You can’t talk about Ralph without talking about Marie. When I learned of Ralph’s death, my first thought was, “God, I hope he can be with Marie now.” I have never hoped for a heaven more than in that moment, because for the past ten years, all Ralph wanted was to die. He would tell anyone that talked to him for five minutes: “I want to die. I want to be with Marie again.”
Marie and Ralph met in France on the Champs Elysees during his time in the service. Marie had walked to Paris from Brittany during World War 2. She was a teenager who feared for her life while living on the coastline of France, so she took to the road on foot, walking from the edge of France to the center.
He brought her to the United States, a place she always found to be gruff. A place where only her cooking was worth eating. A place that saw her husband be gravely maimed in a work accident. A place where she learned she would never have children. A place where she went dancing with Ralph on the weekends. A place where she enchanted her grand-niece, Marie’s thick French accent introducing me to the language I now so love and teach. A place where she would eventually succumb to dementia, dying in her own home, speaking her mother-tongue Bretagne for her last months. A place where she died with no one understanding her words. A place where she was adored and cared for by Ralph until her last breath.
The frame of Ralph’s life is riddled with sadness. Born the last of nine children to a might-as-well-have-been-single-mother Hattie and a man the children only remembered as a stranger, Ralph grew up poor and loved so much that he was put into a boys’ home. Separated from his siblings, Ralph managed to never lose the impishness of a last child of a brood. His brothers would grow up to earn Purple Hearts and badges in alcoholism and depression. Ralph seemed to be immune to his DNA. The end frames of his life, the last twelve years, brought him a deep sadness, a wish to die, as if his DNA finally caught up to him in a fury. The middle years, the Marie years, were bliss to hear him tell it.
Ralph died on Saturday. My great-uncle, the last of the Adams clan, left earth. He refused a memorial. He died without me knowing he had gone into hospice; the last time I saw him was Christmas Eve when I quickly dropped a meal at his door and gave him a peck on his whiskered, gaunt cheek. We were late for church, so I didn’t get Ev out of the car. She waved from her car seat. I think I knew it might be a last time. He was so thin, so much a wraith already.
It seems a sin to not celebrate a man’s life after he dies. But in so many ways he was already gone when Marie left. I hope they are dancing in a heaven I don’t always believe in but today I pray is real.