There is one less tough guy in the world this morning: We buried Eddie yesterday.
Even as I write this, I can still see him, punching me in the arm when I was a kid and saying “Put em up, buddy boy” — then striking a pose like one of those 1920’s boxers. I can still feel his steel-hard muscles when he lifted me in the air, and the sandpaper edge of his whiskers when I kissed his cheek.
He was a short man, a squat, powerful body with a thick neck and a voice that growled as it told stories. We loved to hear those stories around the dinner table — hard, gutty tales, about the war, the Depression, or the time, as a New York City cab driver, that he looked in the rear view mirror just as his passenger was pulling a knife and coming toward his throat. Eddie grabbed the knife with his hand, and squeezed the blade to protect his Adam’s apple. The attacker jumped out and ran away, leaving Eddie bleeding, the knife stuck deep in his palm.
“What did you do?” we kids would ask.
“What the hell do you think? I parked the cab and got myself to a damn doctor!”
We squealed. Tough guys.
Did you ever have a relative whom you couldn’t wait for your friends to meet? Someone who was older than you, but somehow connected? That’s the way I was about Eddie. He was my great uncle, my grandmother’s brother, 82 years old, and I was crazy about him — partly because they don’t make guys like that anymore. Men of my generation, we think, we talk, we negotiate, we worry. Eddie had a simpler approach to life: There was family — and there was everyone else. And if anyone from the second group tried to mess with the first, they would have to deal with him. Put ’em up, buddy boy. Hard shell was just his shield Over the years, we would always visit, and as I grew, he would measure me with his fists, smiling at my size, then saying, “I can still lick you, buddy boy.” And even later, in his 70’s, when he was sick and his breathing labored, he would walk past me and poke a rabbit punch into my chest. “Just remember, buddy boy,” he would say.
His toughness was his shield. It got him through World War II, and through his working years, through the warehouses, the docks, the hard-labor jobs that swallowed much of his life. It was his way. To yell. To bark. To curse. And yet, he would always slip you some money, or give you a hug when no one was looking. When you came to him with personal news — of college, or a new job or a new girlfriend — the tough veneer would crack and his eyes would light up. “Hey, that’s swell,” he would say, like something out of a Mickey Rooney movie.
In the mid-1970s, he had open heart surgery. He later told me that during the operation, he felt his soul rise from his body and look down on the doctors, frantically trying to revive him. “Then I saw this light,” he said,
“and this tunnel, and my dead mother and father and brothers and sisters were all there at the end, calling to me.”
“God, what did you do?” I asked.
“I yelled, ‘Go away, you sons of guns! I ain’t ready for you yet! Leave me alone!’ “
And the next thing he knew, he was back in his body.
I believe that story. I always have. My uncle Eddie could even tell heaven to wait. Tough until the end He lived another 17 years, if you can call what happens to some old people living. His heart, his lungs, his kidneys all went bad. The last time I saw him, last month, in his apartment, he was attached to an oxygen machine, which hooked to his nose and trailed him like a leash. He was wearing a bathrobe when he answered the door, and he had not had time to put in his false teeth. “I’m sorry . . . I . . . look like crap . . . ” he mumbled. “Geez . . . it’s swell . . . to see you.”
We talked, as much as he could. I teased him about still being able to lick me, and he forced a smile and said “Nah . . . I . . . these days, I don’t think so . . . ” I had a video camera with me and I wanted to record some of his stories, but my aunt said no, not when he looked so bad. Maybe next time.
There was no next time. Last week, he was rushed to the hospital, his heart and lungs were failing. He was put on a respirator. Robbed of his speech, he could only scribble notes. A floor doctor came in, someone Eddie didn’t know — and if he didn’t know you, naturally, he didn’t like you — and when the guy left, Eddie, barely conscious, handed a note to his son:
“THIS DOCTOR STINKS.”
Those were his last words.
He’s gone now. And I will miss him forever. I can picture him in heaven, punching some angel in the chest and saying, “Hey buddy boy, who’s in charge here?”
With all the people I have met in my life, no one has ever touched me the way my tough-guy uncle did. I wonder if anyone ever will.