For those he left behind, Uncle Vinnie’s passing was like a thunderous glacial slide into the sea. The waves and swells of his long and rich life travelled in all directions, touching many lives.
Vincent was the last of the hardy Leonard clan. As the youngest surviving brother in my mother’s family of seven children, he enjoyed a special place in the hearts and minds of his siblings and the generation that followed. Uncle Vinnie was an undisputed family legend, since there was no one left to dispute his stories. And there were many stories.
Vinnie used to talk about how he learned to fight by sparing with his oldest brother who was a semi-professional boxer. Dignity was often won or lost on the streets and playgrounds of the neighborhoods where they lived. His nose had been flattened a number of times and in his later years the topography of his face was the map of wins and losses softened only by his sparkling blue eyes. Even though he was a fighter, he managed to stay stateside as a First Lieutenant in the US Army during World War II because, as he said with a twinkle in his eye, “he had a desk job”. Vincent’s shallow laughter seemed to come from the upper third of his chest and joyfully hijack the flow of his conversation. He had a wonderful sense of humor that he used disarmingly. He credited his longevity to a healthy lifestyle. Not unlike a reformed smoker, he constantly needled his friends about staying fit through regular exercise and a moderation. He told a story of being out to dinner with a bunch of guys who ordered large slices of cheesecake for dessert. He proceeded to tell them that as a cop in New York City he used to patrol the docks. He told them that decomposed bodies would often come floating up and their insides would fall out when they attempted to pull them out of the water. He chuckled as his friends moved away from their plates in disgust.
Uncle Vinnie didn’t talk much about his age until he was well into his 90’s and only then did he enjoy the attention that came along with it, especially from the ladies. Vincent could be very charming. He enjoyed many female attendants who looked out for him as his independence declined. Those included his niece, who lived the closest to him and oversaw many of his daily needs and his two daughters who took care of logistics remotely from New York City and Florida. Vinnie’s love life was kept burning with Gladys, a long-time friend who lived in Arizona, and at 90, was 5 years his junior. Gladys and Vincent spoke with each other on the phone 4 or 5 times a day. Vincent was very hard of hearing but she and he remained undeterred. Gladys advised him on the latest vitamin supplements, listen politely to his pre Vatican II religious convictions and his rantings in support of Rush Limbaugh. He adored his great, grandnephews and he willingly took part in their playgroups when they were little. The infatuation is and was mutual.
Vinnie credited his long life to jogging, his daily workouts at the “Y”, and from staying away from the “sauce”, as he put it. Many of the cousins, however, remember a much younger Uncle Vinnie willingly taking part in convivial family drinking, smoking and sing-alongs that often led to arguments and, at times, fisticuffs. I recall one such incident when my father was wrestling with my uncle Willy on the living room floor. When his pant leg rolled up I was horrified to see a service revolver strapped to Willy’s ankle. My Uncle Willy was a detective on the New York City Police Force. There were many late night rides home to New Jersey from family get-togethers where providence was the only co-pilot.
Leaving New York City for Vineland was like a healing balm in Vinnie’s life. He traded in the city grit for a garden that he turned into a small farm. When his second wife Ellie asked him what they would do with the bumper crop of cucumbers he suggested they make cucumber pie, only half in jest. With the help of his oldest brother Leo, who encouraged him to move to South Jersey, he managed to create a second career in the packaged food industry as a personnel manager where he earned a reputation as a tough union negotiator. After retiring from that job he pursued another career as a school custodian where he became the oldest and most popular kid in school. He made a hobby of watching birds in the backyard and devising creative ways to keep rabbits out of his vegetable garden. Vinnie would travel great distances for special birdseed because, as he said, “the stuff you get at Walmart isn’t fit for pigeons”. He was famous for re-gifting unwanted presents (size didn’t matter). It wasn’t that he was ungrateful. He would simply say, “What would I do with that?”
Uncle Vinnie guarded his independence through a meticulous system of subterfuge. He cultivated a devoted network of helpers but insisted on keeping them on a need-to-know basis to protect his security. When his daughter Dot took away his laxatives for fear he was getting too dependent on them he called up his niece to take him to the pharmacy. Unembarrassed and oblivious, he had her read the suppository directions loudly in the store because not only had macular degeneration robbed him of his vision but he was also hard of hearing. Vinnie had someone cut his lawn; others would take him shopping, bring in his mail, clean his house or call him on the phone just to check in with him. He had fallen several times, was known to light the gas range with a match when the pilot light didn’t work, he once crawled in from the mailbox on all fours when he stumbled and fell outside and he experienced other mishaps that would have landed someone else in a nursing home. But by maintaining a puzzle of discreet pieces in his declining years he was able to cobble together the illusion of independence that those closest to him knowingly respected. He managed to remain in his home in Vineland, New Jersey through a combination of deception, crafty resourcefulness and the heroic efforts of his niece, daughters and later, his live-in caretaker.
Vinnie held stubbornly to his convictions that bridged the gap between Archie Bunker and Rush Limbaugh. Yet he grew to grudgingly accept and love his loyal African American caretaker, who was at his bedside when he died. Although I don’t believe he ever discussed his daughter’s sexual preference, Vinnie cared deeply for her spouse, Amy, who lovingly doted over his every need. Dot and Amy, lived in NYC and would make monthly visits negotiating the tender nuances of love, surveillance, companionship and concern. His other daughter, Kathie, took on the challenge of his driving past the age when visual impairment made it unsafe. When negotiation failed, he never forgave her for taking away his keys. Uncle Vinnie refused to accept offers of daily rides to the “Y” because, as he said, “He wasn’t a charity case”. Even after the point when memory eluded him, he knew he was angry with Kathie, he just didn’t always remember why. Uncle Vinnie took that one to his grave saying “If she doesn’t apologize why should I?” Kathie continued to send him cards and flowers right up to the end.
Even in his last hours Vinnie was a fighter. He actually attempted to do some last minute pull-ups on the traction bar that hung above his bed prior to the surgery to piece together his hip. As cancer had eaten away most of his pelvis he managed to marshal his last bit of energy struggling to free himself from the plastic tethers and restraints of the intensive care unit. On the day before he died he pleaded with his best friend and YMCA buddy “to get him the hell outta here.” Although mortally weakened, he fought with the same degree of intensity that allowed him to live stubbornly independent for most of his life. But truth be told, his niece and daughters were the real guardians of his independence. They worked stealthily to penetrate the Blue Code of Silence of the former NYC cop, much to his chagrin.
Vincent was capable of being arrogant and abusive on the phone, short tempered in person, frequently unapologetic, but he could also be warm-hearted and caring under his tough veneer. In later years, a somewhat compromised impulse control made caring for him a constant challenge. One incident illustrates this multifarious nature. He had been regularly giving his next-door neighbor money to buy liquor because he felt sorry for her addiction. One day her sons came over and started to kick his door down because he had no money to give her at the time. He called his daughter in NYC frightened to death. She didn’t know what to do so she called our cousin Irene who lived nearby and who, in turn, called the state police. Since Vincent is a former cop, all sorts of help arrived in short order and the two boys were hauled away. One of the cops that was at the scene and who I later met at a wedding said that the “brotherhood” would never let anything happen to Vincent.
Vincent had many angels in his life. Most of them are with him now. I remember one conversation I had with Vincent many years ago when my own father was actively dying. Vincent had made the long trip up from Vineland to Central New Jersey to see my dad, knowing that he would not be doing it again. He took my daughter and I out to lunch afterward and he reminisced about growing up with my mother. As the oldest sister in a single parent home, my mother had the impossible job of keeping her recalcitrant brothers in line. Their mother, my grandmother, worked as a domestic trying to keep the family together and was away from home much of the time. Vincent expressed a great empathy for Evelyn’s thankless role in helping all but one of the brothers survive. Warren, the youngest fell down an airshaft to his death in their walkup tenement apartment in Hell’s Kitchen section of New York. Although my mother never talked about it, I suspect she felt deeply responsible. I believe that is why she insisted that my middle name be Warren. Vincent spoke passionately about the bond of blood and the importance of loyalty. Family was very important to him. He made many mistakes along the way, as we all do. We love and forgive him for all of it.
I don’t think Vinnie was afraid of death as much as he was afraid of losing everything else. He certainly didn’t want anyone telling him what to do or to be in a position of vulnerability. Not unlike Uncle Vinnie, I’m deeply concerned with the messiness of getting older and the losses associated with it. It’s not the inevitable pain I fear as much as the personal indignities that come along with illness. He saw a lot of people, including a son and daughter, go before him – a loss that seems unfathomable and an assault on the natural order of things. Those losses ticking off in time get to me too. As he aged he struggled with physical losses and his world got smaller and smaller. It requires a special kind of courage and humility to accept the aging and disease process with any kind of grace. I saw this with my wife. She suffered for close to 10 years fighting a losing battle with breast cancer. She never gave up hope on the grueling course of treatments but at the same time her ability at the end to surrender and peacefully let go has left me in a perpetual state of awe and admiration. I often think that it would be nice if we could just turn out the lights one day when things got too rough. There was a minister of our church who developed Parkinson’s disease at a relatively early age and was forced to give up his ministry. He was a vibrant man with a great mind who helped many people and was very open about his own demons. Not that soon after he left the church I read that he was found dead in his apartment. I often wondered if he turned out the lights. He often spoke about the Hemlock Society, which gives end of life advice to terminally ill people. I’ve looked into that myself. I even held on to my wife’s prescription medications for a time until I figured that they would probably expire by the time I needed them, although shelf-life probably wouldn’t have been an issue. But this all seems cowardly to me now. I accept my own mortality. I just have a problem with the road that gets you there. I’ve been extremely fortunate. I’ve been blessed with good health up to this point but lady luck isn’t always going to be faithful. In fact, I notice her wandering eyes whenever I feel an ache or pain that seems to hang on longer than I feel it should. So it’s really just a matter of time. Unlike my father who spent his every last cell and sinew, I try to take care of myself by eating right and exercising in hopes of maintaining a reasonable quality of life as I travel down that road. I’m working on a spiritual practice of meditation and mindfulness that certainly helps me appreciate what I have at the moment. Intellectually I realize that disease and dissolution are all part of this human journey. I just haven’t taken it out for a test drive. I’m not sure you really can until you are faced with it. After years and years of deep and intensive spiritual practice even Ram Dass admitted to being in spiritual crisis following a stroke that left him unable to maintain many of the activities he once took for granted. I believe that illness can open locked doors. I can only hope that I’ll be prepared to walk through, let go and surrender to what must be. In the meantime I’ll just continue my practice and hope I can rise to the unfathomable.