A Final Rose

A few weeks ago, I wrote an article in tribute to my Uncle Al. It was published on November 16th. On Sunday, November 20th, Uncle Al passed away peacefully, surrounded by his family. A copy of my column hung on the bulletin board in the hospital room.

Uncle Al – “Al Fish,” as he was affectionately known in the “old” neighborhood – was, to put it in a word, quite a character. He was known for his vast collection of watches, one that only seemed to grow with each passing year. He was generous to a fault, famously leaving huge tips wherever he went. I recall once hearing a story of a time when he hit it big in Atlantic City. When the girl came to his slot machine to pay him his winnings, he gave her $20, just because.

Through the years, Uncle Al’s spacious driveway often served as a makeshift car wash, with various family members taking him up on the offer for a wash and a wax, “a much better deal than the guy up the corner.” He was an avid moviegoer and, for whatever reason, would often call my grandfather to look up the movie times for him. It’s not as if he couldn’t find out for himself, but why not? Just another one of those lovable quirks.

He was incredibly fit for a man of his age, and we would often spot him riding around town on his bicycle. He would go to bed early every night (after watching a few “Law and Order” reruns), in order to get up early each morning for work, or for church. On any occasion where we may have needed extra folding chairs, he always had plenty, the joke being that he had stolen them from a funeral home at some point years ago. And, as soon as people started gathering themselves to leave, there he was, practically pulling them out from under people and folding them up.  

My grandfather and Uncle Al were always exceptionally close throughout the years. Both former military men, they had a yearly tradition for the longest time where they would “raise” the flag at my grandfather’s house each Memorial Day and take it down each Labor Day, sometimes while wearing parts of their old uniforms. Thank God for old photos, or I wouldn’t have believed such a sight. File it under “priceless.”  

Another tradition between them was their friendly “bocce” tournaments, played for a dollar a victory. Occasionally, they would let me in on the action, but don’t think they would ever let me win. And whenever I did happen to win, especially against Uncle Al, don’t think he was a good sport about it. No, he would take that dollar and throw it on the ground in mock anger.

Whenever he would call my house – usually to share the latest joke he had heard - and my mother would answer the phone, she would playfully ask, “Who’s this?” And he, without missing a beat, would reply, “I don’t know – let me check my wallet.” And anyone who happened to call his house when he wasn’t home would be greeted by a rather comical message that ended with the phrase: “And hey – have a nice day!”

During the last year or so, Uncle Al had the chance to go on a cruise with his family, to take a ride in a helicopter like he always wanted, to buy a scooter (yes, a scooter). In August, we all gathered to celebrate his 75th birthday. One of our cousins brought along some old slides from years ago, a nice touch to a warm, somewhat bittersweet occasion.

Even on my last visit to the hospital, Uncle Al’s trademark humor never wavered. They happened to be in the process of transferring him to another room on that particular occasion, so all of us who were visiting followed him through the halls to the new room. It must have been quite a sight to all those we passed along the way. Once we arrived, my Uncle decided that he really wanted a “window seat.” There wasn’t one ready, so he insisted on waiting while one of the nurses prepared the bed. He ended up with his window seat after all.   

Ironically - or maybe not so – on the night he passed away, he seemingly “waited” for the priest to arrive before letting go once and for all. It was a fitting end to a life lived to the fullest.  

At the wake, my column was displayed alongside a photo from his 75th birthday of the two of us dancing. I placed a rose, along with a copy of the article, in the casket. Not content to just leave it at the single rose, I also ordered two dozen to be displayed in a vase. It’s what he would have done.

At the funeral, one of Uncle Al’s grandsons read my column during the service. The recessional hymn was that of the Marine Corps. At the cemetery, a bugler played “Taps” and then assisted in the folding of the flag. Once it was over, all the men in attendance gathered around the casket to perform one final salute.    

On the card attached to my roses, I wrote: Uncle Al…May you dance through the gates of heaven and be surrounded by roses. “Ballroom Dance Partners Forever.”

Now, maybe he’ll be waiting for me for that dance. With a rose, of course.


{Published: December 7th, 2005}


Jamie Lynn RyanComment