My uncle was found dead in his flat this morning.
I thought about a title for this post for quite a long time: firstly because I suck at titles and secondly because I wanted to give a post dedicated to the life of my uncle a title that would fit him as a person. However, I was unable to do that because I didn’t know him very well. I hardly knew him at all.
Why do I bother writing this then? Because I think every life should be recognised, especially the ones that will soon fade into obscurity. Once the flat is emptied and the funeral held, once government agencies have confirmed that this person’s life has ended, my uncle will become only a memory in the minds of those who knew him. This won’t amount to many.
I think that in a world where we celebrate those who are the loudest we should recognise those whose voices are quiet: who live on the edges of society, out of peripheral vision. My uncle lived there out of his own free will but that doesn’t mean his life, and the ending of his life, shouldn’t be recognised.
I have two uncles, my mum’s younger brothers. Both of them have battled with alcoholism. One of them stopped drinking, one never did.
My uncle Mikko makes what Finns would call ‘a knight of a sad character.’ He didn’t have a wife or children. He never had a career worth mentioning. He was in prison multiple times. He lived a quiet life of drinking in his flat.
He survived of things that shouldn’t be possible. Uncle Mikko was a strapping man at almost seven feet tall until he fell down stairs while drunk and broke his back. He was left permanently bent up and fragile with a zimmer frame but still walking with his own two feet. It’s a miracle that he wasn’t paralysed.
He once fell over and couldn’t get up. His abusive then-partner refused to help him and he laid on the floor for the next two weeks until he was able to reach for a phone. He spent months in hospital but pulled through.
Neither of my uncles could be described as a particularly successful individual but mum never gave up on her brothers. Upon hearing about the floor incident she stormed the flat and threw his partner out. She cleaned the reminders of the two weeks spent on the floor, as well as the endless piss and shit accumulated during my uncle’s drinking episodes. She’d visit him about once a week to clean the flat.
“What am I supposed to do?” she’d say when emptying the linen that still could be salvaged into the washing machine. “He’s my brother.”
I always admired Mikko’s attitude. He never blamed anyone else for the choices he made. Never did you hear him say ‘if only this had been different.’ He just got on with it. He was at peace with his choices. He drank because he didn’t want to do anything else. He didn’t have a wife or children because he didn’t want them.
I defended my uncle against a preachy school guidance counsellor who held a class to us about alcoholism. She said that every alcoholic should be forced into treatment. And then what? One thing about alcoholics: They will drink until they either decide to quit or die.
In this little preach speech there was a sense that an alcoholic’s life is a wasted life. What is a successful life then? Getting a job, getting married, having children and a summer cottage? After accumulating all of these things can you then say that you’ve had a successful and meaningful life?
If my uncle had gotten sober and done all the things society expected of him, had he been happy?
I don’t think so because Mikko didn’t want a job or a family. He wanted to drink. He wanted to live a quiet life of small joys, cooking and comic books, and he did exactly that. Without sorrow, without regret.
Is someone else’s life more valuable than my uncle Mikko’s?
How many of us can say that we’re content, at peace with the choices we’ve made? You can have all the wealth in the world and appreciate none of it.
Mikko was a kind man, who was always grateful to his sister. No matter how wasted he was, he’d always call out ‘thank you’ as she left. We didn’t speak but I sent post cards from my travels and he’d collect them on the fridge door. My grandmother doesn’t ask about me but uncle Mikko would always ask how’s Ida.
He was very independent. Even though he had to rely on a zimmer frame and had lost the use of his left hand after falling over on top of it, he still somehow managed to get down the stone stairs of his old apartment building to either use the communal laundry room or to the shops. He liked cooking and would at times buy delicacies such as duck or venison and tell my mum about how they turned out.
He refused to tell my mum why he was in prison, even when she came to visit him.
“Don’t worry yourself with that darling sister”, he said, waving his hand. “Those are my own stupidities.”
He was funny. In Helsinki there is a former sports training centre which is used as a station for overtly intoxicated people to sober up.
When cops gave him the option of the sports centre or a jail cell, he chose the latter.
“I won’t be going into that coma department.”
My dad remembers when he was walking Mikko to the bus station after he’d come to visit when I was born. A guy came to bum cigarettes from dad, acting aggressively. Mikko punched the guy on the nose once as he walked past and kept walking. The cigarette guy stayed on the ground.
On 11th of November, we’ll know the date for sure when the autopsy report comes out, he sat down on his favourite chair with a drink and stayed there.
The neighbour who found him said he looked peaceful, like he had just dozed off.
He went as he lived, in his own way, and to me that’s admirable. How many of us can say that we lived our own kind of life when it’s time to go?