“I see a light, it feels good,
And I’ll come back soon, just like you would;
It’s useless, my name has made the list,
And I wish I gave you one last kiss…”
‘Not Now’ – blink-182
How do you accept that your family is cursed? Perhaps I’m being dramatic, but it doesn’t feel hyperbolic to describe the bounty of untimely and unfair deaths that have plagued both sides of my family tree as a black mark on our very essence. Between 3 out of 4 grandparents passing away before the age of seventy– with the one who made it struggling to be herself the last decade or so– and the well-documented early demise of my mother and father, it isn’t surprising that my Uncle Bubba (aka Walter, who I was named after, which I’ll get to later*) left us far too soon last week at the age of 71. Some folks have all the luck and are blessed with longevity in their genes; unfortunately, that ain’t us.
It wasn’t a shock to see that early morning voicemail blinking on my phone, but the inevitability of cancer and heart failure claiming another in an endless line of victims does little to dull the sting of losing someone dear. I’m hesitant to write anything at all, mostly because to do so seems like it detracts from my cousins and aunt who are truly suffering in this situation. I’m just a nephew– not the child or spouse– so it isn’t my place to come in and seemingly claim all, or any, of the sympathy on hand.
But as someone very well versed in the nature of agonizing grief and the brutal bereavement process, it’s vital to remember that it’s not a contest. Grief isn’t a zero sum game, and the fact that I’m devastated– in the wake of another death in the family by someone too young to leave us– doesn’t negate the emotional turmoil experienced by anyone else. We need to process and acknowledge the pain that exists, otherwise it festers and stews and rots away at your insides, until it bursts forth from the seams when you least expect or want it to.
Naturally, in times like these, the fondest of memories have been cropping up in my mind. Our proud Polish heritage leads the pack, and the vivid images of Wigilia celebrations past– from Kingston to Quincy to Tyngsboro to Walpole– have dominated the mental cycle. I can smell the homemade pierogies in Nana’s trailer as I write this, can taste the fresh baked shrimp and butterballs melting off of my tongue. Nothing beats a Swierk Christmas Eve, and while we may not have been in the same house for as many since they moved to the Midwest, the Polish love was always felt across the country.
It crushes me to consider how little I was able to see him or talk to him in person while he was here, and the many opportunities I clearly squandered to spend more time with him will linger eternal. Yet when I think about Uncle Bubba– and the stoic strength he displayed during similar tragedies in our family’s past– it’s hard to allow myself to become a blubbering mess. He was old school– just like his late little brother– and believed you should keep yourself calm and composed when the world was watching. A man hides their feelings outside of their most resolute privacy, so why would I display my deepest emotions for the world to peruse when I’m honoring such a person?
I keep returning to two distinct thoughts, both of which seem to perfectly encapsulate the man I’m flying to honor today. The first occurred my sophomore year of high school, on the day of the eastern Massachusetts football Super Bowl state championship, which I was playing in as a starting lineman. My father informed me that Uncle Bubba– who had been a star high school lineman himself once upon a time, nicknamed ‘Tank’ – wanted to give me advice before the game. We sat in the kitchen as dad handed me the phone, and my uncle’s advice (which I did not follow) still brings a smile.
“On the first play,” he said, “jump offsides and hit the guy opposite you” right in the groin (he did not say groin). “He’ll be scared the rest of the game and you’ll have the upper hand.” His upbringing on the mean streets of Dorchester came through in spades that day, and I never forgot just how tough the Swierk patriarch truly was.
And that memory illustrates exactly why I’m proud to be the late Walter Swierk’s namesake*, which is the other thought dominating my memory. As I noted– and he was known to mention every time we were together– I was, in fact, named after him*. It’s true (or it was as long as you only asked him for the story), because I’m not actually Adam Walter Swierk, but A…Walter! I’m just a Walter, not Adam, and he would never let an opportunity pass– facts he damned– without the smug reminder of just who provided my name*..
I miss you Uncle Bubba (not Uncle Walter, which just sounds weird), and I wish we had spent more time trying to out-deadpan each other in a battle of Swierk sarcasm. I’ll take a shot of Crown Royal in your memory– and in Papa’s, and Nana’s, and my parent’s, too– tonight, and do my best to remember what you taught us is most important: family. Because if we are cursed, it simply means we need to cherish our time together now, even more, while we still can.
* Validity of this story may have been disputed by my mother and father…