
“Jesus Christ,” he laughed. “Wouldja lookit that. I’m shaky! I got the shakes! Hey, what’re you gonna do?”
He would shrug, and wobble the short shot to his lips anyway, taking a gingerly sip.
“Don’t get old,” he told me, waving his arthritis-twisted finger in mock solemnity. “Have another shot, go ahead!”
The night he died, he complained of head and chest congestion, but he refused to go to the hospital because he hated those places. He just took cold medicine and went to bed early. He awoke at 4 a.m., coughing. He took another dose of cough syrup, and fell back asleep. Between then and 9 a.m., when his daughter went to check on him because he’d missed his usual coffee time, Jimmy had stopped breathing.
The wake was a small, and surprisingly genial affair. After all, he’d lived a long, happy life without major illnesses, and died peacefully, at home, in his sleep.
“I’ll sign a contract for that right now,” was a much-heard mantra during his wake and funeral.
It’s wickety wackety without you, Jimmy. You were well-loved.
I’m pouring the Drambuie now.