The Patriarch

2012-10-22T07:30:00Z The PatriarchRick Kaempfer nwitimes.com
October 22, 2012 7:30 am  • 

I just got word that my Uncle Manny passed away. He was 69 years old.

Ever since a very tragic few years several decades ago when we lost my grandparents, my dad, and my uncle, one after the other, back-to-back-to-back-to-back, Manny has been the man of the family; the patriarch. He hasn't lived in Chicago since the 1960s, but he still managed to be the glue that held us together.

I mentioned him on the radio many times when I was with John Landecker's show on WJMK. Manny came up to Chicago (from Atlanta) every summer and my mother, sister, aunt, and I always had honey-do-lists waiting for him when he arrived. Landecker used to make me read the lists on the air. He thought it was hilarious how clueless we all were.

I also mentioned Uncle Manny when I was interviewed about my contribution to the book "Cubbie Blues" in 2008.

“A Cub fan his whole life, Rick’s attachment to his team dates back to his early childhood in Jefferson Park on the northwest side of Chicago. He and his family were German immigrants, but his Uncle Manny took a liking to this strange American sport of baseball, and went to Cubs games as often as he could. Manny passed on this Cubs-itis to his oldest nephew. They went to their first game together in 1968, and still go to games whenever Manny comes back to town. Rick doesn’t know whether to thank him or curse him for that.”

When the Cubs won their division in 1984, I made exactly one phone call. I called Uncle Manny.

When I was co-writing "The Living Wills" I realized something about halfway through the writing process. We were writing a novel about a 60-something Vietnam Veteran dying of cancer. It wasn't a conscious thing, but I started to wonder if subconscious forces were directing me to confront Uncle Manny's reality (he was also a 60-something Vietnam Veteran dying of cancer).

The main character of "The Living Wills" is not based on him, but he defintely has some Manny-like characteristics, so when I had to write the eulogy chapter, it was a gut-wrenching experience for me. I knew that Manny's time was right around the corner. I knew I would more than likely have to write his eulogy too. Every word of that chapter made me think of him.

When the book came out at Christmas last year, I was afraid to send it to him, afraid that it would hit a little too close to home. So I made my mom read it first, and she gave me the go-ahead.

This is what he wrote to me after he read it...

"As you might know, I pretty much lost the use of my left eye after a retina surgery; thus the very small print makes it nearly impossible to read your book, so I brought a magnifying glass and attacked the book again. As the three different segments came together I found myself more interested in what's to come. Midway through I saw it all come together and didn't want to put it down. The latter part of the book and the ending kept me engrossed as the story became more and more touching--especially around the cancer issues. Congratulations, Uncle Manny"

This summer he made one last trip to Chicago for a wedding party (my cousin's). He knew it was his last visit. He normally never drove through the city (he drove around it) to get to us, but this time he said "Jill (his wife) insisted." At that party, and another party the next night, he got to say goodbye to his family and friends here (and there are many). And though we could tell he was suffering, he was still the same Uncle Manny--laughing and joking through his pain.

My sister, aunt, mom and I drove down to Atlanta to see him one last time about a month ago. We told stories about the good old days, and the not so good old days (in Germany after the war). We laughed and joked, played cards and argued about politics. We even got to watch one last Cubs game together.

Before we left the next day he gave me three things to take back to Chicago with me: his private stash of liverwurst, a saw blade, and a really expensive bottle of tequila. (That three-pack of gifts cracked me up). Even though he really shouldn't have been driving anymore, Uncle Manny escorted the clueless foursome back to the highway--his one last gesture of help. He pulled into the parking lot right before the exit ramp, and waved goodbye. I could see the tears in his eyes--something I had never seen before.

It was the last time I saw him.

He called my mom and aunt a few weeks ago to tell them he was in hospice. (How many patients make that call themselves?) A few days ago, I was told that the end was very near, so I wrote him an e-mail. It said simply:

"Uncle Manny, I don't know if you're checking your e-mail, but I didn't want to bother you with a phone call. You're probably getting a ton of them. I just wanted to let you know that you are constantly in our thoughts and minds up here in Chicago. All of us are wishing you well and praying for the best. I know you already knew that, but I wanted to say it anyway. Love, Rick."

Aunt Jill says it was the last e-mail he was able to read.

He died peacefully with his son Eric and wife Jill each holding his hand. His daughter Kara had been there constantly for the past few days too.

You know, as you go through life there are many people that touch you, affect you, and inspire you, but there are only a small handful of people that make you who you are.

For me, Uncle Manny was one of those people.

I can't begin to express how much I will miss him.

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