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By Lisa Bergson My family has a merit system codified by my Aunt Rita and exemplified by my Uncle Abe and some of his offspring. It is not based on ethics or money, although each has its place. Rather, it pertains to attendance at certain schools. (Ivy League is good. Harvard is best.)
Beyond that, success derives from accomplishment and professional acclaim. With a Ph.D from Harvard, where he later spent his career as an esteemed academician, my uncle is the family icon. He enjoys a solid reputation, close personal ties to the world's leading economists, and the respect of generations of students. Now he's dying.
My husband and I fly up from Philadelphia to visit him at the quiet, pristine Youville Hospital in Cambridge. Sitting tall, with strong features and blazing dark eyes as he approaches 90, Uncle Abe is loosely strapped into a wheelchair. His mind is with us and not. Here at her post, my Aunt Rita, a small, bustling copper-haired woman, continues to burnish the image. "Hello, Lisa," he says, in a patrician voice that reminds me of my father. At least he recognizes me.
Uncle Abe and I have never been close. At my wedding a decade ago, I was shocked and deeply moved when he leapt up to dance in place of my long deceased father. Thereafter, he retreated into what my husband calls "impenetrableness", with only the most fleeting and thus all the more tantalizing glimpses of affection. Today, I'm primed with low expectations, figuring he's too out of it for any sort of bonding.
GROWING SILENCE. Uncle Abe has stopped wearing his hearing aid and can barely discern our voices. "Paul," he calls, addressing an invisible figure. "Come and help me out of this chariot, please."
"Paul's not here, dear," my aunt informs him, referring to their grandson, a highly regarded author. "He's lecturing at Stanford and Yale, and working on a new book."
"Paul," my uncle turns away, speaking into the void. "Paul, we need to leave now. There's a long trip ahead."
My aunt tries a different Paul, this one a Nobel prizewinner: "Paul would like to visit you, dear, but he's down at their winter home in Florida."
Summoning his strength, my uncle tries a different tack: "It's uncomfortable sitting here for days on end. My bottom is hot and sticky." This blunt disclosure sends my husband scurrying for the nurse, who arrives with a small crew and a giant metal gurney with big hooks to transport my uncle. The nurse shoos us from the room lest we disturb this delicate maneuver.
"How much time is in a while?" Uncle Abe asks no one in particular when we return to find him in bed, with a tray of food he ignores. ("Nature has its ways," he confides when I try to spoon-feed him the way I did my father.)
"For anyone who's interested, at least ten minutes have passed since we started," Uncle Abe holds forth. "It's time we left for the house. Come along, Jerry and Lisa, be our guests."
A LAST REQUEST. My husband signals that we need to leave for the airport, and I approach Uncle Abe on one side of the bed. Aunt Rita stands opposite. "He could use another sweater," she says. I notice the food stains on his beige cardigan. "I have another one at the house. But it has moth holes. It's supposed to be mothproof. But, I don't know if I should buy one now." She pauses for effect. The dreadful words hang unspoken: Who knows how long he will be around to wear it? What a waste. (My aunt is very frugal.)
"I'll buy him one. It will be his birthday soon," I respond, as if on cue. "What color would he like? Another navy?"
"That would be nice," she chirps, beaming across the bed. "It has to be wool. Medium."
"Is it time to go?" Uncle Abe interrupts. "Perhaps Jerry and Lisa would like to come over to the house."
"Jerry and I are going to scout ahead," I tell him. "It's a long journey, you know."
Suddenly, he clutches my forearm with both hands, holding tight. He looks me in the eyes and I feel the powerful blood connection between us. "Pink," he implores in a weak, but clear voice. "Pink," he repeats for emphasis.
"I love you, Uncle Abe," I say and kiss his cheek.
My husband and I hold hands as our taxi crosses the Charles River, its scullers rowing in the sun. We agree that, in his decline, Uncle Abe's priorities have shifted. "Pink wool might be hard to find," Jerry muses. "We'll go on the Web and look at J.Crew and Brooks Brothers." There is a need for comfort, a desire for color.
Epilogue: Uncle Abe died ten days later, on April 23rd, before we could locate a pink wool cardigan. Lisa Bergson is President and CEO of both MEECO and Tiger Optics. Before joining MEECO in 1983, Lisa Bergson worked as a business journalist at BusinessWeek and freelanced for many business publications. You can visit her companies' Web sites at www.meeco.com and www.tigeroptics.com, or contact her at email@example.com