It has been a rough week, you guys! Really, really rough.
Warning, this is REALLY long! Feel free to skip it.
I received word from my sister that our aunt (a year older than me, a year younger than her) was in the hospital in a medically induced coma because she had a severe blood infection and there was nothing more the doctors could do for her. They were keeping her alive until her children were able to say goodbye. I don’t know if that happened before she died but I do know that her children are devastated. She has been their rock and support.
She had a rough life. Her father died when she was eight. She was raised by a single mom as an only child and was what we could call these day “a special snowflake.” She was the center of her mother’s universe and got pretty much everything she wanted. Never had to learn how to handle the bumps and bruises that this world can throw at you. This caused some very difficult times for her when she became an adult. She got married young to a very abusive man and lived in hell for a lot of years and six kids before she was able to make her escape. At some point during her marriage to the monster, all her children were taken away from her and they were required to take parenting classes. In hindsight, this was probably the best thing that could have happened for her. I believe it was that experience that gave her the courage to get out of the situation. You know, there are a lot of things we’ll put up with when it’s just us, but when our kids are affected, it is different. So, horrible as it was for her to be separated from her kids, it ended up being a blessing in disguise. She was incredibly close to all her children. She was a doting grandmother.
When we were kids we used to have grand adventures. She always had health issues and had a difficult time keeping up with my brothers and me. But that didn’t stop her from trying. I will never forget the time when we went to go hiking up to Chalk Cliff. It was this place in the hills behind our house in Southern California that we spent a lot of time in as kids. There was a little cave in the face of the cliff and a narrow path to get to the cave. My brothers and I would spend hours in this cave. It was our own personal little kingdom. When my aunt was visiting one summer she wanted to go to our cave with us. We reluctantly let her, fearful that she wouldn’t be able to make it across the very narrow path. At one point in the path you had to jump across a gap where the path had eroded. She was determined that she could make it, so we let her tag along. She made it quite easily to the part of the path that was eroded and then she froze. I was in front of her. My brothers were behind her. She started in on what I would now call a panic attack, but back then we called it a freakout. I managed to calm her down. Assured her that she could make the jump and that I would help her. She jumped for all she was worth and came up just shy of solid footing on the path and began slipping down the crevice that the erosion had created. I instantly went flat on my belly and grabbed her behind the wrist to keep her from falling off the cliff. (God, we were stupid!) My brother, totally in synch with me, was on his belly grabbing her. I had hold of one of her arms and with her other arm she clawed at the ground trying to find a handhold. Dave had hold of the waistband of her pants. Dan had hold of Dave to keep him from sliding off the ledge. I inch-wormed my way backwards on the ledge as I pulled on her arm and Dave tugged on her britches. She was finally able to get firmly onto the ledge and crawled the rest of the way into the cave. We spent far longer in the cave than normal because none of us wanted to go back across the path to leave. As time went on, we knew that we had to get home before we all got busted for being someplace we weren’t supposed to be. There were two options: Go out the way we came in and hope for a better outcome at the erosion spot; or go down the face of the cliff. It wasn’t a completely straight down route, but it was STEEP! There were humps of solid ground in between the ravines that were created by erosion from rainfall. The humps were just wide enough that if you straddled them like you were riding a horse and you could scooch your way down. Those were our only options and neither was great. We let my aunt choose. Falling into the erosion on the way in scared her beyond belief and there was no way she was going to choose that path, so down the front we went. My brothers and I had been down the face hundreds of times. We’d slide down pretty quickly without even thinking of the consequences of falling off the main ridge. It was a painstakingly slow descent with my aunt in tow. I went first. She saddled up right behind me. The two brothers behind her. She clung to me for dear life as we went down and we eventually made it safely to the canyon floor. Every time we’d talk after that, she would talk about that story. It was a grand adventure for her. I was about 12 at that time, so she was 13 and my brothers were 9 and 10.
When we were really young (shortly after my grandfather died) we were visiting them. I must have been about 8. They had a paper route as a way to make ends meet and I rode along with them one morning. My aunt was a chubby kid, but she had grandiose dreams. She was going to be a ballerina. She would hop out of the car, throw the newspaper onto the porch, twirl a bit, and hop back in the car so her mom could drive to the next place. I sat in the back seat watching them do their job, laughing and chatting with them. It didn’t occur to me back then that they were poor and that this job was a necessity in their life. To me, they were just delivering papers and having fun. At one house, my aunt jumped out of the car and tripped after her foot got caught in the seat belt. She went through some quite hilarious maneuvers trying to catch her balance. She threw the newspaper onto the porch and got back into the car. The first words out of her mouth, “Can you believe that a graceful ballerina like me could do something like that?” Her mother chuckled and nodded. I sat in the back seat giggling hysterically. The thought of her as a ballerina struck my funny bone. At 8 years old, I saw an irony that my aunt could not see.
When my family moved away from Southern California, I didn’t see my aunt again for a very long time. It wasn’t until she married the abusive asshole that we were in a close enough proximity to rebuild our relationship. When she was pregnant with her third child they were living at the asshole’s parent’s house. She called me one day. I had just had my second child six weeks earlier. She said she thought she was in labor but wasn’t sure and her husband wasn’t available to take her to the hospital. I can’t for the life of me remember why he couldn’t, just that he wasn’t available. My neighbor graciously took my kids for me so that I could go take her to the hospital. When I arrived at the in-law’s house to pick her up I could tell right away that she was in labor. Every couple of minutes during the car ride to the hospital she was desperately clawing at the roof of my car, much like she had clawed at the side of that cliff all those years ago. I laughed at her and said, “So you only *think* you’re in labor.” She chuckled at me and said that she wasn’t in too much pain, but the contractions were coming more frequently. We got to the hospital and I ran inside to request a wheelchair. She got seated and the itty bitty nurse on duty pushed the wheelchair into a room as my aunt death-gripped my hand. We got her into a hospital gown and she announced that she had to use the bathroom real quick before she got into the bed. I’m not sure what the nurse was thinking when she agreed to that, but my aunt sat down on the toilet and began pushing. I said, “OH, NO NO NO, YOU ARE NOT PUSHING RIGHT NOW….BREATHE!!!!!” She looked up at me with fear in her eyes. I don’t know how many of you have ever had pushing contractions and then been told you can’t push. I have. And it’s a very panicky feeling. Your body is telling you to do this thing and you NEED to do this thing but someone is telling you to stop doing this thing that is as important as breathing is. She tried “hee-hee-hooing” while I yanked her off the toilet. I’m a gentle sort, no? My aunt never lost her childhood chub. She was a large woman, much exaggerated by the pregnancy. So me and this itty bitty nurse had to practically carry/drag her to the bed. We got her situated and not a moment too soon. I have never seen a birth from that angle before. (TMI alert!!!!) The baby was out and the doctor was just getting ready to clamp the cord (which was really weirdly twisted and kinked) when that cord suddenly burst and it started flapping about similar to what a water hose will do when the pressure is turned up to high. Blood was flinging everywhere. I’m not sure what the expression on my face was, but the expression on my aunt’s face was priceless. Panic/horror/fascination all rolled up into one look. The doctor managed to snag the unruly cord and clamp it off on the momma’s side and the baby’s side. They whisked the baby away, something about the unclamped cord…needed to evaluate the baby…blah blah blah. My aunt passed the rest of everything that passes when you have a baby. The nurse cleaned up. The doc left. We were alone in that room. I was sitting on the edge of the bed. She still had a death grip on my hand. I looked her square in the eyes and said, “So you *think* you might be in labor?” And we both burst out laughing. We laughed until she begged me to stop laughing because her stomach hurt! A few months ago we were chatting on facebook and she said that she loves to tell the story of her daughter’s birth. She said that her son just older than Em always called his sister “shithead” because she was almost born in the toilet. It seems that it was quite the term of love and affection in their house. 🙂
I have many, many happy memories of time spent with my aunt. I also have many, many regrets about my relationship with her. Once I moved away from Utah I lost contact with her completely. Until last September when we had a long chat on facebook, I hadn’t talked to her or seen her for probably 20 years. I should have. I could have. She lived in a little town called Montrose. I passed by that little town a hundred times over the years driving to and from my house to my parent’s house. I’ve driven passed that little town time and again since moving away making visits out west. Every time I pass through I think, “I should stop and see my aunt.” But I never did. I was right there, but I never stopped just to check in on her. I never met her new husband, who I understand was totally awesome! I never met her youngest three children. I did not do right by her in our adult lives. I should have done better. I should have been there for her when she went through her divorce. I should have stayed in touch. It was just too inconvenient. And I was selfish. And that is really eating at me. I know there is nothing that can be done about it now. And I know that I can’t beat myself up over it now. But holy shit, it is not a great feeling to know that you’ve really let someone who used to be close to you down. It’s a bitter pill to swallow. And now it’s too late.
Every fiber of my being hopes that there really is a heaven because I would like to think of her in the arms of her parents, whom she missed horribly. I’d like to think of her being able to be that tom-boy that she always was at heart, but that her body denied her the privilege of being. I’d like to think of her being energetic and easily jumping over crevices on the sides of cliffs. I’d like to think that she’s at peace.
Rest in peace to a sweet, gentle soul with the whackiest senses of humor ever.