I first met my Great Uncle Adolph when I was a little boy. He had a collie named Delilah that licked the back of my legs as I wandered through the garden behind his white, wood frame house. Adolph said that Delilah liked the salty taste of my sweat. Flowering bushes and plants grew thickly on either side of a narrow path that meandered in lazy loops across the acre plot. Bumble bees hummed deeply to themselves as they deliberately made their way from blossom to blossom. Yellow and black butterflies flittered about unable to choose which flowers had the sweetest nectar. There was a weathered, five foot high, carved angel that looked like ones I had seen in Woodlawn Cemetery where my family buried my older sister. She had died of pneumonia the winter before.
The marble seraphim rested on a low, concrete plinth amidst three Japanese maples that had been trimmed back and kept short. The gleaming white wings could be seen in the gaps between the overlapping branches, but her face was obscured. When I asked my uncle who was buried there he said, “Nobody. But I can see a few ghosts lingering.” I thought that he was kidding me, but when I looked up at his face there wasn’t a glimmer of humor in the set lines around his mouth.
He took me inside and got me a plate of anise cookies and a cup of milk. The cookies were hard enough to break a tooth, and I had to dip them in the milk to soften them before I could take a bite. They tasted like licorice: bitter first then sweet. We sat at the dark stained, oak table in his dining room, and Uncle Adolph said that he had a secret to tell me when I got older. He had been keeping an eye on me and saw that I was a special boy, a young man of intent serious beyond my years. I had no idea what he was talking about, but was pleased to know that he had singled me out over my younger brother, the boy in the family who everyone liked better than I.
My mother came to pick me up, and as we drove home I asked about Adolph. My mother was silent for a long time, and I noticed that she gripped the steering wheel so hard that the tendons stood out on the back of her hand. Finally she said, “Uncle Adolph is a sad man. He’s had a hard life, and there’s been little good luck for him.” I asked a few more questions, but she changed the subject and then turned on the radio. I overheard her talking to my father later that evening when they thought that I was in bed. She said, “I shouldn’t have let him visit that man, but I felt that I couldn’t say no.” Father said, “What are you all afraid of when it comes to Adolph?” My mother didn’t answer.
I saw Great Uncle Adolph once more at a family reunion when I was fifteen. He sat by himself at the end of a picnic table. My aunts and uncles didn’t seem to notice that he was there, but kept a marked distance between themselves and him. He held a chicken leg up for inspection and seemed to be considering its provenance with philosophical detachment. He barely acknowledged me when I walked up to him to say hello, and I assumed that he had forgotten who I was. But I often caught him staring at me as I messed about with my cousins.
Adolph invited me to visit him when I graduated from college. The note had a friendly, familiar tone and was accompanied by a twenty dollar bill, his graduation present to me. I was surprised to get the invitation. He had gradually cut off ties with all his friends, and only received my mother’s older brother Richard when Richard insisted on inquiring about my great uncle’s health. Adolph lived in the family’s ancestral home on a valuable piece of land. Richard reported back from time to time to the rest of the family that Adolph seemed to be in phenomenally good shape, and that he hardly seemed to age. At the age of seventy-seven he appeared to have barely passed fifty. The news was usually greeted with silence tinged with disappointment. I was mortified by their apparent greed. I didn’t tell anyone about the invitation from Adolph. I feared that Richard would recruit me to spy.
I knocked on the old man’s front door and he ushered me into his living room. There were doilies on the coffee tables, old fashioned, cut-glass ash trays mounted on ornate, metal stands, leather armchairs, and lace curtains pulled shut over all but one of the windows. It took my eyes a while to adjust to the dim light, but when I took a good look at him I was surprised by his youthful appearance. He moved slowly and carefully like an old man, but his face was creased by a few shallow lines and his hair had only a sprinkling of gray.
He poured me a tumbler of whiskey neat and asked if I wanted a cigar. “They go together,” he said. His voice was lower and gruffer than I remembered. He cut the ends off of two long, thick stogies and passed one to me. He struck a match and held it under the end of mine, and told me to turn the cigar as I puffed. I coughed on the second puff, but he didn’t grace me with the patronizing smile I expected. He lit his own cigar and let out a long stream of smoke as he settled back in his chair. I didn’t like the flavor of my cigar—it was too bitter and harsh at first—but as I continued to sip my whiskey and puff on the stogie I felt like I was cushioned within a warm, mellow glow. It was late afternoon and a golden light flooded in from the window at the end of the room. I could see a glimpse of the garden beyond, and was pleased that it was still full of flowers. The room, the light and the garden gave me a feeling that I was seeing a glimpse of eternity.
Uncle Adolph poured me a second tumbler of whiskey and relit my cigar. I had let it go out while I dozed off for a minute or two. I realized that I needed coffee more than another dram, but the whiskey was poured before my thoughts connected with my tongue. “What the hell,” I thought as I raised my glass and drank.
My uncle sat in his chair beside mine and stared out at the garden. I got the impression that we were waiting for something. When it was nearly sunset he motioned for me to follow him outside. We stepped into the garden and the grass was already wet with dew. He led me to the three Japanese maples, and we ducked beneath the low branches and stood before the stone angel. She gleamed in the failing light as if softly lit from within. I studied her face carefully having never seen it before, and I never saw a sadder countenance. I marveled at the ability of the stone carver to capture such depth of grief in the angel’s features, and such compassion and tenderness. The angel appeared to weep for every want, hurt and loss experienced by human kind, and to mourn for me as well. Death had not taken anyone from my immediate family yet, but as I looked at the angel’s face I knew that she was grieving for me too. I was overtaken by an almost intolerable wave of despair.
Adolph put my arm over his shoulder and walked me back to the house. I staggered and nearly fell when we came to a trellis that arched over the path near his back door, but after we passed beneath it I began to feel better again. When we took our chairs in his living room once more he did not turn on a light and we sat in darkness. The cigar smoke hung in a stale, bitter fog, and I suddenly longed to be free of my uncle’s company. He sat opposite me and leaned forward with his elbows on his knees. He seemed to be waiting for me to speak, but I had no idea what he expected me to say. I still felt weak and strangely vulnerable. The anguish that overwhelmed me when we stood before the angel still lingered like a bitter after taste.
Adolph sensed that I was about to leave and chose that moment to begin telling me why he had invited me to visit after twelve years had passed. I tried several times to get up and leave while he spoke, but something in his voice kept me pinned to the seat of my chair.
“Did they tell you that I’m bad luck?”
“No. They say that you had bad luck and a hard life.”
“That’s one way of putting it…Do you know that I’m your mother’s last uncle on the Stauffer side?”
“My brother Norbert died at the Battle of the Bulge. They told us that he froze to death in a foxhole. My younger brother Fred was killed by the Chinese in Korea. They wore tennis shoes and would sneak across the lines at night. They cut his throat.”
“That must have been horrible for your mother.”
“I thought that she would die of grief each time she got the telegram. She collapsed on the porch when she heard about Fred and spent a week in the hospital. But then she got stronger.”
“Grief seemed to make her grow more vital, somehow. It put a bloom in her cheeks after the first shock passed.”
“Grief made her happy? That doesn’t make sense.”
“She wasn’t happy. She was just more alive.”
“I don’t understand.”
He nodded gravely and said, “No, but you will.” I pushed up from my chair–I suddenly felt like a rabbit caught in a snare–but he reached out and grabbed hold of my arm and said, “Don’t go. You can’t run away from this.”
Before I could move or say another word I felt a tiny lurch in my chest, and then my mind flooded with a dreadful black substance, a viscous sludge. It was my first immersion in my uncle’s sorrow. A deep hollow opened up within as if I had been gutted and clumsily sewn back together. Grief trickled from my head down into my emptied chest, and I became a sack of flesh incapable of feeling any other sensation beyond the dull slosh of an unspeakable sadness. I wanted to die. I wanted darkness to overwhelm me and make everything come to an end.
I managed to knock his hand off my arm and staggered back to my chair. I felt warmth and a sense of normalcy slowly displacing the soul killing blackness, but I was too weak to do more than stare at my great uncle. At that point I somehow knew that this evening with him had been inevitable.
Have you ever started to read a book and realized after a few pages that you had read it long ago? If you bother to read on you can predict what will happen next, and familiar story images appear in your mind like forgotten dreams. I saw such images as I sat pathetically weak and quiescent in the darkness of Uncle Adolph’s living room, but the images were of my own life. I could see a progression of events, a chain of cause and effect as my movement from past to present to future was laid out before me. Adolph was right. There was no escape.
He turned on a small lamp on the end table beside him saying, “It’s too dark in here.” Then he gave me a bitter smile and said, “My mother was eighty-nine when she died. She was in perfect health and looked much younger than her age. But her voice sounded tired and faint when she called me and asked me to come for a visit. We had become estranged after Fred’s death. I couldn’t forgive her for the way she drew sustenance from misfortune, for her ability to thrive as everyone she knew grew sick and died. There seemed to be no end to her. But when I found her lying in bed I knew that I was wrong. At first glance she showed no sign of illness or that she had finally conceded defeat to the slow decimations of old age, but her eyes were sunk in gray hollows. When I looked into them I could see that she was already dead in some ways.”
He turned to face me directly and stared into my eyes. I understood what he meant about his mother. No hope, no spark still lived in the man. He swung his gaze away from me when he was satisfied that I knew him.
“She grabbed my arm just like I took yours, and she told me that she had a secret to tell. I didn’t want to hear it, but she wouldn’t spare me. I was the least favorite of her children as I most closely resembled my father. He was a drunk and a wife beater, and when she looked at me she saw the same potential for evil. It didn’t matter that everyone said that I was just like her. She only saw me as a copy of my father. Maybe she needed that form of blindness to make it easier for her to do what she did to me.”
He got up and walked to the door that opened on the garden. He motioned to me to follow him again, and I obeyed him though my feet felt heavy and my body limp. I was his reluctant puppet as he guided me through the garden until we reached the three maples. I could smell the musky scent of flowers, but could not see them in the dim starlight. He pushed some branches aside and made me sit on the damp ground at the base of the angel. I could feel the wetness soaking through my pants. A car turned a nearby corner and I briefly saw Adolph’s bitter smile once more in the passing headlights.
“Do you know that this is my mother’s house? This angel is hers too. When I was a little boy she scraped together enough money to commission it from a local stone cutter. She badgered him until he got it right. She told me that her father had an angel and she needed one too. She wouldn’t say why. She put it in our garden and planned to be buried beneath it when she died, but in 1962 a city ordinance was passed forbidding burial on private property. The angel has stood here for fifty years. I don’t think that it’s been waiting for anyone. It just watches and grieves.”
He clamped his hand on my arm again and I nearly fainted. A strong current of despair and anguish flowed from him to me, and I felt the same sensation that a thick, oily fluid was filling my chest. When it became unbearable he released me and sat down next to me. I tried to shrink away from him, but I was too weak and had to rest my head on the shins of the angel to remain upright. He glanced at me and nodded as if my condition met his expectations, and he plucked a small bottle out of his shirt pocket. He pulled out the stopper with his teeth, spat the cork away and took a swig.
“My mother got up from her bed and led me here. She told me that the angel had sung to her and that it was time. She had a little bottle in her hand, but wouldn’t tell me what was in it. She sat me down here and took a drink. Within minutes she was dead. The death certificate said she had a heart attack, but I knew better. Before she died she told me that she was a Witness, and that that I was one too.”
“Witness?” I managed to gurgle.
“She told me that her father was a Witness, and that our family had it in our bloodline. ‘We are chosen by God,’ she said. I had the signs: I was a serious man, intelligent, a bit detached but still capable of empathy. I had the gift of feeling another person’s thoughts and emotions, and the blessing of not feeling them too much. She had me pegged: I suffered somewhat when others suffered, but wasn’t overcome by pity. As she died she sat down next to me and laid a hand on my arm, and I could feel her power and misery flowing to me. I could feel all her sorrows and the sorrows of others I had never met. I could see death beds, hearses and wakes, battles, disease, poverty and waste. I could see fearful eyes, anxious glances, and troubled faces. I could feel bones breaking and taste bloody vomit. I could feel centuries of heartbreak march like a defeated army across my heart.”
Uncle Adolph sat next to me and leaned against my shoulder. His voice grew softer as he spoke, and at the end he whispered in my ear.
“Now you’re a Witness. I have no right, any more than my mother did, to do this to you, but I can’t bear to live any more. I don’t have any choice.”
I tried to push him away, but he seized my arm and I couldn’t break free. His grip weakened me and I surrendered to the inevitable. He was still for a long time and I hoped for a moment that he had died and I would be released, but he raised his head and pressed his lips to my ear. When the memory of that night comes back to me I can still hear the hiss of his voice.
“You’ll see their sorrow and it will be yours; you’ll feel their pain and it will cut you too; you’ll wither when they grieve. But in the end it will make you stronger. You can live forever, if you want to, but you’ll have to choose to bear up under the burden. With every year it will grow heavier and heavier, but you’ll just go on living with the weight pressing down harder. I tried to avoid it by shutting myself away in this house. I thought that if I removed myself from all human contact I could shield myself from misery. But the sorrow seeped in through the walls. It wouldn’t let me alone.”
He released me from his grip and I fell on the ground. I tried to crawl away from him, but some force of morbid attraction drew me back. I sat down beside him and listened. I couldn’t help it.
“There’ll come a time when you’ll feel full to bursting with it, but then you’ll stretch and grow. Your capacity to suffer will expand and then you’ll feel even more alive. The pain will see to that. It owns you. You become it. The moments when a little happiness comes your way will feel strange…”
He paused to catch his breath. He had begun to wheeze.
“There’s no escape unless you pass the gift on to another Witness. You’ll know when it’s time. The angel will tell you. When you hear her sing it means that you can die.”
His head nodded on his chest and he fell over on his side. I heard a murmuring sound like water gently passing over a shoal. It came from above me and when I listened carefully I heard a beautiful voice singing a dirge. And then I felt a sudden surge of energy run from the top of my head down to the base of my spine, and my every nerve tingled with fresh vitality and abundant life. I knew that he was dead.
I took the bottle from his fingers and placed in my pants pocket. When I called an ambulance I told them that Adolph had a heart attack and that he was unresponsive. I told them to hurry.
Sirens wailed and lights flashed out front. I led a paramedic up the garden path to my fallen uncle and knelt nearby as she checked for his pulse. She was anxious to help him, and felt discouraged when it became apparent that she had failed. It was the second time that day that someone had died under her care. A police officer came and took a statement from me, and as he wrote I knew that he had shot an unarmed man two months before. The derelict had suddenly raised his hand and the cop saw a gun that wasn’t there. It had all been covered up, but he still felt haunted by what he had done. And then I saw the derelict standing in the garden by the angel. He fingered the hole in his chest. I knew that he had abandoned his wife and daughter when drugs and liquor consumed him, and he regretted that he had not done more to take care of them. And then I saw his little girl standing by his grave in a cemetery across town. She grew from a seven year old to an adult in seconds, and now was a twenty year old woman wearing black. She dropped a small bouquet of wild flowers on his grave but felt nearly nothing for him. And yet she was burdened by guilt for the shallowness of her grief because she remembered a sunny day at a park when her father pushed her on the swings, bought her an ice cream cone and told her she was pretty.
Richard was angry when he found out that Adolph bequeathed the house and property to me, and grew irate at the reading of the will when the lawyer revealed that I had also inherited a large sum of money. My mother cried when I moved in, and her tears added to the burden that I already felt. I took in stray dogs until I found one that felt comfortable with my company. The others ran away after a few days.
I spend my time gardening and reading trashy novels with plots so unbelievable and characters so shallow that I can remain emotionally detached. I have all the emotion I can handle and try not to volunteer for more.
The angel hasn’t sung to me yet, and I have a feeling that I have a long way to go. I swear that its face gets sadder by the day. It gets very lonely for me at times, but I prefer that form of suffering to the intensity of the pain I feel when I let anyone get close to me. The exception is my little sister’s youngest child, Alice. Whenever she visits her sweetness brightens my day. As I watch her pet my dog and scratch his ears I feel some of the weight lift off of my shoulders.
Alice doesn’t frighten me, but some find her unsettling. She can look right through you and see into your soul. It’s like she knows you better than you know yourself. Her father, a superstitious fool and a man of narrow understanding doesn’t like her all that much. He neglects her. I feel that it is my responsibility to show her some attention if her father won’t. I let her pick flowers from my garden, and if she’s a good, I give her anise cookies and a glass of milk.