It's been months since I've written a new column. I could say that I had writer's block, but that would be a lie. Words are constantly showing up in my mind; words that often don't feel like they belong to me. Since I was a young girl, words, sentences, poems, ideas, titles or chapters to books just show up in my mind.
The morning of September 26, 2008, while I was on my daily walk, the words that were showing up made me sad. I started to cry as I heard my Uncle Wit's eulogy reverberating in my mind. He had been diagnosed with leukemia in June of this year, the same week I traveled to New York for a meeting. I've flown back and forth to New York City at least a dozen times since 2007. Never once did I stay longer to spend time with my family who lives just 45 minutes outside the city.
This time I stayed.
I took a train up to Westchester County where my cousin Chris was picking me up. I got to spend four hours with my uncle, four hours of conversation I never had with him before we both had cancer. For the next couple of months we would trade phone calls and stories about our chemo symptoms, coping mechanisms and losing our hair updates. Once when he was struggling I told him to visualize something really exciting, beautiful and big that it pulls him through the darkness. I bought him an ipod nano so he could have the kind of music that was getting me walking every morning even when my whole body still felt like mac trucks were parked on top of me. I never got to give him the ipod. I never got to say goodbye.
On the morning of September 26, for the same 10-minute span of time that he was letting go of this life, words to his eulogy were showing up in my head. My mother called about an hour later to confirm what I already knew: he was gone. I delivered his eulogy on September 30 in front of his friends and family. I'm sharing it with you, well, because I think that's what he wanted me to do with it.
George "Wit" Alfano (July 17, 1949 - September 26, 2008)
Six months ago, delivering my Uncle Wit's Eulogy would have seemed unlikely; in fact, it would have never crossed any of our minds. Although he's known me for my entire life, I didn't really know him until we both had cancer.
When I was a kid, my folks would drive us up to Newburgh, NY for vacation on Orchard Heights. We'd almost always start our day in the pool playing Marco Polo or taking turns jumping off the diving board. Somewhere around noon, my uncle would emerge with his swim trunks on and a button down shirt -- almost always left unbuttoned. Inevitably, he would say to us, "Why aren't you's in the pool?" My cousin Chris would typically say, "We've been in the pool for like 3 hours already." We'd finish our lunch off and head back out. Uncle Wit would sit and watch us in the pool until Cousin Joey arrived in his signature Speedo. (We are all still in therapy for the years of Speedo incidents).
In the afternoon, Uncle Wit retreated into the "game-watching chair" -- the one that was directly in front of the TV. He caught every Yankee game with sometimes up to 9 kids running around the house. He never asked us to quiet down. He never asked us to leave the room. He never yelled at us at all. He remained mysterious to me in his "quiet demeanor" for most of my life. And then I got cancer. And then he got cancer too.
I saw my uncle when he was first hospitalized at the end of June. We chatted about religion, politics, his past -- how he got my uncle Tony into the car business; how he got kicked out of Foxwoods not once but twice and how he was going to get back in. We talked about my relationship and whether or not I'd marry my then "sort of" boyfriend, and he gave me advice on my life. I shared my chemo symptoms and tricks to treat the side effects. I watched as they administered his daily infusion, just as I had received 10 days before. I emptied his pee from his pee container when his son was down the hall. He told me I was his hero. He said I love you for the first time, the same three, powerful words that were his last to his future daughter-in-law. We became summertime cancer buddies, intimately connected in a world that no one who hasn't gone through cancer could completely understand.
I stepped out into the hall with Aunt Kathy and said, that is the longest conversation I've had with my uncle in my whole life. She responded back: "The man has talked more this week than in our entire marriage!" Cancer changes you and it changes those around you. Cancer gave my Uncle Wit the freedom to be open, expressive, emotive, talkative and connected to those he has always loved deeply.
Cancer gave me a relationship with my Uncle Wit... an opportunity to really see him, love him and be loved by him. In the last few months of his life, Uncle Wit, husband, son, brother, father, uncle, grandfather and friend, let his world know how big, mushy, generous and loving his heart was, the same heart that knew when it was his time to go to the big poker room in the sky. Cancer can bring out the best or worst in you. He chose to let it bring out the best.
I know now he loved watching us playing in the pool. He loved having us around and being close. He would do anything for his family. I like to believe that Uncle Wit and I having cancer at the same time was something God intended. It formed a bridge between cousins that have been distant as we grew up; a bond that extends to our parents, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews and siblings. Family meant everything to Uncle Wit and I believe that he wanted us to really get that or maybe he wanted me to get it. He knew, all too well, that people do get sick. People do die. And in our grief and fear, we need each other. Uncle Wit always knew that even if he never said it.
Today is a celebration of his life. We will miss his poker stories, we will miss his sense of humor, like when he taught us a lesson about poker by pointing out to his soon to be daughter-in-law, Christie, while standing behind her during a recent cousin's only poker game: "You don't have to play every hand, you know." We will miss his baseball knowledge, his passion for the Yankees and his non-judgmental sensibility and candor. We will miss his sayings like, "Nice country America, if America moves, I'm moving with it." We will miss him. All of him.
I've compiled a few lessons his family members felt he learned from him. These are his top ten:
1. Family matters more than anything
2. Get mad at the Yankees when they do something stupid -- yell at the TV when you do
3. If you love someone, be sure to tell them often
4. Don't be afraid to drop, which I think is the same thing as " you don't have to play every
5. Don't take everything so seriously
6. Poker is about reading people, not the cards
7. Be patient -- don't worry about the things you cant control
8. Never settle for anything and pursue what you want in life
9. It's okay to do 80 MPH on the right shoulder of garden state parkway
10. Go live your life. Make sure you are happy. That's most important.
It's almost unanimous Uncle Wit, everyone wants to tell you to make sure the Yankees have a better year next year.
I'll close with an Old Irish Blessing:
May the road rise up to meet you;
May the wind always be at your back;
May the sun shine warm upon your face and rains fall soft upon your fields;
And until we meet again, may God hold you in the palm of his hand.
Goodbye Uncle Wit.
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