I spent this week over-working, feeling guilty about not blogging, going from especially beautiful morning Masses to gritty too-fast work, running home late and eating foods I'd be ashamed of having analyzed by the coroner ("she died after a dinner of Cheetos and orange juice and a Lean Cuisine and a, a, pickle....") when I was brought up short.
My aunt died today.
She was "old enough," in her 80's and in poor health, but her mind and spirits were sharp. She was a good aunt, an aunt always glad to see me, not classifying and limiting me to the role of the big blonde piano-playing cousin in the hordes of wiry brunette cousins, far down the list, but as me, Therese. Those of you from big families know what I mean; you get assigned a slot, sometimes, and you stay in it. Now, she might have always called me by three other, older, cousins' names before she got to mine, but she made me know she appreciated me, and I appreciated her.
She was a extra-good story-teller, had a ribald chuckle, and didn't skimp on the truth. If one of my great-aunts, who I dimly remember as a nice little old lady, spent the 1940's weaving her way to the liquor store in her bare feet and nightgown, I heard in hilarious detail what the neighbors thought, not the sanitized version my mother stuck to. If my aunt thought something I cooked or canned was good, she told me exactly WHY it was good. Sometimes she told me how it could have been better. When I was very small, I stayed with her when my brother was being born, and she not only took me to Woolworth's and let me buy whatever I wanted (a brass bell), but she bought me my favorite cereal (Kix) AND let me ride their enormous German Shepherd. Isn't it funny how over forty years later, I still feel a special bond and fondness because of that little act of silly kindness?
My uncle died six years ago, and she lived near me in a retirement home. Her children were very good to her, but I lived the closest, so I stopped for coffee every couple of weeks so after church. In among the drunk relative stories, we reviewed her married life, and her working life. I got to know her, not as my aunt (talk about the slots), but as a girl, a woman, a person. Since I nearly always saw her for coffee right after Mass, she even started asking me careful shy questions about why faith was important; she'd never been "very religious," but eventually she shyly and proudly told me that she had started going to the communion service one of the local priests would conduct at the center once a month, and even got a little glow on about it.
I am, of course, very sad to lose her, but I am especially struck by her loss when I realize how much we measure our own mortality by the lives of our families. The babies are driving, the teens are getting married, the aunts and uncles are suddenly frail under your hand when you reach out to steady them. One day, they cackle instead of laugh; they seem littler when you stand next to them.
But I age, too: my mother is sobbing in my arms, and I know what to do, and do it. It seems like only yesterday when a grandmother or someone died, and I was almost embarassed at my lack of ability to know what to say or do or where to look.
Roles reverse, slowly, and the feeble but merciless light of mortality shines now on my mother's head, as the oldest surviving sibling in her family, two having gone before. My dad's been gone for six years. My brother's been bald so long I can't remember him with hair. His children can't sit in my lap anymore without causing any of us an injury. My oldest cousins are in their 60's. My youngest cousin went into premature labor with her first today; she doesn't know about the death, yet. Without times like these, I can fool myself that the family is passing me on some sort of aging conveyor belt, while I stand off to one side and age at a different rate. Wrong.
I thank Jesus for His Light, as He guides me surely through what I have to do at times like these.
Good night, Aunt Eileen. I love you.
3 hours ago