He left on Labor Day Weekend.
I was taking out the garbage when I got the call that Uncle Sal was gone. It was my father who told me. Three decades on the planet and I don't think I had ever heard my father cry before he called me on that fateful night, his voice shaking on the other end as I was about to haul some recyclable plastic out to the street outside my Brooklyn apartment.
Then I was the one crying. Collapsing. Overtaken. My life has never been the same. None of ours are, eight years later. Because you never get over it. You never forget. It is this piece of you that can never be replaced.
Two days later, I was in Tucson. In the desert, burying my uncle, the guy who left the concrete jungle for cacti and coyotes when I was just a kid. I sat at a hotel room desk and wrote Salvatore Celi's obituary and cried a little more. I shaved, I put on a tie. I provided my cousin with the soundtrack to my uncle's funeral. Jimi's "Red House" kicked it off. By the middle of The Beatles' "In My Life," I was a sobbing mess all over again.
My uncle and his younger sister - my mother - were my middle class hippie heroes. They had seen Hendrix live. I would eventually borrow (steal) all the 45 RPM records that Mom had stored in my parents' basement. My uncle's and my Dad's were down there too - The Beatles and The Stones. The Doors and Fleetwood Mac. Treasure. Uncle Sal was at Woodstock, he had driven cross country more than once. He loved to go camping, he loved to travel, he loved to cook (he hated to clean), and, especially in his later years, he really seemed to love his life.
When Uncle Sal was here on Earth, he was my idol. He moved from Brooklyn to Arizona when I was 7, the first in our close-knit Italian family to leave the spoils of city life behind. By 'spoils', I mean he worked in a candy store under the el train just a few blocks from where they filmed the show open to Welcome Back, Kotter.
Uncle Sal broke up the band, and I loved him even more after that. His annual Brooklyn visits were calendar clearing events, including the traditional opening night around the dining room table devouring pizza from L&B Spumoni Gardens. We would take trips to Coney Island, to The Museum Of Natural History. Uncle Sal would take Mom and I to Chumley's, the West Village speakeasy frequented by writers like e.e. cummings and John Steinbeck during The Prohibition. My uncle was now the out-of-towner, yet always my tour guide.
In the desert, Uncle Sal played host, his new life forcing his reluctant family to step outside the door and actually see the world. The house he had built with his own hands in the middle of nowhere was filled with junk, vinyl records, musical instruments, animals, and more junk. Uncle Sal was a hoarder, and a proud one, at that.
He saw wonder in the mundane, and so to him, it was all valuable.
A day after the funeral, I returned home, back to "Real Life," whatever that was now. Feeling robbed. Eight years later, that is still the predominant feeling. I've been cheated. It's the feeling we all have when someone we truly love departs. What about all that stuff we were gonna do?
Eight years later. Doesn't matter if it's eight or eighty or eight hundred. Eight years removed from this Earth, Uncle Sal is still my idol, still my role model. I still think about him every day, a man I sometimes never saw nor spoke to for weeks, or even months, at a time. He is still the coolest, he is still so special. But he is something more.
He is my constant reminder that things can get better.
That's what a butterfly is. It's the caterpillar that crawled through the mud, then emerged from a cocoon, soaring through the skies. It is transformation. It is magnificence. It is rebirth.
That's what Uncle Sal was while he was on this Earth. It seems a familiar path. I was crawling through the mud in the years after my uncle's death, then my world was washed away by Mother Nature. I wasn't baptized by those dirty ocean waters, but I was awakened. All at once, I had to deal with all this hard shit, and it was just mine this time - mine and my dog's, at least. Buttons, the lovable nut whose own rehabilitation, not coincidentally, has strongly reflected my own.
It was the toughest of times, and I got through it. It didn't happen overnight, but it happened. It's still happening. Because life is an uphill battle, always. Growth is an evolution, it's a constant thing, otherwise it's not anything at all. I came out on the other side of Sandy - with lots of help - and made a commitment to doing better, to living better, to being better. Am I still at my best? There are always higher mountains to climb. But I'm better. I'm braver, tougher. I'm focused on what I want and grateful for what I have.
I've been back to the desert since Uncle Sal left. I was there last Labor Day Weekend, making music with his son, growing another inch on my wings. I traveled to Europe in May and recorded some more music with my uncle on my mind. Eight years later and he is still an inspiration, still an aspiration.
The life span of a butterfly is only a few months, sometimes even a few weeks - a reminder that there is only so much time to enjoy the wonders of the world, to experience the undeniable magic in this life. That was Uncle Sal, too - rafting down The Nile, trekking to Egypt - always exploring, even when most his age were busy exploring the remote control.
But Uncle Sal's greatest transformation was borne from love. He met someone later in life who brought a twinkle to his eye, who brought a luster back into his existence. I'd like to think he crawled out of the mud on his own and that this new romance was his reward. You have to open a door before you can walk through and discover what's inside. Uncle Sal was the ultimate door opener, he had to start a new chapter to find love again. I'd like to think that it's not until we get ourselves right than we can truly be right for anyone else.
In his final chapter, my uncle seemed larger than life. Gracious, happy. Maybe I was blessed to only see one side of it, but that side still existed. He wasn't a rock star, he wasn't famous. He was a fucking science teacher. He loved his job and was well-loved by his students, his peers, his family. 'Carpe Diem' was his true motto. He seemed to have it all figured out and then *poof*....he was gone.
Uncle Sal loved outwardly - with gusto. Big bear hugs and always an "I love you." He seemed.....at ease. With himself, with the universe. Through good times and bad. It Is What It Is. He was a crusader, a jester, a romantic, a hippie. Opinionated, eccentric, great bad joke teller, could fix anything you put in front of him. He was a flawed guy who had made mistakes, maybe made some bad choices, maybe did some things he wasn't proud of. But he had learned, he had grown.
Like I said..... Uncle Sal was my role model.
He left on Labor Day Weekend but he has never really left. He is still every slice of L&B pizza, every trip to Coney Island. He is still, and will always be, the desert. He is always there, and he is not the only one. There are butterflies everywhere, reminding us that we have to crawl before we can soar, even if for just a little while. That we should do our best to enjoy the journey. That we have to lose before we can understand what winning is. That we can always do better, can always reach higher.
Thanks, Uncle Sal. For showing me the path.
Eight years later and you're still teaching me how to fly.