“[MCF], it's time to get up. Aunt Irene died.”
I sat bolt upright in bed, certain I had been dreaming and didn't hear what I thought I heard. He quieted me down and told me my mom was still on the phone with my uncle. As the shock subsided, he told me she had passed away a few hours earlier during the night. It took a while for my mind to process it. My mind in many ways is still processing it, and I can only imagine what her immediate family is feeling right now.
She was my mom's oldest brother's wife, and growing up they were my favorite aunt and uncle. I once told them I liked them the best because they got me toys while the rest of my family bought socks and underwear. I felt guilty about that years earlier when I understood a child's faux pas of being too honest. It wasn't just the gifts that I liked though, materialistic brat that I was. They were fun. They visited Disney often, long after my cousin was grown and living on his own. They traveled to casinos. They always had the largest tree at Christmas. Parties at their house ran late and included card games and a veritable banquet. They were the first ones to get a computer, cable television, air conditioning and other modern amenities. My Uncle is a hard worker like most of my family, but together with my Aunt they were different from everyone else. They didn't complain about health problems or politics, at least when I was growing up. They went to restaurants, told jokes, laughed, and lived.
My Aunt was 77, only a year older than my father. She had some things working against her. She was diabetic, overweight, and had developed heart problems in the last few years. She loved life, but didn't have the discipline to give up the foods that made life enjoyable, even if doing so might have extended hers. That takes both fear and inhuman focus that a rare few possess. The last time we were all together for the holidays, at the beginning of the year, my dad brought a list of foods from his nutritionist, noting what he was allowed to have and what he wasn't. I don't know if she tried to follow it or not. I do know she was in and out of the hospital the last few months, with swelling, shortness of breath and the other problems that accompany heart trouble. I also remember the last time I saw her seeing cracks in her trademark jovial facade as she lamented getting old and told me to enjoy my youth. “We all live too long nowadays, and we're all falling apart.” I'd heard similar sentiments from other members of my family over the years, especially my dad, but never from her. Her spirit was weak back then, and last night at 2 AM, her physical self succumbed to kidney failure.
She led a good life, and definitely enjoyed it to the fullest before her health problems. Those rote statements people say in these situations like “she had a good run” or “it was her time” will probably be small comfort to my uncle, my cousin, or her sister. Will my cousin's daughter and son, who I believe are about 7 and 5 respectively, remember their grandmother? I lost my maternal grandmother, the only grandparent still alive after I was born, when I was 9 or 10 and I remember her vividly, sometimes to my mom's surprise. There's so much my aunt won't see her grandchildren do, except perhaps from heaven. I don't know what that's like, if we are still aware of the events on Earth, but I know it's different for those of us left behind. I'm sad that she won't be at my wedding. That's not an announcement, by the way. Other than a few casual dates with someone a few months ago, I really haven't made much progress on that front. It's just that my aunt would always ask me whenever she saw me if I had a girlfriend, and I know my wedding was something she was looking forward to. I would have liked for her to be there. It reminds me that my parents aren't getting any younger either, and I hope they're still here when that day comes.
I'm going to miss my aunt. All day long yesterday at odd times I've been imagining her voice in my head, the way she'd say the childhood version of my name, the way it didn't bother me as much as when other people still used it. I wonder about the irony that some of life's greatest pleasures are deadly in the long run. I've been fighting a downhill battle with my own weight since college, and a few months ago at a sobering record high of 215 lbs, it was time for a change. I've gotten down to 198, and I'm focused on a specific goal right now to help with my discipline. In exactly five weeks I'm going to be running a 3.5 mile race at Jones Beach, an annual competition among Long Island's corporate circles. I ran it for the first time in 2003 and finished in about 32 minutes which, while not great when the winners clock in at just under 20 minutes, was still pretty good for me. I was only about 180 then though, and worked out for an hour and a half daily. In 2004 and 2005 the race fell on the same day as an Italian Feast, but this year that gig falls a day later which means I can make the race. My goal is to do as well if not better than I did the last time, but I weigh more and only get in a half hour a day at the gym. So to facilitate achieving my goal, I'm eliminating the snacks that I enjoy. Can I really go 35 days with no sweets and no chips? I have no idea, but I'm going to try, and I'll occasionally post my weight to keep myself honest and leave myself open to motivational ridicule.
We can never eat sweets and live to be 100, but if we're unhappy is it worth it? Conversely, if we indulge in every craving we might be happy in the short term, but all we'd have is a short term. I think to enjoy life we need to find balance in all things. We all have a finite run time on this planet. I want to enjoy mine, but I also don't want to miss anything that might happen when I'm gone. We'll miss things after we pass on, but more importantly, people will miss us. I'm going to be very aware of that truth over the next few days.