A man who loved to laugh: Reflections on my late Uncle Jack

October 12, 2013

By Matthew E. Milliken
Oct. 12, 2013

My Uncle Jack died this past weekend. He was buried Wednesday in a beautiful, leafy cemetery on a mild mid-October day. The leaves were just starting to turn.

Before the burial, I and a few other people were chatting with a woman I’ll call K. She said something to the effect that in all the years she had known Jack, she had never heard him say a bad word about anybody.

When I heard that, I thought that it sounded patently untrue — that it was the kind of pablum that one mourner says to comfort other mourners. But it seemed unconscionably rude to voice my doubts, so I and the other people standing with K and I cooed appreciatively.

As I was cooing, however, I thought about Jack’s passionate liberal views. This was a humorous enough way to deflate K’s well-meaning but pretentious offering, I decided. And so I said, “You must never have heard my Uncle Jack discuss politics.”

It so happens someone else in the group had thought of and was making the very same point just as I spoke. And we all recognized the truth and humor of this, and we all laughed.

This was a light-hearted moment that I think my uncle would have appreciated. We all like to laugh, yes, but Jack was a bit of a joker.

In fact, intentionally or not, on the day after his funeral, we made two discoveries that underscored Jack’s sense of humor. One of the discoveries came courtesy of his daughter E, who in the course of canceling Jack’s Netflix account learned that the last movie the company sent him was a 1985 comedy starring John Cusack called Better Off Dead. We all chuckled when she relayed this information.

Later on Thursday, as we were all enjoying some ice cream in my uncle’s apartment, I returned a carton to Jack’s freezer. Before I slid it closed, however, I noticed that there was a bottle of vodka lying in the compartment. And this wasn’t just any liquor — it was a Wisconsin product known as Death’s Door Vodka.

Jack was relatively young, but he had smoked for decades, and he had known for years that his ailing lungs were going to do him in. I distinctly him telling me about two and a half years ago, around the time his mother died, that he would make his very last trip in early 2012, when his granddaughter S was bar mitzvahed in New York City. And that, to the best of my knowledge, in fact was his final journey of any length on this earth.

Did Jack buy himself a bottle of Death’s Door Vodka because he thought it was funny? Did a friend who shared his impish sense of humor do so? I have no idea, and I’ll probably never know. But I found it fitting that, as sad as my uncle’s sendoff was, it also managed to be a little bit funny, too.

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