My great-uncle died this morning. It wasn't unexpected; he was past ninety and his health had been in decline for some time, really since his wife entered a hospice when her Alzheimer's symptoms became unmanageable several years ago.
He lived halfway across the country and I only met him a handful of times, but my impression was of a massive man capable of surprising tenderness, who had a fondness for children. One of my earliest memories is sitting on his lap listening to the talk of my relatives as they related well-worn stories and roared with laughter at the youthful antics of people I would never meet.
What is interesting is that this impression is completely different from the one my father, aunts and uncle have of him. They grew up terrified of him—he was harsh, aggressive figure in their childhoods. Cruel. Mean. To them and to his own children. Could time have changed him so much? Or are my memories just snapshots of him on his best behavior?
His wife is my grandfather's elder sister—a larger than life character in her heyday, really even in her decline. Her wicked sense of humor, a harsher version of the teasing I associate with my grandfather, was legendary. I remember the last time they came out to my grandparents' for a visit, a few months after her diagnosis—my great-uncle was beside himself with silent appreciation when we all ignored her lapses, her disjointed statements and generally treated her like she was still alive, and still herself. It wasn't difficult; she was still a firecracker, teasing her little brother in a way no one else dared. My great-uncle seized both my mother and me in bear hugs when we got up to leave.
I doubt my father's, aunts' and uncle's sense of their uncle was inaccurate—they were afraid of him, and it wasn't because of a contrast in their day-to-day experiences with their own father. My grandfather has never been a gentle man. His teasing isn't always nice, and he's had little patience for the errors of childhood. If he didn't understand something he could (and does) become belligerent. He was demanding of his wife, and an inattentive, harsh father.
But my great-aunt and uncle lost a daughter to brain cancer some time before my great-aunt first showed signs of Alzheimer's disease. They watched their daughter die, as her body and mind gave out, and helped raise her children. I've wondered if the loss of one of his children and my great-aunt's illness is what caused this shift in his behavior. I can't imagine watching a woman so full of life (abrasive as she could be), his partner for more than fifty years fade away, a few years after watching your daughter do the same in the prime of life. It's been years since she recognized anyone or could feed herself.
Do people really change? I find myself hoping my great-uncle had indeed changed his stripes, that what I witnessed was his normal in his end days. I gather there was some grief between him and at least one of his children, and I hope there was some closure for them before he died. I hope my great-uncle made amends and found forgiveness for his trespasses, and forgave those who needed his pardon. I suppose we can’t ask for much more at the end of our days.