My aunt passed away last week. Actually, it was more than a week ago, now. She was one of the oldest out of my dad’s 10 siblings and even though she was in her 80’s, it was sudden. I feel guilty mentioning her age. She considered herself one of the younger ones. Dancing, laughing, playing cards, having a few cocktails, my aunt was a true joy, right to the end.
I call her my aunt because, well, that’s what she was genetically but, in my heart she was a lot more. Since my grandparents had so many kids and my dad was the last to be born, they died a long time ago. Everyone always felt bad for my brother and I not knowing them, but we ended up with 6 grandmas because of it. All of them spoiled us with hugs, snuggles, gifts, laughs, food and even happy tears.
My aunt who passed away was one of my favorites, although I shouldn’t admit that for fear of hurting one of the others’ feelings. The thing about her was that she possessed this strength and resilience that carried her through miscarriages, her young husband’s death, raising two boys, her work and in the most recent years, her declining health and loss of the independence in which she knew. Yet, in all this strength, she was never bitter, angry, jealous or woeful.
When I was in college, I came home for some holiday and found myself sitting on my cousin’s front porch, talking with my aunt. She opened up to me about being a widow, having sons as opposed to daughters and how hard it was to consciously choose to be happy. That talk was over ten years ago but is one that I have thought about often. That moment became life-altering for me because right then, my unfaltering aunt became a human to me. It was after that, when our relationship changed. We became peers to one another as opposed to aunt and niece. We could tease each other and confide in one another. I could be honest with her and we could share things on the most personal level. Her advice, guidance, perspective and honesty about life’s hardships were things I took to heart because she gave it so realistically and wisely.
I was able to see her before she died. I’ve seen a few people in this final stage of life but because of my age or relationship with her, this time was different. When I saw her laying in this hospital bed in her son’s den, in and out of consciousness, I tried so hard to hold the tears back because no one else was crying. Why do we do this? Why do we feel shame in expressing such emotion? For me, the shame came from her being just my aunt. It was her sons, daughter in law, grandchildren and siblings who deserved to cry. Not me. I needed to be strong for them.
I sat next her and put my right hand in hers, while my left hand held the top of hers. “It’s me, Mia.” I was smiling and trying to talk normal but I started to cry. “May I kiss your cheek?” She opened her eyes and nodded with as much of a smile as she could muster. I kissed her cheek and told her, “I love you so much and will try my hardest to be as great of a person as you have been to me.” Another cousin of mine sat across from me, holding her other hand. After a while, we needed to help our aunt go to the bathroom and as we did so, I could feel her humiliation. Even though she was foggy from the morphine, she made small gestures that signaled to us that she wanted to do this herself. She, even while weak, doped up and dying was embarrassed. Embarrassed.
When I said goodbye that evening, I knew that would be my final goodbye. Part of me wanted to keep saying goodbye but the logical part of my brain reassured me that I had said everything I needed to say.
Two days later, she died.
I was trying to fall asleep when I got a call from my dad. He began to cry and all I could say was, “I’m so sorry, dad.” I couldn’t sleep that whole night but for the first time in my life, I found myself grateful that death took someone I loved so much. I know that sounds ridiculous but my aunt lived a long, lively life and being dependent was not her style. She left this world respectfully and with dignity, which is exactly how she will always be remembered.
Her body was laid out for 2 days at the funeral home. Which may seem weird but, #1 she had a lot of friends and #2 it let us be with her just a little bit longer. It’s odd because for the 2 days I was at the funeral home, I was okay. I think mentally, I felt like she was just on the other side of the room, talking to someone. It wasn’t until we were at the church when they closed the casket that it hurt the most. It hurt like it did when I saw her dying. When we went to the luncheon after, I just kept thinking “I wish she was coming too” and I know I wasn’t the only one who felt like that by the number of cocktails that were ordered.
I also know that sometimes when people die, everyone says these grandiose things and maybe even brush some things under the rug. The thing is, my aunt was human and not perfect but that’s exactly what made her so perfectly loved.