Monday, October 4, 2021

"Just ski, damnit."


My crazy uncle just passed away. 

No, not the crazy uncle who would go to funerals with little scraps of yellow paper inscribed with his phone number and then pass them out to fetching young ladies, or indeed any ladies, who might be interested. The one who lived high atop the dirty streets of Atlantic City with a commanding view of the Jersey shore, compliments of the New Jersey Mental Health Assistance board. The one who would pester me for winter overcoats.

"Jackie, is there anything you need?"

"Chinese food and a winter coat."

"I sent you 4 winter coats last month. What else do you need?"

"A winter coat."

Apparently, destitute descendants from the Belarussian shtetl could never be overly prepared for the brutal Eastern European winters.

My uncle Jackie passed away a few years ago. I'm talking about my Uncle Ron, for whom my wife and I became full time caregivers for about two years ago. This is him from better days on one of our many weekend trips to his Palm Springs home.

Nothing brought him as much joy as seeing my daughters. Nothing. 

Perhaps because as a gay man he never had any children of his own. And so we went out of our way to visit his modest little home with the postage stamp sized pool. The girls loved those visits. Except when they couldn't sleep in the overbearing desert heat. Nor understand why my uncle never lowered the temperature on the air conditioning to anything below 80.

"What am I, made of money?"

At one time in his life it seemed he was. He was my rich uncle, our only relative with any disposable income. So much for the trope that all Jews have money. 

He often brought my brother and I expensive birthday and Hanukah gifts from Saks Fifth Ave. (where he was one of their executive financial controllers). Lots of fancy woolen pants and scratchy sweaters, that never got worn.

He also introduced my brother and I to the sport of skiing. Not too many 8 year old boys from working class families in Flushing, NY were given the opportunity to slap on skis and boots that weighed 20 lbs. apiece, but we were. And we loved it. 

Starting with trips to Sterling Forest, where we would just bomb the hill and had to be dragged off the mountain. Then he treated us to Bellayre, a grown up ski resort with CHAIRLIFTS!!! A pleasant diversion from the T-bar at Sterling.

And one time he treated us to a weekend getaway to Mad River Glen in Vermont, home of the nation's only single chair lift (see picture above). Also home to some of the steepest and iciest terrain you could have the displeasure of finding yourself on. My brother took a spill and literally cut his face on the snow.

Ron, never long on patience, told him to brush it off and yelled at us to make our way down the black diamond runs. He might have been gay, but he was Jerome Ave., Bronx-born,  NYC street-tough gay.

Nothing was more indicative of his fighting nature than his half-life long battle with HIV. 

My uncle was one of the first to contract the disease sometime in the 1980's. At the time he was living in a house in La Jolla, near San Diego. My parents had decided to sell their house in Suffern and move in with him. And to provide care in what they anticipated would be his final days.

That plan never came to fruition, as Ron's body miraculously fought off the HIV, never graduated to full blown AIDS, and never affected him in any way, shape or form. I suspect the HIV was running scared or that my uncle gave that disease a good "what for", as he would often do.

Do the math, Ron Siegel was a 30+ year HIV survivor! Magic Johnson had nothing on my uncle.

He was also militantly irreligious. 

Given all the times he could never get a cab in NYC he came to the conclusion there could be no God. As such he had little care for post-humous rituals or ceremonies. Thinking his body might help unlock some secrets to HIV/Aids -- which took the lives of many of his friends -- he registered for the full body donation at UCLA.

As you are reading this, researchers in Westwood could very well be examining some of his body tissue under the watchful eye of the Microtron Mitochondria Splitter Series 7000. I don't know what will come of the study, but I sincerely hope something good emerges. 

It would make Ronnie happy.

Like all Siegels, at least the ones in my ever-shrinking family, my uncle was famously stubborn. And prickly. And could stir in me visions of Jack Nicholson putting Chief out his misery in One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest. He could be the pebble in my shoe.

But it was my shoe. And in the end there was no one left to care for him, except myself, my wife and my brother. We did the best we could for him. He went peacefully. And painlessly. In his tiny room at Terraza in Cheviot Hills. With the monstrously large 60" TV blasting at the highest possible volume level.

I'm already missing him.

1 comment:

Matt Bombeck said...

Sweet tribute, Rich. Sure he appreciated all you and Deb did for him.