Death has a way of getting your attention. I lost my dad, mom, and only brother over a three-year period at the end of the 90s. Last week, my favorite uncle died. Frank was the youngest son on my mom’s side of the family. His passing caused deep reflection. He used to call me Lama. I chanted to connect with his life and spirit. I started to laugh so hard tears rolled down my eyes. There was no sorrow in me, just boundless appreciation.


Frank was one of those late life surprises for my grandparents. He was a 50s kind of character who once sported a ducktail and liked muscle cars. The last time we spoke was after my book came out. In his flippant manner, he asked me if chanting could help him get an erection? “Now there’s another book,” he said.
My French-Canadian family moved to the southwest side of Chicago in the mid-1870s. They were a tough but deeply religious bunch. The men drank a lot. For example, my great-grandfather died on his way to the neighborhood tavern at age 86. My grandfather was known to drink a shot of cheap whiskey with his breakfast. He also smoked a couple packs of unfiltered cigarettes a day, interspersed with a big cigar that he puffed until it became a soggy piece of charred chaw that he popped into his mouth and chewed like penny candy. Yes, he swallowed the juice. This was my uncle Frank’s environment.
Right after the great depression, there were people who could hardly feed or clothe their kids. Frank’s playmate became one Earl Pionke. My ever-benevolent yet dirt-poor grandparents raised Earl as their own even though they had five other kids in the house. In Chicago during the 60s and 70s, The Earl of Old Town (and that area) became the city’s epicenter for folk music, comedy, and the hippie movement. Near the corner of North and Wells, The Earl of Old Town was immediately across the street from Second City, the comedy club that gave birth to so many Saturday Night Live alum. Frank spoke of sitting at the bar talking to Earl when someone like Bob Dylan, John Belushi or Roger Ebert would come in to quench their thirst, have a burger, and listen to some great live music.
Frank was a high school English teacher and coach of the debate team. His warped sense of humor never ceased to amaze me. When my grandmother died, I sat with him in the balcony of the church, watching with seething anger the scene of my 83-year-old grandfather having to slavishly stand up and kneel down on hard wood to the banal entreaty of the parish priest. After selflessly serving the Church for generations, that priest refused to offer graveside services because the burial plots my parents had donated weren’t in a Catholic cemetery. Frank just smiled at me and said, “Who needs him? Grandma thought he was a mope anyways.” That calmed me down.
Frank was the first to break the romantic race barrier and the only sibling of my mom to spark up a doobie. When I was coming of age, he sent me a subscription to Mad Magazine and gave me a copy of “Catcher in the Rye” to read. After retiring, Frank got divorced and traveled all over the country and overseas. Eventually he got remarried. Hopefully my book on visualization inspired him to restart his love life. Frank had no enemies and lived life his way, until the end. Having just returned home from yet another long trip where he visited all his children, he died in his sleep. We should all be that lucky.