November 2009

"I'll be home for Christmas."

(excerpt from WAKE


I’d heard stories about his singing and his age, his energy, and his seeming refusal to die. I’d even heard his CD, it’s beautiful. Pretty poorly recorded songs and hymns from 90 year old vocal chords. He sang like he could die during the song, in a good way like he was giving that song everything he could. I listened to the CD probably twenty times or more when my Mom had first given it to me. I was fascinated by his life. His ‘Ave Maria’ was my favorite.

We got to Richie’s place around 4 p.m., it was raining out. 

“Hey Matt, I want you to meet my Uncle Joe,” Richie said as he pulled me over to the very old man sitting on the couch. 

Joe was 91 now, soon to be 92. He sat and looked miniature on Richie’s couch, he was wearing crooked glasses and two zipped up sweaters , he still looked cold. He had some hair, and what there was of it was sticking up in random directions. It looked as if he had one tooth on his bottom set of gums and none on the top. 

“I’m Joe, sit down.” 

We sat as Richie talked for Joe and my Mom talked for me. After their conversation for us turned into one of their own, Joe turned to me. “Oh, I just get so cold these days,” his tongue took care of getting his one tooth back to its position. “These things go numb on me,” he whispered and held my hands to show how cold his were. He laughed, “The doctor said there’s not too much circulation down there either,” he poitned to his toes and I felt sad from looking at his shoes. I don’t know what it is about elders and shoes, but it just makes me feel sad when I look at them.

“Hey Uncle Joe, I gotchya roast beef,” Richie yelled from the kitchen. 

I wondered how Joe was going to eat any food with what seemed to be one tooth, but he managed it just fine. My Mom leaned closer to me as she poured a bunch of salad on my plate and then asked me if I wanted some. I said sure. I tried passing some to Joe but he shook his head, hands, and beef in disgust. 

“Uncle Joe hates strawberries,” Richie explained. 

“Yeah, I hate strawberries,” Joe mumbled through his beef. 

My Mom told me later that Joe actually loves strawberries but he’s allergic to them and his age has made his reaction to them more severe. Food remained around his mouth after he was finished eating; that also made me feel sad. 

I asked him if I could photograph him. 

“For my Christmas Album? Yeah, of course.” 

My Mom and Richie had already told him that I would probably ask to photograph him and Joe took the opportunity for an album portrait. I explained to him that it was too dark inside and that we’d have to go out. 

“Alright, I’ll get my cap and jacket. I’m okay with looking like a gangster on my Christmas Album,” he said as he raised a plaid fedora over the few hairs on his head. 

“You need some help?” he asked as I gathered my things, “Come on, let me carry the heaviest thing.” 

My Mom walked Uncle Joe down the steps and retreated back in the house and out of the rain. I set up my camera quickly and he asked me what he should do. I told him he was fine how he was. 

“Can I sing?” he asked me. 

“Sure,” I said, “sing whatever you want to.” 

“I think I’ll sing I’ll Be Home for Christmas.”

He sang as I photographed. Some people walked and drove by, slowing down at the sight and moving on. We didn’t let it bother us. “That’s it,” I said to him, “we’re done.” 

“Done? Man, you’re faster than the last guy, I’ll tell ya,” he started fishing through his wallet for something while I packed up. The rain was beginning to pick up. 

“Here,” his cold, wet, shaky hands tried to give me eight crinkled singles and I refused. He persisted three more times and I took it because he seemed to be getting angry and I wanted to get Uncle Joe out of the rain. 

“It’s the least I can do,” he said as water dripped from his fedora, “I paid the last guy so I gotta pay you too.” 

I said thank you.

When we got back inside, he took off his coat and I hung it for him. I fake-went to the bathroom so I could stash the eight dollars in his coat pocket before we left. 

“Time to go!” my Mom said. “Joe, do you want a ride?”

“Naw, I’ll take a bus.”

My Mom forced him to come and we drove together to Joe’s place. The windshield wipers and warmer-than-usual temperature of the car  put me to sleep while Joe energetically told stories to my Mom. I woke up to a “Hey! What’s this?!” and a ball of dollar bills tossed at my unconscious face.

“Caught you red-handed,” Joe announced to the car, “don’t you think you can get away with that kinda stuff. Not with me.”

We both laughed a few times as we rolled up to his place. My Mom helped him out of the car and his cold hand shook mine goodbye, I thanked him. He shuffled to his door and I felt sad when I saw a stain from the food we ate behind his calf on his right pant leg. I asked my Mom if Joe was actually going to use my picture for his Christmas album. 

“Oh, I don’t know hon’,” she sounded sad too, “Uncle Joe’s real sick.”

He didn’t seem sick to me; he made me feel older than him, in a way. He had so much more energy than I did, he seemed more awake or more aware. Joe never did end up using my photograph, nor did he record a Christmas Album. I’ll Be Home for Christmas would be the last song I’d hear him sing. We got lunch a few weeks later and I gave him the photograph framed and matted. We hung the print together in the center of his living room among the hundreds of pictures of the friends and relatives that he’d accumulated over his 9 decades of life. Joe would die one week later. 

2009, Chicago, WAKEMatt Austin