My mother once told me you always remember the people you laugh with.
Matt Raphael—brother-in-law to Stephen and me, “Uncle Mattie” to our children, was one of those people.
For many, many years, our family made long car trips to visit Grandpa and Grandma, Aunt “Maryland” and Uncle Matt, Daniel and Amy, every Thanksgiving and every February to celebrate the birthdays of Grandpa, Daniel and Elizabeth. (Matt and I once protested that there ought to be a family celebration of the three April birthdays, too—but perhaps because we were in-laws, second string, and the only heavy hitter on the April team was Grandma, who never wanted a big deal made about her birthday—or said she didn’t, anyway--the idea never got off the ground.)
Those car trips—from New York and later from North Carolina—were frequently stressful (could it really be possible for Michael to scream for the entire trip because he hated being trapped in his car seat? Yes, it could) and exhausting. But knowing that at the end of that long ride there would be Grandpa, eager to sit down on the rug and play games with the children for hours, and Grandma, making brisket and kashi and rum cake, helped to keep us going.
And there was Matt to look forward to. Matt, who played George Burns to Marilyn’s Gracie Allen. Matt who early in our relationship formally consulted with me about how we should greet each other so as to avoid those awkward moments at the front door (we settled on a kiss on the cheek—but a real kiss, no “air kisses” allowed); who was eager to talk about the latest novel he’d read and to find out what I’d been reading; who could locate any song I wanted to hear in his vast music collection—including “Needles and Pins,” by the Searchers, which I hadn’t heard in decades and which turned out to be one of his favorites, too.
Matt, who discovered that Bumpo the cat would fetch but only if you tossed him a piece of used chewing gum wrapped in foil. Matt, who never let me forget that the cute white kitten I’d innocently given to him and Marilyn grew up to be Winnie the World’s Worst Cat, peeing all over everything in the house. Matt, with whom I nearly came to blows over the Monopoly board because he drove such a hard bargain. Matt, who almost brought me to tears one morning when he thanked me for sectioning his grapefruit and said nobody had done that for him since he was a little boy.
Matt, who despite his own health problems, nursed Marilyn through her hospitalizations and recoveries with loving devotion; who adored his twin grandsons, Double Trouble, Sam and Otis; his son Daniel and daughter-in-law Sujan, with whom he shared a passion for music and baseball; his daughter Amy Elaine, the light of his eyes who was so often at his side in his last days, named for the mother he lost when he was only ten.
Matt, who could be as tender as he was grouchy, as kind as he was hard-headed, as sensitive to others as he was outspoken. Matt, who was smart and funny and always, always made us laugh.
I saw Matt for the last time in late June. I was going away for a month to Wyoming and I think we both knew we might not see each other again. He was still taking some pleasure in life at that point, listening to the Orioles and reading and eating a few things he liked. He handed me his Kindle and asked me to download some samples of books I thought he might enjoy. Later, I sat by his bed and asked if I could hold his hand. Of course, he said. I told him that I hated that he was going through this. He was philosophical: “Everybody has to die sometime,” he said. “I know,” I said. “But I don’t want you to go.” I told him I loved him, and he said he loved me, too.
We had fun, I said. He laughed and said yeah, we did: remember when we smoked pot at the beach?
I said I did, though that was thirty years ago and the memory was, unsurprisingly, a little hazy.
I told him I had a confession. For years he’d been asking me to make him a Greek specialty he loved, avgolemono soup. I finally got around to it, I said; I had made the broth the night before and packed it in a cooler with the cooked chicken to bring up in the car. But guess what, I said. I forgot the damn cooler. It’s sitting at home in the middle of the living room rug. I guess it doesn’t matter, though, I added, because Amy mentioned today that you don’t like soup anymore. Well, he said, glowering a little, not about to let me off the hook so easily: I might’ve made an exception for that.
He told me he wasn’t afraid to die. I said I was pretty sure it wasn’t the end. Either way, he said, there’s nothing I can do about it.
We’re going to miss you, I told him. You’re going to leave a big empty place in our lives.
Write a good eulogy for me, he said. But none of that Jesus stuff, O.K.?
O.K., I said. I’ll do that. And Matt, if you’re listening:
I’m really sorry about the soup.
Christina Askounis Pogoloff
August 23, 2011
Hide and Seek
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