Donnie, My Dear, This One’s For You.
To many, my uncle was known as Chicago’s favorite barman, but to me, he was just cool Uncle Donnie. He was cool because he did things like show up to our family portrait, which was supposed to have a denim and khaki theme, in an all black suit. I heard stories about him jumping into the seal tank at the zoo, stealing golf carts in Mexico and riding his scooter through the bar (that’s the censored version).
I admired him and looked up to him. I was impressed, intrigued and definitely a little intimidated too.
It wasn’t until I was in college that I really became friends with him. Of course, as an under-ager, he would never let me downstairs when he had celebrities in town, trying not to expose me to the goings-on of the Stanley’s basement. But lucky for me, I was able to find a back route in through the kitchen and down the stairs. I would sneak around, hiding behind people so as not to get caught, and looking back, one thing is clear. He knew I was there the whole time, pretending not to see me so I could have a good time. Eventually, we’d run into each other and he’d just act surprised, “How’d you get down here?”, followed by a chuckle and a cheers.
I will forever miss his singing voice and the way he could turn anything into a microphone, the graphic detail he’d provide after every dinner out, his obsession with Whole Foods, and the way he’d yell “you did not!” with that serious expression after every story - and the mischievous smirk that would follow, his unique and eclectic style (which, if I had to describe it, was some mix of vintage meets Kid Rock meets Rolling Stones meets fried chicken), his fierce loyalty, his creativity, and how he never stopped dreaming, no matter how many people and places “borrowed” his ideas and turned them into their own.
When I think about my uncle, he was a supporter and a connector. A connector even when you didn’t want to be connected. He was the kind of guy to give everyone a chance and ask for nothing in return. And he was the kind of guy to put away just enough money each month so his nieces and nephews could have a chance at living the life he fought so hard to live, even when he didn’t have a cent to his name. And he was grumpy too. I always think, “how could someone so grumpy leave such an impression on so many people?!” But I think the answer is clear.
He treated his friends like family and his family like friends because everyone was everything to him.
I saw his struggle.
His positivity, his fight, his severe determination toward the end will leave a lasting impression on me. No matter how sick he got, he still got up and went to work every day until his body said no more.
Donnie, no one fought harder than you.
And that applies to all aspects of his life, really.
In the hospital, I watched as his eyes flickered and the movie reel of his life passed behind his eyelids, and I couldn’t imagine all the beautiful things that he could see. He lived a fuller life in those 57 years than most people would ever be lucky to live.
I used to get so frustrated when he would walk away halfway through our conversation, and now I smile just to think of it. Because he was always so busy, always on to the next big thing, and I like to think that’s why he just couldn’t stay here. He had to leave us too early because he was just too big, too special for this life.
A few months after Donnie passed away, I had the most vivid dream. I was sitting at a crowded table full of people, food and laughter. I looked to my left, and there he was, sitting right beside me. But it wasn’t a version of Donnie that I had ever known. He was beaming, glowing, young and even more handsome. To this day, I don’t have any doubt that that was really him. Because, isn’t that where he would be? I think his heaven is a crowded table filled with food and friends.
Fast forward to a few months later. I was walking down the street wondering if I should quit my job when I heard his voice, so distinct, boom into my head. “HAPPY”, the voice said. I knew then what he wanted me to do, and I’m not scared because I know I have him rooting for me, for me and all of his friends, up there. Within days I had quit my job to pursue what makes me happy, and I owe that all to my Uncle Donnie.
I wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for you. You are my inspiration.