Uncles don’t fare terribly well in history or literature. From Creon to Claudius, Uncle Sam to Uncle Scar, the role of Father’s younger or Mother’s older brother tends to be a dubious one, shaded by jealousy, vengefulness, and a penchant for fratricide. There are exceptions, to be sure: Pip’s sweet but simple uncle, Joe Gargery. Peter Parker’s ill-fated Uncle Ben. But even at their best, they rarely take the shape of crusading activists against US imperialism. Or legal warriors against war criminals. Or the implacable scourges of torturers. They do not, as a rule, serve legal papers to blood-stained generals at their Harvard graduations. But my Uncle Michael did. And in this way, as in so many others, he defied imagination—and redefined reality.
Last week, on Wednesday, I lost this beloved uncle of mine. He slipped away after a brief but torrential illness, a vigorous 72-year-old with years of fight—and decades of outrage—still inside him. In the days before his death, close friends and family streamed into his hospital room, one last love-in. Michael’s son brought a banjo, his friend a guitar. We sang songs, watched old videos, rehashed favorite memories, and cried a lot. All of us. Dear cousins who’d grown up with Michael in Cleveland. Dear friends who’d gotten beaten up with him at Columbia. Friends from the legal trenches, friends from struggles that spanned the globe. Even nurses and doctors who had grown attached to him in their too-short time together. “I know this is unprofessional,” one broken-up physical therapist confessed as she rushed into his hospital room, “but I had to come by when I heard.”
In the days since Michael’s death, the outpouring of love and grief across the continents, from friends, acquaintances, and complete strangers, has comforted and stunned us. The pain—and beauty—of the moment is that it would have stunned Michael, too. For all the people he touched and inspired, for all the audacity of his political work, I believe he had no idea of his far-reaching influence. As each new tribute rolls in, I imagine him clapping his right hand over his mouth—a favorite gesture when he was shocked or moved—and shaking his head back and forth while letting out an emphatic “Whoaaaaaa!”
In some ways, I understand this. We in his family always knew that Michael was extraordinary, brilliant, and passionate—the best and boldest there was. But I don’t think we fully realized how extraordinary he was to so many other people. This was in part, I suspect, because Michael didn’t talk all that much about his work—which is to say, his particular role in any of the many struggles he had dedicated himself to. He would talk about the struggles themselves—about the abuses that moved him to action—but, as his wise friend Rashid Khalidi observed, Michael was always far more interested in finding out about other people than in talking about himself. He had an amazing enthusiasm for people, and when he was with you, he wanted to hear about your work, your children, your parents, your fears, your hopes and accomplishments.