Last Sunday was to be my uncle’s 100th birthday. Our family tends to be long-lived, many living into their 80s, some into their 90s, but no one, to our knowledge, had lived this long. No one else from that generation in our family is still living. Since last summer, Uncle Bobby had been planning a gala event to celebrate the day. He lives in Florida so that is where the event would take place. Born in 1909, the youngest son of a prominent New York surgeon, Uncle Bobby, as he was known to most, lived through that tumultuous century, survived five marriages which netted a bevy of children and stepchildren, and most recently lived an entertaining life on an island off Florida’s Atlantic Coast. Or so I am told. I have his photo here, probably age 12: mischief is written all over his face. Though I did not know him well, I understand that he knew how to live.
Uncle Bobby was not really my uncle. He was my father’s first cousin, but, still, once we get to a certain place in our lives, distant relatives are all welcome members of the circle. A man who lives that long and marries that often has a large circle. His plan for the celebration of his centennial was for a black tie dinner dance, in keeping with the style to which he was accustomed. I heard that there would be 170 of us at the celebration — no doubt his nearest and dearest. I planned to attend with my cousins, who aren’t my first cousins but, oh, never mind. We all love each other just the same. It was going to be great fun and perfect that it fell as it did in the middle of February. Last summer, we discreetly discussed whether or not we should spring for the flights and go that distance for this event. After all, how did we know he would make it all the way to the following February, which, in July, seemed really pretty far away?
Time passed. Formal invitations were issued. We, the northern contingent, let down our guard and booked our flights, made reservations at motels and planned to share rental cars and so on. In short, we couldn’t wait. I burrowed deep into my closet, in search of formal wear. I visited the best of the local thrift shops. Using a combination of garb already owned and bargains acquired, I decided what I put together could pass for “black tie.” As the week of our departure neared, we cousins exchanged e-mails at an increasingly furious rate. And then, just three days before we were to leave, came the news: Uncle Bobby had died. Further amazement came that he had died two weeks earlier. No one had contacted us of his death. Further, we were told there was to be no service. Apparently he wanted the birthday bash but not the wake. Another furious round of phone calls were made to cancel plane reservations and all else, as well as to each other, in astonished disbelief. Why hadn’t anyone called us? Lots of questions, no answers. Uncle Bobby had exited, stage left.
It appears that Uncle Bobby was the glue. He was our contact person. And once he was gone, well perhaps some of these many stepchildren didn’t know about us. Who knows. It’s anyone’s guess. I’m not even sure how he died. Perhaps he received the estimate for how much the whole shindig would cost and died of a heart attack. In the meantime, our only family centenarian-to-be, our last living connection to our parents and our grandparents and all those who preceded us on this earth, is gone. And our chance to come together on a tropical isle in the middle of winter to attend an elegant event conceived in the style of the last century has passed as well. Uncle Bobby almost made it to 100. The story rests in that one word: almost. One thing is certain: he had a great deal of fun planning that party. Maybe the joke was on us.