My aunt died this morning of cancer.
It was her second bout. She was a breast cancer survivor from several years ago, and an entirely separate cancer appeared near her kidney. From what I got from my mother, the doctors referred to it as a lymphoma, but it was not a blood cancer. (Rather a specific type of lump.) I had not spoken to her recently, but as per instructed by my family, had been sending her text messages. She was in a lot pain before she died, and had become very depressed.
My family has always been far away. The distance has been a long way physically, and sometimes emotionally. My mother’s family is not a part of the picture, and maybe that’s for the best, and my father’s family has always been spread out. We’ve not gotten to spend a lot of time with them since we moved from New York in 1985 (when I was three). Despite being so far away and not having a whole lot of contact, I always loved seeing them. I have always been fond of my cousins, and have wonderful memories of being around them throughout my life.
When T-storm and I got married, neither of us had a huge contigent of family there. But everyone who was there meant a lot. There was a wonderful moment in which I went to the second hotel where our families were staying the day before the wedding, and was greeted at the downstairs continental breakfast by his aunts, shouting “There’s the bride!!” It was instant acceptance, and so much love in the room it was almost overwhelming.
When my family got there, they were a bit more low-key (my father was the one with the hysterical gene, apparently), but it was so wonderful having them around. My grandmother, aunt and two uncles came (all biological family), as well as my cousin who was only a year younger than me. They danced, they enjoyed the photobooth, they had an absolutely wonderful time. My brother told me that my cousin, who lives in Manhattan, was double-fisting cupcakes from the cupcake truck we had there, which made me feel pretty great. My uncle’s girlfriend stayed until the very end, until we lit the sparklers, and danced the night away with me and my diehard dancefloor friends. I got to take photos with them and I was so glad we were able to show them a good time.
I was so grateful my aunt was able to make it to the wedding. Strangers told me that I looked just like her when I was a kid, and while our encounters were only every few years, they always meant a lot.
The wedding was in November; in March she was stricken with her diagnosis, and now two months later, is gone.
My father had a terrific talent for berating people, although he did so lovingly most of the time. My aunt’s husband, uncle D, was often a target; my father would joke about him being uptight or boring, but my time spent with him was always great. He was warm and caring, an unbelievably devoted husband, and also hilarious. My brother and I spent a good deal of time at their house in the summer of 1997, playing video games in their basement and seeing family. I have a specific memory of an epic Scrabble battle between uncle D and my mother, and the morning after, before he left for work, he wrote out some trash talk as a prelude to a Scrabble rematch, and my mother took a red pen to the note and gleefully corrected it. That made us laugh for years afterwards.
My uncle D is rightfully devastated. He and my aunt had a wonderful life together: two children, an amazingly beautiful grandchild (whose birth my aunt got to witness), got to retire and travel a little, and had the most beautiful garden in the backyard of their house on Long Island. One of my favorite all-time photos is me, at age 14 that same summer, with my brother and my two younger cousins in their backyard. My aunt & uncle were together for over 40 years. In a lot of ways, T-storm reminds me of uncle D and for that, I think I’m lucky.
While I didn’t get to spend nearly enough time with so many of my relatives, family lore and legend has played a huge part in my life. There have been times that I feel like I don’t come from anywhere, or that I lack customs or heritage or whatever else, and then I think of stories from my childhood. Videos of my third birthday party, right before we left Long Island for Florida, where my whole damned family was there and I wore my She-Ra mask with my little plaid dress. It’s not religion or nationality that define me, it seems – photos and stories and the such make up the core of my existence. And even things beyond childhood, like when my brother brought home leftovers from a fancy Italian restaurant that summer we spent on LI, and my cousin ate them at 3 in the morning. It’s family legend. And it runs deeper through me than I realize most of the time.
My aunt was an exceptional education teacher for decades, and so I have thought of her particularly often over the last year. She was able to retire and have some calm time. She and my grandmother were exceptionally close – my aunt was the first born of four kids, and the only girl. At this point, my grandmother has buried two husbands and two children. (My father died when I was 19.)
The world is a terrible place sometimes, and surely there are worse ways to live and die. But her end was particularly rough, and she’s left a huge hole in the lives of everyone who loved her.
The only thing that seems to make sense out of it all is that the next time someone chides me for spending money to travel and go to friends’ weddings and the likes, I won’t even listen. Celebrating the lives of the people you love is important, and I consider myself so lucky to have gotten to see her one last time before she was taken from so many who loved her.