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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.