Like most men who entered this vocation during Hungary's communist times, my uncle worked hard and lived harder. He smoked two-to-three packs of cigarettes and drank about eight-to-ten bottles of beer every day for each of those fifty years he poured into constructing buildings and houses. Despite his vices, he was a tough, wiry man and could work from sunrise to well after sunset in every imaginable type of weather without so much as a word of complaint about the work.
Though he complained little about work, he enjoyed griping about pretty much everything else - nitwit politicians, greedy bankers, ungrateful relatives, dishonest lawyers, and the predatory economy were among his favorite grievances. Of course, he was not without his own faults, which ran as old and deep as the horizontal wrinkles lining his brow.
For one, he could be incredibly pigheaded and belligerent, and he would often argue simply for the sake of arguing. When he sensed he was losing an argument, he quickly dug a trench and was happy to enter into a seemingly endless war of attrition rather than simply admit he might be wrong. He could also be extremely tightfisted and mean, so much so that he often chose to eat the cheapest possible food he could find rather than spend his hard-earned money on something tasty and nourishing. Naturally, he was less miserly with money when it came to his cigarettes and beer, but even there he often chose the cheapest brands or would stock up if he noticed a superior brand on sale.
Some of his other faults were more trivial in nature - sometimes humorously so. For example, he claimed to have a severe allergy to dairy products and would refuse to eat from a jar of jam he suspected might have been tainted by a buttered knife. He was averse to mayonnaise simply because it was white like milk. At the same time, he had no problem consuming ice cream sundaes topped with whipped cream or birthday cakes with rich butter icing.
My uncle married young and had two sons, but his hard and heavy life eventually wore away his wife's nerves. He certainly was not a physically abusive man, and he loved his family, but the gruelling labor coupled with the perpetual call of the bar after work meant he sometimes did not go home for two or three days at a stretch, even when he was working in his own town. Not surprisingly the marriage did not last, and my uncle's wife eventually threw him out.
He went on to buy a lot on the outskirts of Budapest and began building a house for himself. He moved into the house when it was half-finished, but for the next thirty years his house remained a perpetual work in progress. As time passed, the surrounding neighborhood became extremely desirable and slowly filled with new, stylish, modern mansions complete with towering panes of glass and lush green lawns. In this mosaic of new wealth, my uncle's unplastered, half-finished house stood out like a canker sore. To worsen matters, he got into the habit of collecting stray dogs. At last count he had seven of them in the yard, each one dirtier and mangier than the one before.
I imagine he brought the dogs home for company. Though he had friends and workmates, my uncle likely spent much of his time away from work alone. Perhaps the dogs gave him something to come home to. Or perhaps he pitied them because they were outcasts. He too was something of an outcast, but as far as I know, no one ever pitied him for this. On the contrary, his chosen derelict lifestyle inspired mostly scorn and criticism from the rest of the extended family. All the same, it would be too much to say no one cared about him. He had a knack for annoying everyone, but no one in the family would ever admit to not loving him.
My uncle, in turn, was capable of a great deal of love in his own gruff and awkward way. He would always bring children chocolates and little toys when he paid visits to relatives. Whenever a family member needed help with construction or repairs, he was there to answer the call. He helped me with my own house after I purchased it. On one particular job he spent more than a week on his knees tiling the floor while I ran back and forth cutting the proper measurements and mixing adhesive.
When he came to help me, he stayed at the house, sometimes for a month at a time. Though he occasionally aggravated me beyond description, I was grateful for these times. Not just for the work the man provided, but for my chance to know him a little better. I enjoyed sitting with him after a hard day's work, listening to him gripe about politicians as he methodically rolled the fifty or sixty cigarettes he would need to get him through the next day's work. Though he rarely revealed anything about his own history or his personal life, the hardness and heaviness of it all was apparent in his demeanor. Despite this, he at times possessed a charmingly childish sense of humor and could find amusement in the most crude and inane topics.
Although I have spoken of my uncle in the past tense in this piece, he is still alive, albeit barely. Earlier this week he did something he had rarely done in his life - he visited a doctor. The next day my wife happened to call him about an unrelated matter. Over the phone's speaker, I listened to him confess that he was not well; his voice was laced with the silent thunder of pain. He informed us he was in a hopelessly bad state and quickly shook us off. The next day he checked himself into a clinic, but the clinic informed us there was not much it could do to help him other than ease his suffering.
My uncle, in his stubborn stoicism, has been dying on his feet for the better part of a year and is now likely on his last days. He has chosen to die much the same way he lived. Hard and heavy. As much as I hate to admit it, I find some nobility in that.
I have not visited my uncle yet. The clinic is a two-hour drive from my village, but this is not what has prevented me from going. As much as I want to see the man, I am unsure he wants to see me. More correctly, I am not sure he wants me to see him in the state he is in. Other family members have informed me he is now merely a shadow of the man he used to be. My extended family has also told me my uncle essentially grunts at their presence when they visit him, and after a few minutes, he politely asks them to leave.
Nevertheless, I know I must I go. I hope there is still time to see him and speak to him before the hardness and the heaviness that have marked his life finally come crushing down upon him. I pray he leaves the burden behind when it does come down, and I hope he searches instead for some lightness and sweetness, the kind of lightness and sweetness that was perpetually beyond his reach during his hard and heavy life.