I’m terrible about keeping in touch with people. If you’re not on Facebook, and, hell, even if you are on Facebook, you’re not going to hear much from me. I say this because it’s been years and years since I’ve talked to my uncle Larry, and now he’s gone.
For about a half-decade he was the most important man in my life. I was living alone in New York, and the holidays struck violently as they always struck, but Uncle Larry always threw a holiday party for his extended family the weekend before Christmas, and I was always invited. Even when it wasn’t Christmas, I visited him and his mother and father, living together in a tiny house in Linden, New Jersey, quite frequently, and, even though he had a plethora of kids of his own, he treated me like a son. This had been going on a while. When I was just learning language far too long ago, he and his wife, my late aunt Christine, would call me “Jeremiah James Murphy Dukes,” to which I’d reply, emphatically, “No Dukes! No Dukes!” This continued well into my adulthood.
Larry Dukes was a kind, generous man who believed in the power of family, and he didn’t define family as rigorously as some might. He let people in constantly, even when those around him were skeptical. I’d tell you some of these amazing stories and how much brighter everybody’s life was because of his openness, but they’re not my stories to tell.
I’m trying to think of more examples of what an incredible man my uncle was, but all I’m doing is choking up. Most of what I remember about him can be distilled into feelings—feelings of safety and joy and warmth, a feeling like I belonged (something especially precious when you’re living in a city that wants you to feel alone). I can’t describe how happy I was spending time in his house on Ainsworth Street.
He’s had a lot of hardship in his life, which he endured alone because he never wanted to be a burden on others, like the idiot he was. But now I like to think that he’s finally resting. If Uncle Larry is reading Facebook in heaven (he never did on Earth, though, so why should that change?), I hope can see how much I love him.
Post Script: A memory of Uncle Larry that sticks with me occurred at his father’s funeral. We were following the casket out of the church, and I found myself walking alongside him. I wanted to tell him how sorry I was—John Beck was also an incredible man—both for his loss and for all the loss he’d suffered in recent years. I wanted to tell him that I loved him, and I supported him, and I would do anything he needed. I wanted to tell him just how important he was to me. But there were no words that this writer could think of that would efficiently communicate that, and besides, this was a quiet time. So I put my hand on his shoulder and looked him in the eye. He nodded. We’d said everything that needed to be said. I’ve been touched by that head nod for almost two decades.