This afternoon my aunt passed away. She was 89 years old. Like all things in the internet age, I learned about my aunt’s passing from a text message my mother sent to her five children and her three daughters-in-law.
“Sadly,” it read, “Aunt S. passed away, very peacefully, about 2 hours ago. I have made arrangements for the funeral home to pick her up. When it is convenient for all of you, we will have a family service at my home.” It was not really a surprise. My aunt’s health has been declining for a very long time. While I feel very sad at the loss of my aunt, I also know that her long-suffering is finally over.
One of the earliest memories of my aunt was when I was three or four years old. As a child, my aunt would tell me stories about a fairy named Matilda that lived in a thimble under her bed. She would talk in a high childlike voice as she explained that she would feed Matilda strawberry’s and cream every morning and they would drink tea from little tiny teacups. I believed these stories and thought they were wonderful. Every night before I went to bed I began to imagine stories about Matilda and then later my own stories about a fairy kingdom that I, along with Mr. Dog, the beloved stuffed animal that I slept with, ruled over. My own imaginary world, which helped me to fall asleep every night, begun with my aunts Matilda stories, and only ended sometimes in high school.
It is hard to describe my aunt. She never married and she lived with my grandmother her entire life until my grandmother died at the age of 100. My aunt survived my grandmother by twelve difficult years.
The last twelve years of my aunt’s life were particularly hard, with the increasing breakdown of her body and her mind, she fought to maintain her independence. Long before my grandmother died my aunt had begun to walk with a cane. The socket of her hip was worn out and continuing to worsen. A few years after my grandmother passed away, we learned that my aunt was crawling from her bedroom to the kitchen, because it was too painful to walk. Finally, the family pressured her to have the hip replacement operation, which she did.
My aunt was a hoarder and her apartment was full to the brim with clothes and magazines and trash. When she was recovering from her hip replacement operation we went into her apartment to clean it up. Her bedroom was filled almost to the height of the bed with clothes and newspapers and other garbage. It was hard to stay in the apartment for very long without feeling sick.
Even after the hip operation, my aunt’s health continued to slowly fail. We knew that she was long past the time when she should be living alone, but my aunt had a fierce will, and no one had the courage to cross her. We worried about her tripping over the items that filled the apartment. But she quickly cut off any attempt to discuss her moving out of her apartment.
About two and a half years ago my aunt collapsed inside the front door of her apartment after going shopping. She lay on the floor, in and out of consciousness, wrapped in her winter coat, until my mother found her the next morning. After my aunt was taken to the hospital, checked out, and released, she came to recover at my parent’s house. She stayed with my parents for a few months while my mother prepared to move her to an assisted living facility.
I have always been close to my aunt, but it was my grandmother that I adored. When my grandmother died I made a commitment to myself and to my grandmother’s memory to take care of my aunt and find ways to support her. I made sure I called her regularly and we would have long talks about everything: the news; what was happening in the world; a play I had seen on Broadway; what was happening in my life. These conversations took her away from herself and brought her back to the world around her. Many conversations began with her being groggy and out of it, only to have her come alive as we spoke. We became closer in these years and I knew that I was building a well of trust that I would need one day as things became more difficult for her.
When it was time to move my aunt into the assisted living facility my mother was unable to have the conversation with her. I told my mother I would talk to her. I asked my mother to leave the house and leave us alone for at least an hour. By the time my mother returned my aunt understood that she would be moving to assisted living the following week.
From the day we put her in the assisted living facility, my aunt hated everything about the place. She hated the staff. She hated the other residents. She simply hated being there and her anger never left her for a moment.
My aunt never had many friends in all the years that I knew her, and after my grandmother died and her own health began to fail, her world was reduced to her apartment and the apartment’s van to the supermarket. She began to have hallucinations that the ladies on the van talked about her, that the van driver hated her and was out to get her, and the nasty neighbor across the hall was trying to get her thrown out of the building. Some of this was true, but it was exaggerated by her own paranoia, hallucinations, and isolation from the world.
The hallucinations only got worse in the assisted living facility. Assisted living facilities are like sensory deprivation tanks. The only people who talk to you are the service people: nurses; aids; cleaning people; food servers. You are alone for hours on end with nothing but your thoughts, and my aunt became more and more isolated. As her mind and hearing deteriorated, she no longer read or watched TV, once her two great passions. She was alone all day, sitting in a large reclining chair in a common room for the residents, drifting in and out of sleep, and imagining a world that did not exist.
I remember one day she told me about the man who lived in her closet and stole her clothes to feed his family. When I questioned this she looked at me with sadness, “Oh dear, I was sure you of all people would believe me.” She would tell me one visit that someone had been murdered. The next visit she would tell me the staff was stealing her things. The next visit I would hear that someone had been sexually accosted. She was sure and unmovable in her belief that all these things had happened. It was no use trying to argue with her.
In the last year of her life, the muscles of her legs could no longer support her and she was unable to walk. Her hands, withered from post-polio syndrome, had become like claws and no longer worked properly. Feeding herself was difficult and embarrassing. As this constant attack on her body continued, and she began to have difficulty hearing, she imagined people making fun of her and talking about her behind her back. It was a sad ending for a lonely and difficult life.
But my aunt could also be full of life. She was highly educated and opinionated. She loved fashion and art. She could talk about all the fashion designers of her era and never tired, when she was younger, of buying used couture clothing. Her apartment contained rack and racks of used couture clothing, all carefully covered in plastic. She knew all about art history and could tell you in rich detail about periods of art history and about specific paintings or sculptures. She loved learning and was always telling me something she had learned from her two favorite TV shows: Dr. Oz and The Doctors.
My aunt and I were part of the small liberal wing of the family and for many years she would ask me, “Are you still a Democrat?” “Yes, why do you always ask me that”, I would say. I think she was afraid I would go over to my father’s brand of conservatism.
I came out to my aunt twice. The first time was in the mid-1980s when I had gotten involved with a philosophy that purported to help men change from homosexuality through the study of the philosophy. When I came out to her then, she said: “Oh my dear, grandmother and I have always known. I grew up in the theatre and knew many homosexual men.” I’m sure there was more to the discussion but I no longer remember the words. But the bottom line she was supportive of me and loved me.
When I came out to her more recently, in the Fall of 2013, as she sat in my parents guest bedroom, recovering from her recent stay in the hospital after collapsing in her apartment, she did not mince words: “Oh my dear, you have to be who you are! I’m so happy for you.” That was it, unconditional support and love. Again, I know we talked more that day and I gave her more details about my new life and the ending of my marriage, but I no longer remember the details. I do remember that throughout the conversation she was supportive of the choices I had made.
More recently my aunt met my boyfriend, and when I saw her next, weeks later, she asked me about him and commented on how much she liked him and how intelligent she thought he was. This came from a woman who did not remember what she had for breakfast that day, or even if she had eaten breakfast that day.
I will miss my aunt. My aunt and grandmother were such a central part of my life and my growing up. They both had a tremendous influence on me.
From the Matilda stories my aunt told me to the stories my grandmother told me of growing up on the boardwalk in Atlantic City, N.J., they are all part of who I am.
So goodbye kiddo. I hope where ever you are, you are giving them hell.