Family. People you’re close to due to a commonality of blood, not ideology. I was going to say something pithy like that to start this diary. But instead I’ll just say it’s Memorial Day. And today I am thinking about my aunt.
My aunt died in February. Suddenly, terrifyingly. She was 77. In great shape (far better than me, as she loved to point out.) She worked out three times a week, walked her neighbors’ dogs two miles at a lick, mowed her own lawn and could pack a van with antique furniture better than any Teamster.
She was the product of a 1930s childhood, a repressed and perhaps even abused child who married because everyone said she should, then rebelled, and spent most of her life as a single working woman. She was tough, independent, a strong believer in secularism and women’s rights. She was also, contrary to her own best interests, a Republican.
My aunt marched for ERA in the late 70s after divorcing her abusive husband; she never had kids, spent her life working and loved it. She started as a secretary and ended up in management; the “girls” who worked with her and under her, loved her. She never went to college. At first that embarrassed her. But later she became suspicious of “over-educated elitists.” Her role in management pitted her against the union, which she also grew to mistrust.
I’m an only child. My liberal parents had me late and died early. But I’ve been close to my aunt for decades; i didn't have much family left. We shared a love of buying and selling vintage things; she taught me how to bid at an auction and how to bake a pie from scratch. There were a lot things we wouldn’t/couldn’t/didn’t talk about; politics topped that list. As recently as the second inauguration, she sent me a snarky email about what Michelle Obama dared to wear. “I wouldn’t work out in that,” she sneered. I said nothing; my emails to her just went offline for a few days.
Years before, she was more middle of the road – quick to criticize the elder Bush, when in a speech, he brought God into politics. Then, slowly, with the rise of right-wing radio and Fox news, the worst of her suspicions, tendencies and beliefs were leached out, heated white hot and welded firmly into place.
“You know,” she said casually, about 10 years ago, after the two-hour drive that separated our two residences, “That Rush Limbaugh show was on – I don’t usually listen to it, but he’s really funny – and he’s got some good points –“ I cut her off. “You know,” I said, keeping my voice deadpan neutral. “I had this same conversation with a guy I used to work with." I paused, letting my aunt absorb each word. “I never. Spoke. To him. Again.” A beat. Then, my aunt changed the subject.
I remembered that a few years ago when she stopped speaking to her only living (and, as she put it, "liberal, over-educated, socialist, hippie") sister. It chilled our own conversations even more. I stuck to safe subjects: antiques, the weather, her favorite "Dog Whisperer" show. Of course, there was the occasional sideways dig. If I parked in her driveway, I would make sure my Obama stickers were prominent to the street. In turn, she would insist on driving -- saying she didn't want to get in the "Obamamobile."
Politics aside, my aunt was always there for me: at my side when I had surgery in the ‘90s, always picking stuff up for me at auctions and emailing me on a daily basis. We would meet at sales or for lunch and to exchange resale finds. I’d stay at her house occasionally and she’d stay at mine.
Then, last December, she missed Christmas. She said she’d fallen off a stool. She saw her doctor; nothing was broken, but she didn’t seem to bounce back from it. Then she tripped and fell again in the yard. She saw the doctor repeatedly, but he was unable to find anything wrong. He thought she had pneumonia; a round of antibiotics followed. In January, I called her; she sounded slightly slurred, breathless, wrong. “Do you have your teeth in?” I asked. Annoyed, she said she did. I said nothing, except, “I’m coming down there.” She protested. Why? She was fine. Don’t bother.
When I got there, I was shocked by what I saw. She had lost 20 pounds or more. She was weak, almost bedridden; her hands didn’t work -- “bad arthritis,” she said. She had tremors – a side effect of the Vicodin and antibiotics she’d been prescribed, she claimed. I had learned over time not to argue. I simply told her she did not look good. Defiantly, she got up, walked across the room, bent, and slapped the floor. She wanted to show she was still mobile, still flexible. Still in control.
But to be honest, I couldn’t figure out how she had been surviving on her own for the past month. As I asked questions, it became clear that her friends, people I didn't know, women just a bit younger than she was, had been coming over daily, bringing meals, doing her shopping, taking her to work with them, or staying with her for a few hours. They had taken her to two different emergency rooms for a battery of tests that found nothing. Later, I would find out they had all been afraid to call me -- they knew my independent aunt would be pissed.
I was worried, but she had an appointment with a neurologist in two days. Then, I was sure, we would get some answers. I insisted on getting her friends' phone numbers and made her promise to give them mine. Before I left, she had me turn on the TV. I did. It was set to Channel 60. Fox news. A dig. I said nothing.
The next day, I got a call from one of her friends. She had been so weak they drove her to yet another ER; this one more than hour away at a university hospital in southern Illinois. Long story short, she walked into that ER, and within a day was diagnosed with ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease, and she never got out of bed again. Final stages. Her friends broke the news and held her hands as she cried. I drove down to the hospital in Urbana and met these friends for the first time. These were the women who worked with her and under her, all from small, conservative towns in rural Illinois. These were people she seemed much more comfortable with than me -- the liberal, over-educated, thorn-in-the-side, socialist niece. One was a practicing Catholic and had already brought in the priest to my atheist aunt. Privately, I rolled my eyes, but was grateful these women had been here when I was not.
She spoke with increasing difficulty. She was worried about the costs; she had Medicare and supplemental insurance – but the ALS drug was some crazy amount, like $1,200 a week. I checked into it for her. “It’s all covered,” I reassured her. “That socialist government you hate is taking good care of you.” A dig. She scowled. But in a way that that showed she was semi-joking. I knew she was relieved.
She weakened fast. She was afraid, but she was brave. Her only request: she did not want to die alone. One of her friends was working as an in-home health care nurse. I was surprised when she told me had once been the head of the local union. “There’s not much your aunt and I agree on," she told me, "but I love her.” That friend stayed every night with my aunt -- in the hospital; in the nursing home; holding her hand when she woke in the middle of the night, terrified. The other friends took turns. When I was there, alone with her, she wanted the TV on. “Channel 60, channel 60,” she said, with effort. Fox news. A dig. Knowing she was a big pit bull proponent, I distracted her with a story of a pit bull that saved a family from a house fire and got the channel changed to Animal Planet.
A couple more days and she was what the nursing home called ‘actively dying.” Her friends gathered around her bedside. I drove down from Chicago, distracted, and distraught. I threw a box of family photos in the car because the friends were already planning her memorial and needed photos of her. That night, my aunt seemed unconscious; her eyes half lidded, her breathing increasingly labored. Two of her friends took turns holding her hands; the core group grew and ebbed, gathering around her as the hour grew late.
I brought wine and passed it out and did my best to “host” the vigil. I started looking through the box of family photos – her wedding photo – a family outing -- and the conversation ranged all over. I pulled out a random photo and said, almost to myself: “Here I am with our current Lt. Governor.” Oh, you know the Simons?” one of the friends asked. “Yes,” I said, “That’s 12-year-old me with scrawny, 11-year-old Shelia Simon.” Instantly, the conversation warmed and became more animated. “God, I loved Paul Simon – we worked on every one of his campaigns,” another friend said, as the others nodded and began saying similar, affirmative things. And as I looked around, I realized that it was not just the former union head. Nearly all, if not all, of the friends at the bedside vigil were Democrats...know-it-all, smarty pants liberals. Holding my aunt's hand. I wondered what the lesson here was.
The friends drank and talked and held her hands and called the nurse when her breathing changed. The nurse came in, listened with her stethoscope and said it was over. My aunt had seemingly not been conscious for the past four hours, but in that moment, two tears, one from each eye, trickled down the sides of her face. I wiped them with a Kleenex, gathered up the photos and because it was so late, went to her house to sleep.
I paced her house, filled with lovely antiques, her ebay projects, and every fucking book that Ann Colter ever wrote. I gathered the books up and dropped them in the garbage can. I didn’t sleep.
Two days later, she was cremated...and more days elapsed before I began the long clean out of her jam-packed house. I invited all the loyal friends to come and take whatever they wanted as a remembrance. The Catholic took a book my aunt had left her on Ayn Rand with a smile. They brought food and wine and were setting up when the phone rang. I had been there many times in the days following her death, and while her answering machine was always full and flashing, this was the first time the phone rang while I was there.
I picked it up. “Hello?” That tell-tale pause and then, a voice: “Is XXX (my aunt) there? This is the Republican National Committee -- ” I had to laugh. Just like my aunt to get one more dig in. I spoke distinctly: “I’m sorry to inform you that she is deceased – but I am happy to say that she is off your fucking voter list for good.”
The friends looked up and a few of them laughed. Had to have the last dig, I guess. I am my aunt’s niece, after all.
But today, it’s not the first week in November, not a primary, not an election day. It’s Memorial Day.
Today, I miss her.