My uncle Bob died a few days before Christmas. I got my height from the same place he did. He was 6'7" and for most of his life well north of twenty stone. He reminded me of the joke about Friar Tuck. ‘Don’t worry, he’s one of us,’ somebody tells Robin Hood, and Robin says: ‘One of us? He looks like three of us.’ In most of Bellow's novels there is a Bellow stand-in, sensitive, successful in his way, but a little dreamy also, unwilling to acknowledge worldly realities, and his big brother, who is bigger physically, too, big-hearted, unpredictable, but greatly loving – he tries to make the Bellow figure face the world.
In Humboldt’s Gift, Charlie Citrine visits one of these brothers who's about to have bypass surgery, and on the eve of the operation drives around with him and his associates to examine a real estate deal, building luxury hotels on Texas swampland. Along the way they stop by the side of the road to pick up some smoked fish, and he eats all the marlin himself, in fatty strips, his appetite for life undiminished by any anxiety about what’s going to happen to him tomorrow. He didn’t seem made-up to me; he was my uncle.
When my wife first met him in New York, Bob told us how to spot a mafia restaurant. By the linens. Look for extra napkins and the tablecloths in the back, stacks of them under the counter. These places literally launder money; I don’t remember how it worked.
He was also a prize-winning philatelist, his enormous hands could stretch two octaves on the piano, and he played beautifully. He owned a winery in upstate New York, and seemed to me, in a way my father never did, a direct descendant of the Jews – my great-uncles and distant cousins – who came from Hungary with nothing much and started a chain of grocery stores in Manhattan and across the state. Late in life, he bought a house in Wasp countryside and dealt in antiques and knew the police chief personally and developed intelligent insider opinions on local politics. Ten years ago he was diagnosed with Inclusion Body Myositis (IBM), a muscle-wasting disease, which gradually and not so gradually robbed him of any control of his motor functions, so that he was confined to a wheelchair.
Another small memory: walking through Manhattan with Bob and my dad, on the way to the 2nd Avenue Deli. We passed a basketball court, between two houses, just a patch of asphalt and a rim, where kids were playing. My uncle asked me if I could dunk, so I borrowed a ball from the kids. I was wearing jeans and ordinary shoes, but I had college-age legs, and showed him. Bob took a special Jewish pride in seeing this.
The last time I saw him was in May this year in New Haven, where my brother and sister live. I was sent out to pick up the sandwiches for lunch. At the check-out line, a woman came up to me and said: 'I think there’s been an accident.' I ran back to my sister’s house and found an ambulance in the street, with its lights flashing, and the paramedics, big as rugby players, gathered round my uncle, whose wheelchair had tipped over backwards coming out of the specially fitted minivan he drove around in. Bob was lying on his back, stuck in the gravitational pull of his own flesh, like a beached fish, his face dusted with ashes, it seemed, but he gave us all a characteristic look. Well, here we all are. Nice to see you.
It took four men to muscle him back into his chair and then we had lunch. Under wisteria in the garden, a beautiful New England mild summer day. We couldn’t lift him up the steps into the house so he stayed there all afternoon. People took it in turns to sit and talk with him. Supper was at my brother’s place, but the access was difficult. There was a narrow steep walkway along the edge of the drive, with a rickety metal railing along the side. Bob’s wheelchair would fit with maybe an inch to spare, and the ground fell away four or five feet at the top of the path. So my brother and I each took a handle and pushed, sweating and straining, teetering on the edge, while my uncle wobbled and rolled in his mechanical chair. Two inheritors of the big-man Markovits genes (I'm 6'6", my brother is 6'4"), pushing another one up a hill together. I don’t know if it was worth the risk or not, just to have one more meal together and a change of scene, but we didn’t have to ask ourselves that question in the end, because we made it OK. My dad brought in Thai food and we sat in another garden, on the same mild summer’s day, eating and talking.