Uncle George Died Yesterday

I received an e-mail from one of my sisters this morning, informing me that my oldest living uncle died last night, “peacefully in his sleep.”

Peacefully in one’s sleep seems like a good way to go. It lacks poignancy and drama, to be sure. But the poignant and dramatic death is, it seems to me, too highly prized among humans — and only among humans.

Of course, a man who dies saving others or striving for some noble achievement is rightly admired for his efforts. This heroism which happens to result in death is different, however, from admiring the drama of the death itself: the weeping and wailing, the rushing to bedsides, the last message for loved ones, and so on. Paradoxically, I think this predilection for the romantic idea of “going out in a blaze of glory” is suggestive less of a love of life than of a simple fear of death. We humans, or too many of us at any rate, crave attention at the end — a little glamor and memorability — primarily because we cannot stand the horror of letting go. The dream of a dramatic death is our last gasp at clinging to life. (And this is true even vicariously; I speak of those who love the bedside excitement, the melodramatic “Oh, dear!” moments, the tearful togetherness that allows everyone to appreciate themselves and one another for grieving so deeply.)

Cats tend to go off to some private place, in a closet or under a bed, and just let it happen. Dogs run out of steam, until family members can’t watch them suffer anymore and drive to the vet for the lethal injection. Even then, the dogs know something is up, and become agitated if their human family is not with them in this strange place. People get all emotional about this bit of dog psychology, imagining their pet is lamenting the loss of life, hoping to be kept alive, or perhaps wishing he could die saving the family from a burning building. In fact, it seems more likely that he simply doesn’t like all this drama and hubbub around him in his last hours. He wants peace at the end, which a dog defines as lying by his owner’s feet while the evening fire dies out.

Socrates died in a prison cell, sentenced to execution by poisoning for his philosophic activities. What could be more dramatic, more poignant, than that? And yet he spent his final hours vigorously discussing the immortality of the soul with his friends and students, like any other day, not flinching for a moment at the sensitivity of the subject matter under his present circumstances. Each time his friends began to weep at their loss, he bucked them up, actually chastising them for feeling sad at what, for all anyone knows, might be the start of a wonderful journey. And when the time came for the jailer to bring the cup of hemlock, and his friends urged him to wait until sundown before drinking it, he bluntly asked what good that would serve, and then quaffed it down without blinking.

As Plato depicts it, through Phaedo’s narration:

And hitherto most of us had been able to control our sorrow; but now when we saw him drinking, and saw too that he had finished the draught, we could no longer forbear, and in spite of myself my own tears were flowing fast; so that I covered my face and wept, not for him, but at the thought of my own calamity in having to part from such a friend. Nor was I the first; for Crito, when he found himself unable to restrain his tears, had got up, and I followed; and at that moment, Apollodorus, who had been weeping all the time, broke out in a loud and passionate cry which made cowards of us all. Socrates alone retained his calmness: “What is this strange outcry?” he said. “I sent away the women mainly in order that they might not misbehave in this way, for I have been told that a man should die in peace. Be quiet, then, and have patience.” (Phaedo, Jowett translation)

“For I have been told that a man should die in peace.” Here is one of the true heroes of civilization, dying one of the most epoch-defining deaths imaginable. Yet at the end, he is roundly lambasting his students and friends for childishly, all-too-humanly, making a big production out of something as simple as drinking a little cup of poison. That’s a man, precisely in his refusal to treat a mere stoppage of bodily functions as grounds for an opera.

I didn’t know my Uncle George very well. He lived at some distance, and for the most part we met only at major family functions, such as weddings and funerals. Still, I have two significant memories to impart about this full-voiced, grab-life-by-the-throat kind of man.

I remember attending the visitation at the funeral home after my grandfather’s death, back in the 1990s. After walking over to the open casket to “pay my respects,” as they say, I stepped away and found myself face to face with Uncle George. George was a very tall, commanding presence, made all the more so by an enormous, mellifluous voice, the kind you would expect from an old-time radio disc jockey, which in fact George was. His tendency to make grand pronouncements or issue emotional challenges at atypical moments, which was well-known in the family, and occasionally a source of some awkwardness for others, was accentuated by his physical and vocal bigness.

Standing not ten feet away from his father’s body, amid a crowd of family, including his own mother, all speaking in hushed tones, he seized this peculiar moment to impart some wisdom in The Voice.

“I hate these things,” he said disdainfully, clearly meaning the tradition of saying goodbye to a dead person’s body. “It’s a pagan ritual.”

Strangely, rather than feeling embarrassed at being the public recipient of his ill-timed pronouncement, I actually found myself smiling and nodding. He was right. It’s a stupid pagan ritual. I hate it too. What’s wrong with saying so? My grandfather certainly wasn’t going to be offended. He wasn’t there. George, whom I’d long regarded with some perplexity, won me over with that “ill-timed” pronouncement.

My other major memory of Uncle George stems from many years later, after I had moved to Korea, and therefore lived six thousand miles away from the man. As I noted above, he was a disc jockey. His career as a music-spinner spanned the entire rock and roll era, from its earliest beginnings in the mid-1950s to its recent careening off into levels of artificiality and weirdness the world has never seen.

I say his career spanned the rock and roll era to give emphasis to the fact that George hated rock music, guffawed at it, and never wanted to play it on the air. For most of the last couple of decades of his life, during the period that would ordinarily have been his retirement, George continued to spin his own favorite discs on a weekly radio program, alternately called “Big Band Sunday Night” or “Big Band Saturday Night,” depending on where his station stuck him.

The rest of the station’s programming was the usual modern radio concoction of pre-programmed yawns appealing to various demographics deemed suitable to some far-away big city executive’s idea of “the local market.” But George played his music, as he chose it, for his (no-doubt dwindling) audience: big band and popular tunes from the thirties to the fifties, along with some modern groups trying to continue this tradition, a few of them being musicians for whom George himself was a major booster. 

Thanks to the internet, I finally had the opportunity, well over fifty years into my uncle’s career, and while living on the other side of the planet, to hear him on the air. His show was good. The music, to no surprise (since my “pop music” taste aligns more with George’s anyway), was always fun, and sometimes wonderful. What impressed me most was that he really knew his music. This was not the usual generic voice calling out the tunes, or reading from prepared media notes about the artists. He spoke about each song, each girl group from the forties, each crooner from the fifties, from the most famous to the most obscure, with complete enthusiasm and with personal musings that made you feel you were sitting in George’s living room as he introduced you to his favorite records; which, in fact, was more or less what was happening. This music — keeping it alive for the old generation and trying to introduce it to a new one — was a labor of love for him, and you could hear it in his voice every time he spoke.

In the past twenty years, apart from a very few political talk shows, George’s is the only radio show I have heard for more than a few minutes, and certainly the only music-oriented program I would care to hear. 

I hope that wherever he is, Uncle George isn’t too offended at whatever hint of pagan ritual people are performing around his memory at this moment.

Postscript: I’ve since learned that Uncle George actually recorded his final weekend radio broadcast on Friday, hours before dying in his sleep. That’s so perfect I have no words.

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