When I was a young girl visiting my Grandma, the mysterious Uncle Jay was always there. A grown man in his thirties was like a teenaged boy who hides in his bedroom, rarely making an appearance.
After my Grandma passed, Uncle Jay settled not far from where I live, but other than Christmas cards, we didn’t keep in touch. He only talked to his sister, Aunt Mari, at a scheduled time every Sunday.
During a Sunday morning chat Aunt Mari discovered that Uncle Jay wasn’t feeling well. He refused all visits and turned down offers of help. Now in his 70s, Aunt Mari was especially concerned.
Soon after, we discovered he was gravely ill. Since he lived alone, he would spend the next several months in the hospital. My brother brought him his mail and helped him write his bills. After decades of no relationships, my brother built a rapport and brought the feeling of family to Uncle Jay.
After a few months, Uncle Jay thought he would be going home and granted my brother permission to go in his house to tidy up so that it would pass a caretaker’s inspection.
Since Uncle Jay lived in solitude for twenty years no one knew what to expect. “Tidy up” was an understatement. The filth was indescribable. The hallway from the kitchen to the living room was like trees along a forest’s trail. There was a walking path, but the rest was cobweb filled. A black garbage bag covered a non-working toilet. Apparently, Uncle Jay replaced the garbage bag after it filled with waste. The counters were covered with a grime too thick to scrape off. Newspapers and paperwork were piled high all over . Urine-soaked the carpet. He didn’t have pets, so we determined that the garbage bag on the toilet was used only for “serious business”.
I believe, through my own unscientific research, that my uncle had a condition called Squalor Syndrome. It’s a condition where people choose to live a withdrawn, filthy life. Unlike a poverty-stricken person, they have other options but still live this lifestyle.
I imagined that he had a deep dark secret, but Squalor Syndrome never crossed my mind. Isn’t that the way of judgement? People and their lives are not always what you imagine them to be. If you don’t know,then you don’t know!
One day when my brother was visiting, Uncle Jay seemed anxious. In talking about his affairs, he declared “I don’t want to end up destitute like my brother.” He was referring to my father.
I was flabbergasted. How could a man who lived with his mother most of his adult life, afraid to be vulnerable, no loved ones and living in squalor worry about being “destitute” like my father?
My dad was a three-time divorced, recovering alcoholic. In his 50s, he settled into a decent job and kicked his drinking habits. He was blessed with good looks and never had a problem meeting a woman. His three kids didn’t visit him as much as he would’ve liked, but he lived a full life.
At his end, he lived in a one-bedroom apartment with his long-time companion. Penniless due to a new-found gambling addiction, he had to ask his children and siblings for help. When he passed away, he left very little behind.
Uncle Jay’s destitute comment drove home the meaning of YOLO for me. You only live once and it’s up to each of us to live our life the way we want to live it. We are all flawed. Our judgement of the way others live doesn’t matter. Live YOUR best life, live the life YOU want to live.
My dad made huge mistakes and still lived the best life he could. I was stunned to learn that Uncle Jay passed judgment on my dad, when he lived a sheltered life taking no chances. To him, it boiled down to money and making sure he had enough. Success meant never having to ask for help.
I’m grateful that Uncle Jay got to experience a relationship with my brother and feel bad for the life he lived but think that maybe he lived the life he wanted to.
Tell me this: What do you consider a life well lived?
2 thoughts on “The Tail of Two Brothers: Loneliness vs. Penniless”
What an extraordinary contrast, so surprising in two brothers…or is it?
Probably not that surprising, but family dynamics are fascinating to me.
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