Today would have been my uncle’s birthday

My uncle would have turned 68 today. But a few weeks ago, he died.

And I miss him, terribly.

He was a very special person, not just to me, but to many people. He was a priest in the Roman Catholic church, and Dean of Theology at Otago University, but eventually, he left the church and moved beyond christianity altogether. He had studied and worked in liberation theology, but he finished his doctoral work just as John Paul II was starting to entrench his hold on the church. In addition to that, he was gay, and at times, it must have seemed that the church in which he had been reared hated him.

The word ‘erudite’ was coined for him. He was fluent in Latin, and he gloried in the intricacies of it. He thought about the nature of a language and a society that held all nouns and descriptions in tension, until a final formative verb. (Latin places the active verb at the end of a sentence, after all else has been conjured into thought already.) Part way through his life, he went to live and study in Rome, where he completed his PhD in moral theology at the Lateran. So he became fluent in Italian too. In later years, living in Paris, he added French to the suite of languages that he spoke.

He read and thought about great literature. I have his copy of War and Peace, given to him as the prize for coming top of 6th form English. We talked about literature often, rejoicing in great books and great authors. He introduced me to A. N. Wilson as a biographer, and we formed our own very exclusive A. N. Wilson Appreciation Society. He loved word play, and clever constructions, and he would save them and share them with me, and with my husband. He had a quick and dry wit. When my husband and I muttered that our university’s list of distinguished alumni was perhaps not all that distinguished, he paused for a moment, and quirked his eyebrow. “My university,” he said, “has a list of distinguished alumni. It’s divided into two categories: Saints, and Popes.”

He was someone whose approval I sought, someone I admired. He was the first person to suggest that perhaps I should carry on to doctoral work, the first person to think that I had the capacity of mind to study at that level. He encouraged me and inspired me. In recent years, I think that I delighted him when I started to argue with him, to make him think new thoughts.

I loved seeing him. One of my earliest memories of him dates back to a Christmas when I was about four. My brothers and I had been given popguns, so we lined up at the gate on Christmas afternoon, ready to pop him when he arrived. We were so pleased to see him. And all through my life, whenever I knew I was to see him, my heart would skip a little for joy. “I’m going to see Tony!” it would sing. That sense of joy never wore off. The last time I saw him, really saw him, to talk to him properly, as I was leaving I reminded him of that wonderful scene in War and Peace, where young Rostov is coming home through the streets of Moscow, and the carriage seems to go so slowly, and he will never get there and he can’t wait, and then he reaches home and the greetings are wonderful. It was always like that, seeing Tony. In War and Peace, somehow it doesn’t seem quite right or full enough to Rostov – he always looks for more. But for me, seeing Tony, it was never like that. It was always enough.

He was a micro manager, making sure that everything was just so. A few years ago, I came back from Australia for a family party, and stayed with him a night, before running some errands in the morning. He had my morning carefully mapped out, leaving me a note about what time I should leave the house, and which way I should drive to my first appointment, and how I should get from there to his workplace where we were meeting for lunch. He left for work, but then an hour or so later, rang me up to make sure that I was following his instructions. I chose to see this as a manifestation of his love for me.

I loved and admired him so much, and I know that he loved me, and was so very proud of me. He was a twin, and he and his twin brother always thought that someone in my generation ought to have twins. He was so delighted when my twins were born, and then two weeks later, I got word that my doctoral thesis had been passed. He had no children of his own, so he rejoiced in his nieces and nephews, and I know that he thought of me as the daughter of his soul. He was for me, my third parent.

I saw him a few times in those last weeks. The third last time I saw him, it was just him and me, sitting in his home, drinking coffee, and talking – politics, life, literature, children, family, ideas, love. Soul food for both of us. The second last time I saw him, we were down in Wellington for a school event, so afterwards, we all went to his place. My daughters sparkled at him, telling him stories, performing, making him laugh. It warmed us all, him and me and my husband, to see them being so wonderful. And the last time was on the afternoon of the day he died, when I left the girls at home, and raced down the road, just to be there, to hold his hand and talk to him, even though he was unconscious by then. I could not be there when he died because I had to return home to my children (my husband was overseas at the time).

I saw his body one last time, when we closed the coffin that his twin had made for him. By then he had gone.

He had his funeral organised, down to who was speaking, and what they should speak about, and how long they should speak for. No religion, but a great deal of reflection, and beautiful music.

I have some tokens of him: a book he gave me for my 5th birthday, books he gave me just a few months ago, some beautiful needlepoint he made, music we listened to together. And the ache in my heart, for a beloved friend taken too soon. My family’s hearts are aching today, on his birthday. Tony always used to call me or send me a message a few days before his birthday. “Remember that it’s Terry’s birthday on the 15th.” Terry will be grieving today, for this first birthday alone. My parents are grieving too: Tony was their great friend. As he was to all his family, a brother and friend of the mind and soul, and the spiritual centre of our family.

Some thoughts have comforted me in this time: Anne Else’s beautiful image of a boat moving slowly away, Philip Pullman’s account of a spirit dissolving into the atoms of the universe, a self-constructed imagining of Tony’s soul journeying up Te Ika a Maui, to the last pohutakawa tree, and there disappearing into the winds and sea and sky. Not that I believe in souls. But somehow, the image comforts me.

He is gone. He wrote a last testament, which I read at his funeral. I have added it to this post, and if you feel so inclined, having read this far, you might care to download it and read it. It contains the wisdom of a life lived in love and mind and reflection, and his final thoughts about what this life is all about.

Tony Russell’s Testament – pdf – 74kb

Alas, without me for thousands of years
The Rose will blossom and the Spring will bloom,
But those who have secretly understood my heart –
They will approach and see the grave where I lie.
(Deccan tomb inscription)

Anthony (Tony) James Russell
15 November 1945 – 28 September 2013


15 comments on “Today would have been my uncle’s birthday

  1. rayinnz says:

    Loverly writing, by both of you, which I am sure captures the man
    Thank you

  2. Jan says:

    Thank you for sharing such a beautiful, inspirational and precious piece with us.
    My thoughts are with you today.

  3. homepaddock says:

    That is a wonderful tribute to someone who was obviously a very special man. I’ve borrowed some words from Brian Andreas at Story People which I hope will bring you comfort:

    More Fair
    They left me with your shadow, saying things like Life is not fair & I believed them for a long time. But today, I remembered the way you laughed & the heat of your hand in mine & I knew that life is more fair than we can ever imagine if we are there to live it.


    Wish List
    I wish you could have been there for the sun & the rain & the long, hard hills. For the sound of a thousand conversations scattered along the road. For the people laughing & crying & remembering at the end. But, mainly, I wish you could have been there.


    More Reason
    Today is a day when I look out over my life & I see you there & I know there is more reason to this world than we will ever understand.

    • Deborah says:

      Thank you, Ele. Those small paragraphs, stories in themselves, are just the right sort of thing for me at this time – something to reflect on, which I find very comforting. I very much appreciate your kindness and thoughtfulness in posting them.

  4. Jan says:

    Your love and respect for your uncle shine through what you have written. I read his Testament and saw a man of deep sensitivity and understanding.

    As a student and teacher of Latin for very many years now, I enjoyed what he had to say about learning a language in general and Latin in particular, and was touched by his feelings of home. I feel similarly about an area in NSW.

    • Deborah says:

      Thank you, Jan in NSW. Tony’s words about landscape shaping him rang true for me too. I feel that I belong here in the lower half of Te Ika a Maui, the North Island of NZ. There’s something about it that is right for me.

  5. Paul Russell says:

    Hey Deborah. Thank You for giving voice to the melancholy of the day. The relationship that I had with Tony was quite different to yours but the joys and now the sorrow are similar. A friend wrote a poem that goes something like

    I have said all the things that needed to be said
    Except for things that pertain to things that haven’t happened yet…



    • Deborah says:

      “Rastus” – captures it really, the different relationships we had with him. Both special, and important. We were very lucky to have him in our lives.

  6. Sandra says:

    Really beautiful. You have shared something special with us all in your reflection on his life and your relationship with each other. Thank you.

  7. Amy Johnson says:

    Thank you, Deborah, for sharing your wonderful tribute and your Uncle Tony’s Testament. They are inspirational. I am thinking of you and your family.

    Love, Amy

  8. […] Today’s choice was inspired by this moving post at A Bee of A Certain Age. […]

  9. debbieforbes says:

    Deb, I’m so sad to read of your beloved Uncle Tony’s death. You have spoken so fondly of him over the years of our friendship. Thank you so much for your moving tribute and for sharing his eloquent, unforgettable testament. It was a privilege to read his words and to get an insight into the man you so loved.
    fond thoughts to you and your family.
    love Debbie xx

  10. Jo Tamar says:

    Thanks for this post, Deborah.

    I had a great-uncle – my mum’s uncle – with whom both mum and I had literary mentor relationships. I see elements of my relationship with my uncle in your description of yours.

    Your post brought me warm memories plus a few tears (my uncle died a few years ago) – and I shared it with mum and I think she had a similar reaction.

    Commiserations for your loss, but it sounds like the over-riding memories will be warmth and joy, so I wish you happiness also, for those memories.

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