My aunt, still groggy, repeated the complement, slightly more audibly. She had been sleeping comfortably in her hospital room, while my parents and I stood nearby, wondering whether or not to disturb her. She seemed peaceful, even snored a bit, and I thought my father's other sisters had exaggerated her condition. But sometimes looks are deceiving, and sometimes we see that which we want to see.
When the nurse was finished, she elevated the bed so my aunt could see her visitors. She was very tired, partly from the morphine, and partly from the ”Preleukemia” ravaging the once strong 82-year-old woman's system. It was only a few months ago that I first learned my dad had driven her to a few appointments for chemotherapy, he himself still recovering from heart surgery. It was hard to believe she had taken ill so quickly, so severely.
Though weak, she was still alert, and knew who we all were. She asked about my job and my bands. She inquired how my father was feeling. When my mom fed her some lemon ice, she called the nurse over and asked for more ices, not for herself, but for us. Looking back on the last time I saw my aunt, that generosity and concern for others sums up the type of woman she was. Even in pain, she was worrying about us.
Over the next few days, I found myself researching her syndrome, to find out the specifics of what she was dealing with, and what might cure it. Between her bone marrow not properly producing red and white blood cells, and her age, chances of recovery seemed slim. At her age, a marrow transplant wasn't a viable option, and they had already tried chemo to no avail. Her eldest son moved her into hospice care, where her pain was managed, and not much else could be done. I wished my final words to her had been more potent than “feel better”, a weak phrase in hindsight.
On Saturday morning, my cousin called with the news that his mother had passed away, one day shy of a week after I'd visited her with my folks. When my mom told me, my first thought was of my old man, and how he'd take the news. This is an 80-year-old who tests his limits since his heart operation by climbing up ladders, cutting down trees, and building small bridges for my mom's garden, then wondering why he still gets chest pains after such exertions. My dad and his four sisters might not be an indestructible lot, but they're a tough bunch, from tough origins. My grandfather survived World War I, with mustard gas damage to one eye, and still managed to dig out sand pits in his community, pioneer a lunch wagon, and run a general store. My grandmother raised five children, and once carried a burning kerosene stove out of the house in the middle of the night to save their lives. My dad would miss his sister, but he was a survivor like the rest of his family. We all agreed that she was no longer in pain, and that she had led a full life. She was the first in the family to get married, even before my dad's oldest sister, and had raised two sons. She lost my Uncle Armand about seven years ago, though mentally Alzheimer's had taken him well before that. And she had four grandsons, fortunate to have had their grandmother in their lives, the eldest for over 20 years. She was there for their concerts, baseball games, and recitals. She was there, loved, and was loved.
The next few days were a blur, with one constant. Family and friends converged and spoke not of how Aunt Josie died, but how she lived. We looked over old photo albums and remembered old gatherings. She was a great clarinet player, and I was fortunate to join both she and my dad for several Summers when I was younger, playing in a community band with alumni of their old high school. She worked as a librarian for many years. She used to have a cat named “Zsa Zsa”. Memories flooded the funeral home, stream-of-consciousness non-sequiters painting a collective portrait of the woman we all gathered to remember.
Most remarkable was the change in my Aunt Rose. She had lost weight, dyed her hair, and was extremely sharp, remembering the most minute details about her grand- nieces and nephews. As I drove her back to her nursing home after the wake on Tuesday night, she spoke about all her friends, and how she liked to walk around the courtyard, go on trips, and partake in various games and activities. Despite needing a walker, she was still very adept at maneuvering. I hadn't seen her since Easter, when she had been adjusting poorly to being moved to a new room. She didn't want to get out of bed. My Aunt Josie stopped by to see her while we were there, and chastised her for lying down. “Rosie, it's beautiful outside! You know how many people have worse problems than you, and wish they could go out there?” I'd seen my dad and his sisters bicker before, often like they were still children, but it always came from a place of tough love and old-fashioned Italians speaking their mind, for better or worse. At some point, Aunt Josie must have gotten through to her sister, and the change in my Aunt Rose was yet another legacy of her life.
At her mass on Wednesday morning, everyone had a role to play. Her grandsons served as pallbearers. I got to do a reading, as did her younger son's girlfriend. My dad and my Aunt Mary helped with the presentation of gifts for the Eucharist. The church was packed with family and friends, most of whom joined in the subsequent procession to the cemetery, passing her house one final time. There was an irate driver or two apparently unfamiliar with funerals, impatiently beeping and veering around the hearse and slow moving vehicles behind it, ignorant of the significance of our headlights. These minor annoyances aside, the weather at least was beautiful, warm and clear and less hot and humid. After a few final words from the priest, we each laid a rose on the coffin and said our goodbyes. I watched in awe as my Aunt Virginia, visiting from Florida for the services, walked with my father over a few rows to see my grandparents' plot. It was great to see them getting along as they paid respects to their parents. In such times, family tension will either be high, or family will come closer together. I'm glad the latter prevailed. We all enjoyed a nice lunch afterwards at one of my aunt's favorite restaurants. The day had gone quickly. Life, goes quickly.
Rest in Peace, Aunt Josie. To those whose lives you touched and influenced, you'll always be our darling.