Wednesday, September 06, 2006

How A Polar Bear Came to Believe In Heaven

It's all because of my Uncle Joey.

Uncle Joey (really a rather distant cousin) was a strawboss at a shade tobacco farm, a tough guy in lots of ways. He and his wife, Mary, had never had children; and he and I seemed to form a special bond.

For one thing, I loved his green pick-up truck. It was just so fabulously different from my family's car. On Christmas Eve back in the 1950's, one year in small-town Massachusetts where I was born, Uncle Joey suggested that his wife, his four sisters, my Mom and I all get in the back of his truck and go Christmas caroling. He had piled in some haybales for us to sit on, and had a stack of blankets for us to bundle up with. It was snowing softly.

Off we went to the houses in the Polish neighborhoods. We'd all sing our favorite Polish carols and people would come to their windows and doors and sing with us. It was a magical night.

When we got back to his mother's house (my great-aunt) I was covered with snow, and he called me "his polar bear". I was about 5 and giggled enormously, saying the *he* was the polar bear. Finally we decided that we both were polar bears, and even signed our greeting cards "Polar Bear" for the rest of his life, long into my adulthood.

Joey was a former MP in the Army in WWII. But what was his favorite hobby? He hand-cultivated gladiola plants, and developed his own hybrids. Gladioli were his passion, and he had years worth of painstakingly ledgered references to what strain he had cross-pollinated with what other and the resultant bloom colors. Glad season was always dazzling at his house -- and for the few short weeks they blossomed, it was breath-taking.

Fast forward to me at age 40. I am at work in NY. My mother calls from Massachusetts to say that Joey is on his deathbed, having taken suddenly quite ill. He has hours to live.

I drive 4 hours through blinding rain, but before I do I tell my mother to find glads and to bring them to his room -- "Tell him that Polar Bear is coming." I say.

I fly through the hospital lobby and race to Intensive Care. My mother, bless her, has convinced them to allow flowers in an Intensive Care room - usually a no-no, on the grounds that there was no more damage left to do.

He was a shell of the man I had known, weak beyond imagining, an oxygen mask over his mouth. But he knew me. I hugged and kissed him, quietly crying, and he patted my hand, and said my name. I told him I loved him. He squeezed my hand.

The nurse comes in, looks at the monitors, and tells us he is at the edge -- to say our last words...we hold his hands and his feet (depending on where we are standing/sitting) ..we tell him it is OK to go..that we love him..I tell him I will always be his polar bear and he mine...

The nurse asked me what I said. I repeat it --- "Polar Bear?" she asked. "YOU are Polar Bear? He kept talking about 'Polar Bear' -- 'Polar Bear' is coming. He kept saying that. We thought he was hallucinating!" She tells me that he clearly waited for me.

She encourages us to "talk him across from this life to the next". We do, and my Uncle Joey passes gently across that holy line between one life and the next, encouraged and emboldened by the love of his family. I look at his body and know that what was once my Uncle Joey is now gone.

But this is just the beginning of the story.

That evening I cannot sleep. I am in that wakeful-semi-dream-not-asleep-not -awake state when I see Joey in front of me, surrounded by clouds. He is wearing his old farm work clothes, including his old shapeless hat. He is smiling. He tells me that he is stopping by so that I can tell his sisters and my mom not to worry. He says (in words so perfectly his own) that "Heaven is really the greatest. You know what it's like? It's like playing hookey and not ever getting caught!"

We talked for a while (about family things) and then he started to say good-bye, but he stopped and said - "Isn't it beautiful here?" as he gestured behind him at the clouds. "Oh yes, " I said-- "those clouds -- they are magnificent!"

He got a huge grin on his face and said with his old teasing tone -- "That just shows how much you know, kiddo! Those aren't clouds."

He just smiles for a while. I feel bathed in the love of his smile.

Then he says, as he turns and walks off into them -- "They're Polar Bears!"

Then he is gone.

See it how you will -- a dream , an hallucination, a visit from a beloved uncle who didn't want anyone to worry about him.

From that moment I knew with certainty that Life After This Life was an absolute truth. Thanks to my beloved Uncle Joey.


Anonymous Evelyn said...

I am truly touched by this story on so many levels. I've been reminded many times lately that it's not WHAT you have that's important in life --- it's WHO you have in your life.

I've always loved looking at clouds. Now I'll think of two very special polar bears whenever I see pretty white puffy clouds!

11:19 PM  
Blogger samtzmom said...

Just almost made me cry Mata... very sweet indeed. Uncle Joey sounded like a really neat fellow. Can't wait to meet him someday.

10:34 PM  
Blogger beth said...

I really love this story. What a precious gift.

11:08 PM  
Blogger Andy said...

Wow. That's a really great story.

3:34 AM  

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