I was seven years old and celebrating my First Communion, a big deal if you’re an Irish Catholic girl. You get to wear a beautiful white dress and a veil with a tiara and I was one of the children selected to read a prayer during the mass.
We had a party at my house after and there’s a picture of my Uncle Tony, a big bear of a man, holding me with just one arm, like I was nothing. I always liked being picked up by him because he used to be a football player and I knew I’d be safe in his arms.
We used to call him and my Aunt Phyllis our rich relatives because they were. Uncle Tony was offered a chance to play for the Yankees and the Giants but turned them both down to go to college and own his own business. That decision paid off. They had a real house AND a summer house and my aunt, who used to be a model, owned full length mink coats that she used to let me dress up in until my mother told me to take them off before I spilled something on a $10,000 coat. But more than that he and my aunt mentored kids and volunteered and did their best to make a difference.
They travelled to exotic locations like China and Egypt at times when my family was perfecting the art of the staycation because my mom took care of her mom who had dementia.
I remember Uncle Tony and Aunt Phyllis came to babysit my grandma so my parents could go to my dance recital and seeing the tears in his eyes when she didn’t recognize him and called him by my brother’s name instead.
When it was time for me to go to college, “downsizing” was all the rage. My mother’s company was shipped to another state and my dad, who worked for New York City, had a pay freeze for four years. My brother would be a senior when I was a freshman.
My uncle pushed hard for me to go to Muhlenberg College, his alma mater, where his picture hung in the sports center’s Hall of Fame.
I was a good student, top 3% of my class, so I was accepted at all six schools I applied, but Uncle Tony knew which scholarships were still available and getting that financial aid made all the difference in the world. When I graduated magna cum laude he was on stage and handed me my diploma. I wish I had a picture of the moment.
I wish he was still here with us.
My father passed away when I was 28, years before I was married. My brother walked me down the aisle and my uncle pulled me in for a hug as I passed; whispered to me, “Your dad is walking right beside you too.”
A year ago Aunt Phyllis called. “If you were ever planning to come to Florida, now is the time to see us, while he can still remember you.” We flew out to spend time with them and he and my kids joked around balancing pillows on their heads and walking around the room.
In March it got worse. He had cancer and dementia and a host of other issues and my aunt had her own medical problems to deal with as she struggled to care for him in the middle of a pandemic. “Do you need me to come out to help?” I asked. “No, we have what we need, stay in quarantine. Just call us from time to time,” she said.
I dug through my mom’s old photo albums, finding pictures of his family and our family through the years and rushed to send him a photo album before it was too late. My Aunt said he looked through it and cried. It arrived the same day he collapsed and went into the hospital.
My aunt and cousin couldn’t see him at the hospital. Too dangerous. Might spread the disease. My uncle wondered why they abandoned him. Easter Sunday, she put on her face mask and stood by the plastic barrier between them. A nurse came in, took down the screen and said, “Hmm, I wonder why this isn’t working right. I’ll have to check on it in ten minutes,” then left the room, closing the door behind her. They’ve been married for damn near 60 years.
He died two days later.
They can’t have funerals right now. We don’t know when we will meet up. Aunt Phyllis lives in a retirement community where one of her neighbors plays guitar while residents sit in a socially distanced circle.
The singer said, “You may have heard that Tony passed, so today I’m going to play and Irish ballad, “Danny Boy” in his honor. As tears rolled down my Aunt Phyllis’s eyes, people crossed their arms over their hearts to offer a pandemic hug.
Oh, Danny boy, the pipes,
the pipes are calling
From glen to glen, and down
the mountain side.
The summer’s gone, and all
the roses falling,
It’s you, It’s you must go and
I must bide.
Rest in peace, Uncle Tony. I’ll miss you.
Lisa Traugott is a personal trainer, Mom’s Choice Award writer, original cast member of FOX/John Cena’s “American Grit” and has a monthly fitness column on Bowflex.com. She won Ms. Costa Rica Sports Model 2017 and her transformation story was featured in Muscle & Fitness Hers, Good Day Austin, Great Day Houston and Austin Woman Magazine. She blogs at ShesLosingIt.com and is passionate about her clients.
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