L a - b e a u t é - s a u v e r a - l e - m o n d e ~ D o s t o ï e v s k i

L a - b e a u t é - s a u v e r a - l e - m o n d e  ~  D o s t o ï e v s k i

Thursday, April 7, 2011


My uncle Hugh died this morning. My father was the eldest of the four boys. Hugh was the youngest; his brothers always called him "Baby Hughie". He was a talented baseball player in his youth, and played professionally for a time. But for almost his entire adult life he suffered from untreated mental illness. I don't know if he was ever actually diagnosed, but he was almost certainly schizophrenic. His particular "mania" was a far-beyond-conservative Catholicism. He was always quiet, self-effacing but engaged within the family group. For years he picketed outside the "abortion clinic" at NW 24th and Lovejoy. It appears he did that quietly as well. At least he never got into any trouble that I know of. And because he didn't cause any actual trouble - to himself or others - there was nothing the family could do to get him help; you actually have to make some sort of disturbance or endangerment in order for the authorities to intervene. No one in the family had been able to get him to seek help, himself.

A college graduate, for years he worked at menial jobs - I think he was a dishwasher at Good Samaritan for a long time - but, as I understand it, he would make people uncomfortable with his talk about religion, and had difficulty keeping a job. I believe that for the last several years he wasn't working; his brothers helped him out financially, and I think he may have been getting disability. Sometimes he would show up at family events, other times not. His clothes were always pretty ragged. And we were disturbed by how unhealthy he looked. I have no idea how he spent his days.

I never knew Hugh, really. While I was growing up, we only rarely lived near the rest of our extended family. And when I finally moved back to Portland, he was too far lost to his illness. I hadn't felt any real connection to him, so I didn't make any effort to get to know him better and maybe involve myself with his life or problems. Honestly, no one in my immediate family got very involved with the situation. We left it to his brothers - including my dad, before his death - to worry about.

My mom called on Monday evening to tell me that she'd just found out that Hugh was in the hospital and wasn't expected to live much longer. It seems he'd had untreated prostate cancer for years, and it had spread throughout his body. She went to visit yesterday and told me today that he'd been just barely still hanging on, so she wasn't surprised to hear, this morning, that he'd died. I want to say that he lived a sad, wasted life, and that's it's some sort of blessing that he's at peace now, but what do I really know about it? I think he probably wasn't happy, but what would he have said? It's not my question to answer. But I can say that the way he left his life helps deepen my perspective on the way his big brother did so.

Ever since my father's death, all of us in my immediate family have agreed that the way he died - instantly, unexpectedly, with none of us there - was the way he would have chosen. That he wouldn't have been able to bear being sick and incapacitated, and - as he would have seen it - a burden on any of us. And it would have been horrible for us to see him suffering that way. If we, in any way, choose an accidental death, he chose his. He was happy, having a fun bike ride with his friends, and then he was gone. As hard as the loss has been, knowing that has been a big comfort to us all.

Seeing Hugh after my father's death was difficult for me and, especially, my mom. Because Hugh looked so much like my dad. To see him ravaged the way he was was really disturbing; it was like seeing my father that way, too. When my mother saw Hugh at the hospital yesterday, she was really struck by the resemblance again. She said it was like she watching my dad dying. And she said to me over the phone today that it made her so grateful that my dad never had to go through that, was spared the indignity of it. That since he had to die - and we agreed that we're all headed there, sooner than we'd like - she was actually glad that it happened as it did.

There was a lightness in her voice, talking about it, that was different from what it's been in the almost four years since my dad's been gone. She seemed so much more sure of the unexpected rightness of this thing that has utterly changed her life and caused her such pain, seemed so much more healed. In my way, I feel the same. I'm my father's son, not his wife, so it's a very different map of progress. And as time goes on, I miss him more, not less. But I'm still surer of the blessing of the way he died. And I want to thank my uncle Hugh for helping us to be sure.


  1. what a lovely tribute to both of them. and to your mom too.

  2. Thanks Stephen. I have a brother living with schizophrenia, so this has special meaning and reminds me how grateful I am, for so much... Phil

  3. Phil, yes, I remember that. Such a hard situation. But so great that you're able to find gratitude within that situation. Some kind of grace.

    Thanks, Phil.

  4. Stephen..I just now heard of your uncle's death..what a lovely tribute....