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The following is constructed from notes made around the last few months of my uncle Baz’s life. I’ve edited and added in an attempt at cohesion, but I’ve otherwise left it unchanged.
My uncle drags flat cigarette butts and pieces of torn paper through a slalom of chemically discoloured spit with the foot of his walking stick. We’re waiting for the 184 bus to Barnet, have been for half an hour. He’s going to the library. I’m going home, far south from here. We exchange words, but the silences are thick and often.
He has an impossible choice to make. He can continue the chemo, perhaps buying himself two more months, gambling on the strength of his already frail kidneys, or he can let the cancer take him.
As we walked to the bus stop from his house, he silently took my hand for balance. The first time in my life he showed such vulnerability. It felt for a moment like I was the one being supported.
The next time I see Baz, I ask how the library was.
“A great time,” he tells me. “Drinks, dancing girls, the lot.
It’s one of the funniest things he’s ever said to me. Probably because of the sharp relief to the oncology waiting area, the venue for his un-corpsed delivery.
“Happy hour?” chimes in my dad. We don’t often visit together. We usually try to space it out for my uncle’s sake. But now we can’t not. It’s too much for one person, and there isn’t the time any more. These are the “short days.”
“Sure,” says Baz. “Take one book out, get one half price.”
After a lull, trying to guess the pronunciation and provenience of the Doctor’s surname, the three of us compare mistakes in our own. It’s safe and fertile ground.
Driver. Dunker, Drunker. Dr. Uker, even.
“Drooker, like Snooker, not Drucker like… well, you get the idea,” my uncle finishes. I laugh and save it for future use.
The conversation fades and we wait to be called in.
We sit in the office in patient hush. A rare thing for my dad and Baz. They can’t cope with silences, not in public. A silence is a missed opportunity for a joke.
“So!” Baz would say. “So, so, so, so, so!”
A neurotic, staccato leitmotif, recited often, in any quiet situation. Except this one.
The options are outlined again by the Doctor. The stark choice between length and quality of life, such minor gains weighed against such finite losses.
After the consultation, my dad and I argue with Baz about him getting a taxi home. He wants to go to the library again. In the end, we agree to get a cab there. In the spirit of compromise, no one is happy.
We sit for a while in the library. A neutral environment. An empowering place for him, I suppose.
We say we love each other and for the first and last time, I see my uncle cry.
He’s fat and thin, in the worst ways. More the latter now. He used to be neither. He used to run marathons. “I used to be able to snack without putting on weight,” I heard him say once, in days of better health and humour. “Now I can put on weight without snacking.”
A year or so before, when he was more mobile and the diagnosis was new, we’d meet halfway between North and South London at Gaby’s on Charing Cross Road (RIP) for overpriced salt beef and stale falafel. We’d talk through various union-related situations in my work. For my sins, I was a rep at a university undergoing a devastating restructure. This was all old ground for Baz, who’d worked for years in higher education.
Amid the serious talk, he’d tell me jokes plucked from his encyclopaedic knowledge of British Comedy. On one occasion, we lingered at the heart of Leicester Square tube before leaving in separate directions. It was a parting that lasted almost as long as the meeting itself. He reeled out more jokes instead of goodbyes. He told me one by Tommy Cooper. It ends:
“And tell me, how is your brother now?”
“He thinks he’s dead!”
Months before the end, voluntary redundancy left me with an abundance of time to spend with Baz. I’d take the three hour round trip with thoughts of using the time on public transport to elevate myself to a state of intellectual betterment. A lie I would tell myself, as if I could do anything but listen to music and play repetitive games on my phone.
I would take him out when I could get him to leave his house. Once we were sat in a cafe in The Spires shopping centre in Barnet. I bought him Eggs Royale and an orange juice. One of the rare times I’d seen him eat anything but his local Co-op’s least nutritional yellow sticker offerings. After he got his bag fitted, the best way to replace missing fats and sodium was to eat crisps. He took to this advice with the gusto of a wealthy gourmand.
He was lactose intolerant, so he said. Never tested, always convinced. He loved ice-cream, though. He told me it doesn’t have much lactose in it. I buried confusion and toxic urges of pedantry. How could I take away ice-cream from a dying man?
We have a meeting with someone from the hospice company. We get a bus there. He wouldn’t let me pay for a cab. I still don’t know why I didn’t just order one anyway. I didn’t want to undermine him, I suppose.
The woman from the hospice directs all questions to me. She asks about Baz’s likes and dislikes, his diet and general wellness. I can’t answer many. I don’t want to answer any. Baz gets increasingly angry. It’s horrible, but understandable. She has the same name as his ex-partner. Baz delivers her name as vicious punctuation, ending a sentence confirming his presence in the room. There’s a sharpness I haven’t seen before.
He’s in the hospice now. It’s only been a few days. He won’t be here long. Some mercy.
The last day, he’s barely dressed. His pyjama top hangs open to accommodate the lines. He exists in the crawlspace between states of consciousness. One moment fast asleep, another checking to make sure his ancient mobile phone is plugged in. A Casio watch of similar vintage, held in place by a threadbare velcro strap and a minor miracle, bellows an alarm.
His eyes open as a nurse comes in. He immediately attempts to sit up, in alarming, jerky movements. The surrounding family, both brothers, myself, my aunt and one of my cousins all attempt to help, but there’s nothing we can do.
Baz tries to raise his voice above a rattling whisper. When he can be heard, he checks through his complex list of medications, making sure it is all correct. Moments before, he looked like he wasn’t really here, now he sounds like a pharmacologist. My dad and I look at each other, stunned.
Some hours before this, I sat with Alan, my other uncle, and my aunt Pam at Baz’s bedside, going through a brown envelope bursting with ancient photographs. The three brothers stand eternal, all wry smiles. My dad, a child, is dwarfed by his two siblings. Later pictures, older. My dad, awkward, stooped. Lost beneath a familiar shadow of self-consciousness.
My grandad, Sam, who I never knew. My grandma Sadie in the wedding dress she made herself.
My great-grandmother, my hero. A woman I had never seen before, who ran away from a Ukrainian tobacco farm at 16, and took a boat to London, speaking only Yiddish. Another fraying connection to her is about to break.
My dad and I stay, standing near-silent, watch after everyone else has left. The late-autumn sun escapes us, and we are deep in the early evening without realising. I spoon feed ice-cream into Baz’s mouth. His last meal, it turns out.
I get the call early next morning. My dad was rung in the middle of the night but decided to wait to tell me. Someone should have some sleep, he thought. A nurse was with Baz, he tells me. Four sharp breaths, then nothing.
Baz refused to write a will. But near the end, he left wishes, dictated and scrawled onto the back of an old copy of Private Eye. Surprisingly, this isn’t legally binding. I get his film collection. Around 3,000 titles in all. British Comedy of heavily varying quality. Amid greater and lesser-known Ealing gems and box-sets from the BFI archive hide titles like Au Pair Girls, Anyone for Sex? and The Sexplorer (2069… A Space Sexploitation).
The collection filled ten years and an entire room of his house. Double-stacked lines in alphabetical order. Research for a book on the history of British Comedy. Often discussed, never written.
My flat isn’t big enough for me, let alone 3,000 films. I read the back of each one and select their fate with guilt. A few, I keep. I donate a suitcase-load to my former workplace, a film library in the east end (the wonderful Close-Up). It’s a few streets away from where my Grandma, Baz’s mum, grew up, which is more fitting than I could hope for. The rest are set aside for a house clearance company.
It takes me about three separate trips to complete this task. Each time, I feel like I’m intruding. Understanding him less and more. I’m confused by the mezuzah by his front door, wondering if, in his final months, he abandoned his atheism. My uncle had no time for religion. He held the type of atheism that can only be fostered by a childhood of theological instruction given by a Rabbi holding a stick with a nail through the end.
I find myself thinking about my uncle’s Jewishness. My father’s. My own, such as it is. Their rejection of religion, the other aspects of British Ashkenazism being inescapable. Embraced. The food. The humour. The anger. The Yiddish woven into everyday conversation. The lodestar of Socialism. The old-world superstitions. The fear of tempting the evil eye (kinehora).
Baz refused to have his boiler fixed one chemo winter, convinced the two-year warranty would mean he wouldn’t live to see it break. Eventually, he relented. It turned out he was right. But if he’d held out, he would have still been right and had pneumonia on top of everything else.
I think about my own superstitions. My own fear of joy or fulfilment of ambition. Every unsent manuscript a permanent potential, every rejection a confirmation of the worst things I think about myself. Baz had so many plans, scuppered by life, circumstance, and most often himself. He wanted to be a barrister. He wanted to write sitcoms. He wanted to write a book.
These things we seem to share, some I fight or try to resolve, some I have no option but to accept. How much of it is really mine, or his, or his parents? How much of it can be traced back to a shtetl somewhere in old Yiddishland. Some shmuck with schleppy feet, tripping over the world and blaming G-d for their misfortune.
Turns out it was Howard the Frummer who put the mezuzah up. Howard was an unlikely compatriot, their meetings arranged by a Jewish charity. I doubt Baz noticed or cared. In the hospice Howard the Frummer refused to shake my aunt’s hand. It shouldn’t be surprising, but it’s always odd to see. I’m glad he was there, as much as he seemed to annoy everyone in my family.
I try not to think about how Baz looked, the morning after he died. Almost identical to the night before, but absent of even a fading light. I try to not think about his lowering coffin. Instead, I think of the funny story my dad told as he eulogised, or the hilariously backhanded compliments from relatives I hadn’t seen for decades (“You look ‘healthy’! You used to be so gaunt!”).
I think of Baz’s terrible jokes, and his kindness. I think of him long before the short days. And I write. I write for Baz, and I write for me. I write for the things Baz wanted and never achieved, and for the dreams I am scared of being buried with, unrealised.
Thank you, Baz. Your memory is a blessing. Even the jokes.