My Uncle Victor passed away last night. He took his own life.
He had some horrible variety of cancer that was attacking his body and giving him agonizing back pain. While it likely wouldn’t have taken him for some time, the pain wasn’t going anywhere. While he didn’t mark his calendar, he has been preparing his family and friends for Thursday night over the past few months, although I’ll be honest when I say I didn’t expect it to actually happen. He went peacefully.
If you recognize his name, it’s because my son’s middle name is also Victor. Dom was named after his great grandpa, but it’s a family name, so I guess in a way he was named after Uncle Vic too. So what am I going to tell my son, Dominic Victor, about my Uncle Victor–the man who affectionately referred to me as “poopeater?” (And no, there is no story behind the nickname, except that when I was eight the word “poop” was considered the pinnacle of comedic genius and Uncle Vic was always willing to oblige.)
Well, first I’ll give Dom the basics. Uncle Vic was an actor. I saw him on stage and on TV. He was enormously tall and by all accounts equally talented. He had the loudest laugh I’ve ever heard, and he would say anything to anyone.
But once I get passed the surface, I’m going to tell Dom that Uncle Vic taught me you don’t have to agree with everything someone says or does to love them, or to be loved by them. My Uncle was pretty much my polar opposite. We disagreed on almost everything and have made very different decisions in our lives, but we just kept right on loving each other anyway. And please don’t misinterpret that last sentence as a reference to his homosexuality, it wasn’t.
But since you brought it up, my first vivid memory involving my uncle is when my mom told me he was gay. I remember being a chubby little seven year looking forward to staying with my uncle on a visit to Chicago. For some reason I also remember I was wearing my brand-new Joker t-shirt (the Jack Nicholson incarnation). I remember being relieved that nothing was actually wrong with him because, based on the “we need to talk about Uncle Victor” intro to the conversation, I expected to hear that he was hurt in an accident, or worse yet, was canceling the visit.
Soon after my initial worry dissolved away, I remember feeling guilty for saying all of those horrible little rhymes that seven year-olds say about homosexuality. You know the ones:
“I love you, you love me, homosexuality. People think that we’re just friends but we’re really lesbians.”
At an early age I learned that I had someone who I loved dearly who was gay, and that shielded me from falling into whatever sexist, racist, homophobic thought patterns some children seem to develop during their formative years.
That weekend in Chicago, his partner Mark was given a proper introduction as Uncle Vic’s boyfriend. We made a hundred paper cranes and played with Mark’s Casio keyboard. It could actually record your voice and then play it backwards. We laughed for about an hour when we realized that “wake up” sounds an awful lot like “F*** you” when played backwards in a muffled robotic keyboard voice.
Mark died of AIDS a few years later. Mark and Uncle Vic had broken up before Mark was diagnosed. My uncle’s next love, Scott, already had HIV when they met. I was a big fan of Scott. He would see middle-aged women, trying desperately to defy the cruel aging process, walking down the street in ridiculous outfits deemed fashionable by whatever designer was popular that week, and simply comment, “well, it’s not for everyday wear.” I spread Scott’s ashes in Italy with my Uncle. Uncle Vic gave me Scott’s cuff links. I wore them to a wedding a few weeks ago and remembered him fondly.
I just reread that last paragraph. It’s funny how fragmented memory can be. I didn’t think about Italy when I heard the news this morning. It was only after I made it through the maze of my mind to Scott. Even now, it seems my brain will only release little vignettes of our trip to Italy, even though some of my fondest memories of Uncle Vic come from those two weeks.
However, I do remember Uncle Vic hanging his head out of my great aunt’s window into the crowed plaza below and shouting “look at these American whores!” in perfect Italian, as my mom and aunt approached. They didn’t think it was as funny as we did.
I also vividly remember the vile dinner we were served at some obscure relative’s house. Uncle Vic and I hid the mystery meat in the potted plant sitting behind our chairs, rather than subject our stomachs to its stench. Uncle Vic asked for seconds and thirds just to amuse me with new and inventive ways of disposing of the meal. During dinner, he also routinely made vulgar and offensive remarks in English to the Italian-only speaking audience. He would say things like, “The meal you just served tasted like dog shit,” with the same inflection you would normally hear, “thank you so much for your hospitality.” It was his goal to make his sisters and nephew laugh uncontrollably in front of their old-world relatives. As soon as we stepped foot outside the door, our pent-up laughter erupted through the Italian countryside.
Finally, I remember taking a few morning runs with Uncle Vic through the cobblestone streets of Rivisondoli, just silently enjoying his company.
It was rare to enjoy his company silently. He usually never shut up. When he spoke he was often saying things I didn’t agree with. He would swear loudly and make vulgar sexual comments in public places just for shock value. Although to be fair, I suspect he would tell you he did it as a social service. He believed that most people are prisoners of their own guilt and misguided sense of right and wrong. He postulated that if everyone would just tell the truth and stop pretending to be pure and pious all the time, the world would be a better place—at least a more honest place. He hated false-pretense and believed that the lies we tell ourselves are the most insidious. He’s probably right about that one.
He never understood how my faith could be anything but an unnecessary shackle. He couldn’t wrap his mind around the concept of faith bringing with it freedom. While he had some choice words for “organized religion,” he had at least some respect for my personal faith. Don’t get me wrong, he thought I was nuts, but he loved and accepted what he perceived to be my nuttiness. He wanted to know every detail about me, even the not so nice ones. Okay, especially the not so nice ones. He didn’t judge me, he just wanted to know me all the way to my core.
And that’s how I loved him, all the way to my core; for who he was; for everything he was; for what he taught me about myself. He wrote something on his blog a few weeks ago that has stuck with me, and I find myself going back to it again and again today. Here is a quick excerpt:
Vic’s Love Q&A:
Q: What’s the difference between unconditional and conditional love?
A: This is a trick question: If it’s not unconditional, it’s not love. Conditional love isn’t love at all, it’s barter.
Q: So you’re saying the phrase “unconditional love” is redundant.
A: Yep, I am.
And so am I, Uncle Vic. I love you unconditionally because there is no other way to love.
Rest in peace, Poopeater.
Tagged with: Loss • suicide • uncondional love • Victor D'Altorio