Uncle Miguel


My uncle Miguel was the only uncle I had and knew.  He was my mother’s brother and that was absolutely it in the direct uncle / aunt department.  Lots of families I knew were resplendent with cousins and other extended family. My family has always been a tiny clan, and so while we may have saved money on buying gifts and cards for nonexistent birthdays and anniversaries, there was always a paucity of family members to get to know or build relationships with. So uncle Miguel was pretty much it, and I loved him and always liked when he came around.

My folks came to Canada from Uruguay in 1969, a my uncle followed a few years later.  He lived in an apartment a few minutes away from our townhouse, so he was always available to drop by.  And he often did.  I can recall he and my mother talking for hours about what was happening back home, what was going on in their lives and just general chit chat.  They would sit by the back screen door, while I listened to my parents’ Queen, Styx, Doobie Brothers and Earth, Wind and Fire albums, not really focusing on them, but still watching them, capturing lines and facial expressions as they spoke, noticing when my mother would reach over and touch her brother on the arm now and then as they talked, the sunlight cutting across my uncle’s bell bottomed pants.

My mother and my uncle.  What can you say, it was the 70's.
My mother and Uncle Miguel. What can you say? It was the 70’s.  That might be my head there at the bottom, or a raccoon that snuck into the house.

My Uncle Miguel was lithe and firm and wiry.  He was a 10th Dan Shotokan Karate practitioner and teacher.  He taught me for a short time, but my interest waned after a time.  (That would be a common theme for me as I grew up – I was always on the look for the new shiny thing, to keep me from staying with myself.  Myself would prove to be frightening).  My real interest was in magic, and my uncle would always surprise me with a new magic set or a book or something that would keep me in the magic game.  I think he saw something in the fantastic that also captured his imagination, and I think he enjoyed fostering that sense of wonderment in me.  As I would learn, he always seemed to be a in a state of that wonderment himself, seeking and finding new paths to shiny newness himself.

He was aloof at times, and yet warm.  I don’t recall if I hugged him much or if he sought me out for physical affection.  But I remember that I just loved to smell him – he smelled like his apartment – sandalwood incense or other exotic aromas that kept hanging in the air as a part of his Zen practice.  He was a Zen Buddhist and a teacher of it.  His love and embracing of Eastern Philosophy and spiritual attunement manifested in all parts of his life.  He showed me the I-Ching. He had some books that I found interesting, but too difficult for me to read.  He also got me into Tintin and Asterix and Obelix. He married a woman from Argentina, and they were childless.   My aunt was uncomfortable around us, and I could sense, even at my young age, that she was a bit off.  A pleasant woman, but detached and a little emotionally unbalanced.

The author as a young warlock.  Suck lemons, Harry Potter!
The author as a young warlock. Suck lemons, Harry Potter!

I remember he once got shot by an air rifle.  Some kids were shooting people by an adjacent apartment complex nearby.  I recall seeing the hole in his shirt, near his heart, the pressure having broken the skin a little.  I thought here’s a man who’s been shot and lived to tell the tale!  He truly was a super man!  My young mind latched onto that image, although I knew it wasn’t entirely true, but still loved the idea of this invincibility, as I felt anything but.  Uncle Miguel was the personification of how I wanted to be.  I wanted to be him in many ways.  And later I would see that I did.  But not in the way I thought through the filter of a 9-yr old boy.

It wasn’t until I was a little bit older that I noticed the visits slowing down, and eventually stopping.  We moved away to another part of the city, and he moved as well.  Visits were few and far between.  There were lots of hushed discussions behind closed doors when my parents talked about my uncle.  I don’t remember crying over him, but I think I missed him.  I say “I think” because I can’t really remember those days.  There was a shift in the family and while I wasn’t old enough to know the whole story, I wasn’t so young as to not notice something had smeared the glow off of things.

You don't have the Gaul to tell me that these guys aren't super men themselves, do you?  I thought not.
You don’t have the Gaul to tell me that these guys aren’t super men themselves, do you? I thought not.

Years passed and I recall my mother once warning my brother’s wanting to visit our Uncle Miguel at his new dojo in the west end.  “He’ll hurt you,” she warned, hinting at the emotional damage that she had been victim to.  I don’t know what happened with my brother and him.  I wasn’t close to my brother and we didn’t keep in much contact with one another (which continues to this day), and I was already into my own bubble…one which would continue to grow in density and distance from others even before picking up the first drink.

Many years marched by and I heard little about Uncle Miguel.  I didn’t want to approach the topic with my mother, who I could sense was still hurt by whatever had happened between them.  I did ask a few years ago, in certain emotional and/or drunken states over the phone, and my mother had patiently explained what had gone on.  For some reason,  I needed to know why things went cold between them.  There was something more than just being in an over-excited or morose state to get to the truth of things. Something was compelling me to dig deep in the sandbox. What I do know is that she loved him deeply – a type of love that I never could feel towards others or feel even for myself.  I didn’t understand it, but I could feel it from her.

My Uncle Miguel was a brilliant man – well read, well spoken and was full of promise.  His discordant self was fractured emotionally and wasn’t able to be there and fully functioning in that way.  He was there and yet he wasn’t.  That’s why I can’t remember the hugs.  His affectionate waywardness never imprinted onto me a sense of full love, and yet I sensed that he desired it and craved it.  He couldn’t make that final connection, and retreated in so many ways.  He was able to give unconditionally to his students, to strangers, to his numerous acquaintances, but was bereft of that same attention to his own family, his adoring, doting sister and wanting nephews.  This gradual estrangement was too much for my mother and a breaking of ties was the result.  My mother felt his brilliance never fully blossomed or was seen…a shame.

SCAN0044

My uncle died in 1995.  He had a sudden heart attack.  We visited him in a private emergency room – tubes and straps and wires all littered the floor and over Uncle Miguel’s body.  It was the first time I’d seen dead eyes on a loved one.  His vacant gaze cut through me, and yet I couldn’t react.  I was already on my way to my alcoholic self.  My feelings and emotional states were already marred by the uncertainty of myself, and the alcohol was already medicating me.  I wasn’t full blown by then, but certainly on the path.  I remember wanting to cry, but unsure if I could.  My aunt, who was no longer my aunt, as they had divorced, was wailing uncontrollably.  I assumed a position behind her and watched impassively…as if I were watching my dentist work on my teeth or if I were viewing a TV commercial.

What I  have come to realize in this path of recovery from alcoholism and these memories of Uncle Miguel is that my life path and his were very similar. That untapped potential, that inability to connect, that flighty emotional cascading between shiny new thing to gain a foothold in self, the intellectual and sterile observance and distance, the desire to undermine ourselves to stay small when really our spirits dared to soar…these are the parallels I see when I line our journeys up against one another.

All the things I saw about him that attracted me, the things that made me want to be like him, the detached manner of his being…I found in myself later on. And through the filter of not being a 9-yr old, it was arresting in how painful and lonely it all was.  I can’t say I know for a fact he felt exactly the same.  I never had a chance to talk to him about this sort of matter, but I get the sense that my needing to find a closure of sorts about him coincided with me spiralling out of control in my alcoholism and was in a way trying to find a closure of sorts about my own life.  In other words, I was him, and in me seeking truth about him and his life, I was attempting to find truth amidst the failure of my life.

Uncle Miguel was a beautiful man.  A broken man at times, a man who constantly searched for something.  And yet he did have serenity in a way that I envy now.  Or at least I would like to think he did.  His words were measured and he had a sense of calmness that brought the energy down in others – in a good way.  He was a man who others sought to be with. It’s in my recovery now, as I do my own seeking, as I find my own truth and carve my own path, that I realize perhaps my spirit has been seeking his in a way, or at least he has met mine at some point.

My wife and I aren’t Buddhists, but we take our young boys to temple on Sunday to learn about peace, forgiveness and helping others.  Being kind to others.  And sometimes, as I sit down and stare at the statues of the Buddha in various poses, I remember Uncle Miguel’s warmth, that smell of sandalwood, that glint in his eye as I show him a newly mastered magic trick.  I see how my growth in recovery is a continuation of his path, of crossing to a place where I am finally comfortable in my own skin and connecting with others is no longer a reason to run.

SCAN0045

Whenever I read the story above about the butterfly, I still get goosebumps and still wonder what it all means.  But the question need not be answered. Perhaps the question is a part of the journey.  And my own questions are part of my own journey.  It’s perhaps in the seeking of the answer that the answer becomes less important than the reason for seeking the answer in the first place.  My alcoholism doesn’t define me, but I know my recovery from it has been a gateway to a greater wonderment…greater than any magic trick, stronger than a gun shot, more intoxicating than all the sandalwood and jasmine in India.

I am at peace with my Uncle Miguel and his journey. As I am with mine. Butterflies remind me of him.

And there have been a lot of butterflies in my backyard lately.

28 Comments Add yours

  1. Erika says:

    Paul, you look so cute on that picture!

    Now, I haven’t read thoroughly your last two posts, I wanna tell you I have to sit quietly to read you, there are so many valuable content in your posts that I have to soak it all in carefully. But, I read that you were thinking of shutting down your blog?!?!?!?! Please don’t!

    Your uncle seemed to be a wonderful person, and the fact that he didn’t own up to his potential is quite sad but it had to happen to teach you so many things, I think! By analysing and understanding his situation, you have seen how much you resemble him and how much you need to own up to in order to enjoy a beautiful life.
    You truly have a gift, Paul, with people, with blogging, with writing the way you do, with giving advice and connecting. Keep shining and spreading your light.

    Lovely post, as always. Loved the anecdote about the green butterfly, by the way. 🙂

    1. Erika! So nice to see you 🙂

      Thank you for such kind words. Yes, my uncle was a pretty cool guy. It would have been interesting to see what kind of relationship we would have had. I think my kids would have loved him too. He knew how to play the clown, that’s for sure…a balance between his sometimes stoic nature and playfulness.

      And yeah, I am not going anywhere right now 😉

      Blessings

      Paul

  2. Beautiful work, Paul, some of your best. The love and the eventual realizations toward your uncle shone through your words like warm sunbeams.

    Butterflies… Yes, I know exactly what you mean. And butterflies live such short lives after their transformation. But oh the beauty. And oh the work that went in to metamorphosis. And oh the joy they bring to us as messengers. I have a feeling the butterflies would say it was all worth it.

    Absolutely lovely. Christy

    1. I love the imagery of the butterflies going through such work in their metamorphosis. What a killer analogy that. Love it. And you’re right – they truly would say it was worth it – they get to soar where they weren’t able to soar before. Awesome. Thank you for the kind words – seems like we’ve been chatting non stop the last few days…lol. Always a pleasure, Christy. You’re one of my recovery heroes 🙂

      Paul

  3. Lisa Neumann says:

    I appreciate the thought on convergence of spirits. I have a similar “uncle” in my life. Do they find us? Do we find them? Why do we seek? How are we truly related? If we are infinite being what “is” next? Is there a next? What is the message and the meaning of it all?

    I see more and more that my life has very little to do with my dis-ease and much (if not everything) to do with my spiritual awakening.

    For what it’s worth: What is/was failure? The perception that I should have done it differently, better? If I had … life would be better? … I would be better?

    Paul you are in the midst of some crazy healing. I love the parallels and the shift in your perception of the parallels as an adult, who is healing. Thanks for sharing these incredibly deep feelings. For me, this post is the perfect example of what it looks like to watch someone heal.

    1. Hi Lisa,

      You raise important and deep questions there. Stuff that perhaps can’t be answered, but are important in the asking. The opening up of possibilities and shifting perspective, especially when you spoke of failure – what is failure *really*? Who defines it, and what context is it in? Ugh, I need to sit down. Brain hurts, but mind open. Good combo for this sometimes over-thinker.

      Thank you for showing me that there is healing. It’s not always obvious to the person it happening to, but it’s wonderful to hear someone on the outside of things point it out. I never would have seen it. Thank you for your look and take on this…you have deepened it all for me.

      And for that, I will make a detox no-sugar shake in your honour. 🙂

      Blessings,
      Paul

  4. sherryd32148 says:

    What a beautiful, beautiful post. And what a lovely tribute to your uncle. Is it weird that while I feel his (and your) pain I would love to be like him a little bit?

    I think I need to let this settle and then come back a read it again.

    Damn you’re good.

    Sherry

    1. Thank you Sherry for the kindness and generosity of your words. And for the record, I feel the same about your work often…need to revisit sometimes to get it all in 🙂

      Namaste
      Paul

  5. Hi Paul,

    This is a beautiful homage to your uncle, and, really, to your whole family. I could really feel it from all sides: the frustration and heartbreak from your mother, the puzzlement of you and your brother, I can’t even imagine what your aunt felt or went through, and, finally your uncle… the person to whom I could relate most. Even though you never gave any kind of diagnosis, if there even was one, I could still feel his pain, his separate-ness, because I have been there myself.

    Thanks for sharing this bit of your history, every piece of yourself that you reveal makes your message that much stronger!

    1. Funny how we can relate to my uncle there, or anyone like that who has that potential, that break with others, etc. There was no real diagnosis that I know of – he had a sudden heart attack (oh crap, did I not mention that? lol) so he left not knowing it was coming. I suppose it’s like that for many of us, outside of having a long term terminal illness (oh wait, we do…).

      Anyway, thank you Josie. I am glad that you found something to relate to. I wasn’t sure about posting this, as it just seemed like me eulogizing him, but as I thought about it more, I saw that there was a lot of me in him, and that there was something to gain and learn. As we all gain and learn throughout our sober journeys 🙂

      Paul

  6. lifecorked says:

    Beautiful post, Paul. Your uncle has a kind face. Enjoyed reading about him.

    1. Thanks Chenoa. Glad you enjoyed…and yes, he did have a kind face 🙂

      Paul

  7. Mrs D says:

    Yes beautiful post indeed. I love that photo of him with his back all stiff and his hand held clenched in front of him, your mum all cute in her dress and belt, love the light shade hanging above and the crown of your head down below. Great sharing here and so pleased that you are staying with us (and so pleased that I’m not the only sober blogger who has little flip-flops every now and then!). Sending love from New Zealand xxxxx

    1. Yes! I loved that clenched fist thing…always loved that. Never seen anyone doing that in any pic – unique as he was.

      Ha ha – yes, you’re not the only one flip flopping. I teased you about being a drama queen. Guess that makes two of us 🙂

      Love back from Canada.
      Paul

  8. jamilynaz says:

    What an insightful and loving post. I actually got teary-eyed reading it. When I read your writing, it always brings up so much emotion in me. I love the way you identify with your uncle. Honestly, it makes me a bit jealous, as I’ve never been able to find that kind of connection with anyone in my family.
    This is a lovley post. Just beautiful.
    ~Jami

    1. Thanks Jami. You know, that connection with my uncle came long after he passed. I mean, I enjoyed his company, but it’s only upon reflection that I can say that there was something about him that I now see as attractive in the sense of him being comfortable in his own skin. Or at least that is how I perceive it. I just hope that I don’t have to wait until someone else passes before seeing that connection and that I am able to be present in the moment with those who are important in my life.

      Thanks for the kind words. I appreciate it. 🙂

      Paul

  9. Hi Paul, I’ve been offline for a couple of weeks to manage some family issues so it is great to get back to your blog.
    Gosh this brought tears to my eyes. What a beautiful piece of writing and such a wonderful testament to your uncle. I’m so glad you have experienced that depth of love in your family. 🙂

    1. Thank you so much Carolyn for the lovely comments. I very much appreciate it – and means so much coming from you. I too hope that this isn’t the last time I am able to experience depth of love in my family, or in other areas of my life.

      And welcome back – I have missed reading your inspiring, poignant and beautiful words. I am going to be heading over to read your latest. Very excited!

      Blessings,
      Paul

  10. byebyebeer says:

    What a beautiful, touching tribute. Love the second to last paragraph in particular.

    1. Thank you, BBB. Means a lot coming from you.

      Paul

  11. Sober Life says:

    Very touching, Paul. And beautiful. What a journey in life to where you are today, it’s amazing isn’t it? Thank you for sharing! – Maggie

    1. Thank you Maggie. All our journeys are beautiful, no matter what has happened. Any recovery has a unique footprint to it. Thank you for sharing yours as well 🙂

      Paul

  12. Wow. One of the most beautiful things you’ve ever written, dude. And you ain’t no slouch in the beautifulness department. Kicked in my allergies with this one, ya bastard. Good stuff. I won’t get into some of the parallels here. It’ll take an e-mail. But yeah. I get it.
    I’ve been praying a lot to overcome that bubble. Especially after this trip with Lori up north. I saw some friends, but dropped the ball on seeing some others. Didn’t blow them off, but didn’t make that extra effort to see them, and now I feel bad about it. Should’ve turned it over back then. Forgot to. Should have prayed to overcome my self-satisfied torpor. To reach out and make that REAL connection. Ah well. Next time. But remind me, dude. I need to to keep reminding me.
    Oh yeah. You do. Nevermind.
    Thanks.
    Marius

    1. You know Marius, when we comment on each other blogs, we get into what Christy calls our inside language. It’s fun and I always look forward to it. But sometimes a simple thank you does the trick. And in this case, thank you, Mr. G. What you said about what happened on your trip is something I can absolutely relate to, and you’ve reminded me many times to turn it over, turn it over, turn it over. I am glad to see that you are aware of this in your own life as well – shows me that we never stop learning and that for me is vital in my journey. I don’t ever want to feel that I am losing brain cells.

      Thank you, Marius for your kindness.

      Paul

  13. Al K Hall says:

    From what i ‘know’ about you, i have the feeling you share the same inner beauty your Uncle possessed, yet are able to reach out and touch other people with it. Thank you for reaching out to us.

    1. Thank you Al – big hug to ya. Thank YOU for doing the same. We’re all in this together, yeah?

      Paul

  14. Beautiful post, thank you so much for sharing.

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