Uncle Kev is telling me about the connection between light and ethics.
“So, when God first creates light, God sees it as ‘good.’ Right? But, is it the light, or the act of creating it, or both that’s good?” he asks in his annoying way. He doesn’t expect me to answer. Anyway, I’m not in the mood for this. He’s just picked me up from school. Then he shifts into talking about ancient theories of ‘inner-light.’ Like how Heraclitus thought our souls aspire to “pure fire.” Because Uncle Kev will abuse any chance he has to talk about light and its history. I wish I could tell him to shut up but I’m too polite. I try to deflect and ask about his younger days when he was an amateur boxer and won the Derry Heavyweight title. Before he started sewing dresses, calling me “Kinch,” and painting his nails. Before he left the seminary, moved in with us, and made my education his life’s project. But he’s wise to my feint and says, “We’re going for a ride. Got us an appointment to watch the sun set.” Which is his way of saying: we’re going to stay on topic.
I’m young enough to appreciate the beauty of a sunset but not its sublimity. That I learn later comes with age and a certain ache after you start wondering how many you’ve got left. When we get to Keeley Bay, the sun is melting into the sea like a bubbling ball of wax. The sky’s a scream of velvet birds, suddenly startled, their tender gold breasts blinking like dying flames before being snuffed out by invisible fingers. Uncle Kev points to the shore and says: “Walk up to the water until you get to where the light, air, sea and sand meet. Try to find the line that keeps them from spilling over into each other.” I did my best but I never found that line. Never have. Nature’s too good a magician. Not from lack of trying, though, especially after Uncle Kev did his final disappearing act on us.
Later on, at college, I read about Milton’s “darkness visible,” which gave me a different kind of grief, because it implied a type of light that may have existed before created light. Things got worse when I realized God’s own concealed light, as the psalmist tells us, must have predated visible light. So…the wet gleam in Uncle Kev’s eyes when he spoke about light and what I saw glancing off the glassy water of Keeley Bay that evening was not original light, as Uncle Kev had led me to believe? For a long time, it troubled me that he might have been wrong about this. At such moments, the weight of his absence became unbearable.
Now, many years later, I’m having an anniversary dinner with my wife and Uncle Kev decides to crash our date, because the waiter is lighting the candles the same way Uncle Kev used to light his prayer candles. Sometimes, I watched Uncle Kev from the shadow behind his door and wondered whether the space between his candles’ flames and the air they fed on had any connection to that space between his prayers and the pangs that birthed them. Wondered also what kept them all from spilling over into each other. Then, I’m back there, in that shadow behind his door, in those car rides listening to him lecturing about light, thinking about why he really took me to Keeley Bay that day. Maybe it was never about finding that impossible line that separates air, sand, light, and water. Maybe he was trying to show me that happiness at root is elemental and only requires air, sand, light, and water. Something children understand. Because on that foundation, with some imagination, you can build something solid and lasting. Something that can take you through life with the right amount of smiling.
Suddenly, I’m tasting tears on my tongue. My wife looks at me oddly, leans toward me, and says, “What’s wrong?”
I say, “Nothing’s wrong. It’s all good,” squeezing her hand.
Because, as I stare at the flames rippling in the wake of her voice, I finally have an answer to that question Uncle Kev asked all those years ago.
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