Tact vs. Age

My father grew up as a middle child with four sisters. Aunt Virginia is the oldest, followed by Aunt Josie. Aunt Mary is the youngest, after Aunt Rose. Like all siblings, there were times they didn't always get along. Aunt Josie was the first to get married and move out, followed by Aunt Virginia, who as the oldest wasn't too happy to be beaten to the altar. Aunt Mary wed next, followed by my dad, leaving Aunt Rose, who never married, at home with my grandfather(my grandmother had already passed). When he died, the question arose about what to do with the house. My father didn't want it sold, nor did my Aunt Rose, who was still living there. But Aunt Virginia, self-appointed leader, organized the others and pressured Aunt Rose into going along with them. She used their family lawyer to sue my father, something which shook him on multiple levels, something he'd never forget. “Hey, it's just business...” said his own lawyer when questioned about the course of action. In the end, my dad managed to hang on to a piece of property across the street, a garage along with a strip of land my grandfather bought my grandmother for her garden. To this day we still maintain it, including a pear tree, figs, grapes, and assorted wildflowers.

For a long time my dad didn't speak to his sisters, but gradually mended fences, though there would always be tension with Aunt Virginia. They all had their quirks and idiosyncrasies, with Aunt Rose seeming to be the “craziest” outwardly and Aunt Josie the most practical and down to Earth. Aunt Josie was also a clarinet player, and as an alumni of the same high school as my father, I got to play with both of them in the same Summer concert band for many years. At some point Aunt Virginia moved to Florida, where her husband died shortly thereafter, and remained there. They never had children. Aunt Josie had two sons, the oldest of whom married and had four boys. Aunt Mary had one son, who is now married with 3 kids. Aunt Rose never married, and went through some difficult times around the time I graduated college, no doubt made worse by some of the treatments she was subjected to by therapists her sisters sent her too. Once the drugs and shock treatments subsided, she went from the zombie mode she was in back to her old self. She eventually had to sell her apartment and move into an assisted living facility.

Aunt Josie lost her husband about five or six years ago to Alzheimer's, although mentally he was gone long before he perished. She remained a strong matriarch with her sons and grandsons. She was a good person for my dad to talk to when he was facing heart bypass surgery a few months ago, because she'd gone through the same thing. Recently she'd taken ill, and a few times my recovered father drove her to the doctor. About a month ago he let on that she was going for chemotherapy, because in his words she “supposedly had cancer.” That stemmed from his lack of knowledge of the exact details of her ailment, as well as her reputation as a mild hypochondriac. She erred on the side of caution when it came to visiting doctors, while my dad was the opposite extreme, reluctant to deal with medical professionals once his heart condition forced him to in his early 60s. Within the past week, I learned her condition was Myelodysplastic Syndrome, an early form of leukemia also referred to as “Preleukemia”. It's a disease of the bone marrow in which they don't produce healthy red or white blood cells. It's eventually fatal, but various treatments can keep a person going for years, depending on that individual's age and the severity of the problem. A bone marrow transplant is a possible cure, though no one over the age of 60 is considered a good candidate.

We visited her in the hospital over the weekend, after hearing she'd been admitted and wasn't doing well. She seemed to be resting comfortably, and I though my Aunt Mary had exaggerated her condition. She eventually woke up, groggy from the morphine, and my mom fed her some lemon ice. She was lucid, asking me about my job and my dad about how he was feeling. She said she couldn't stand the pain, while my dad said pain is good and we need it to know when something is wrong. He never knew the right thing to say even before he reached that age where people say whatever they think.

A few days ago my cousin had her moved to a hospice, which is usually where terminal patients were cared for. She was done with chemo, and not getting any more blood transfusions, which we later learned would only make the problem worse. When I came home from work on Wednesday, my dad said they went to see her, and she didn't look too good. I could tell by his expression and tone that the reality was finally hitting him. On Sunday, he was telling my Aunt Rose that Aunt Josie didn't look as bad as everyone was saying, although he followed that assessment with, “but she said she wants to die”, a matter-of-fact statement that I probably wouldn't have said to the nursing home-bound aunt. Thing is, that lack of tact, that brutal honesty, is a family trait on my dad's side. And with age, it doesn't get any better. The worst offender, the one who has me reeling enough to be venting all of this, is my Aunt Virginia. She called and spoke with my mom, and told her she was coming up to visit. She also said this would be her only visit for this situation, and if Aunt Josie didn't die by the weekend, she would not be returning for the funeral. “I have to do what I have to do,” she said. I know my aunt is suffering and there's a strong chance she won't improve, but part of me hopes she sticks around long enough to “inconvenience” her older sister. It's one thing to be realistic about a situation, but it's a whole different thing to try to plan someone's death and coordinate with your personal schedule. In the back of my mind, I might be thinking about all the work I have to get done at the office right now, and the feast I'm scheduled to play in New Jersey next Monday, but I know that a funeral is without question one of those “drop everything” scenarios, that will take priority.

I grew up as an only child, so I guess I don't have a true sense of how siblings relate to each other. All my “brothers” and “sisters” are simply close friends with similar interests, people who chose to make me a part of their lives and vice versa. You can't choose family, and family doesn't always get along. People also deal with grief in different ways, so I recognize that her apparent lack of tact may be her way of not showing that this is bothering her. Or she's heartless. Whatever she was like when she was younger, when she took action against my dad before I was born, she hasn't improved with age. As for me, I continue to pray for my Aunt Josie to recover, or at the very least to enjoy some more pain free days. And when the inevitable happens, I'll miss whatever I need to miss in order to pay my respects to a good Aunt and a fellow musician. As my folks raised me, that's what family does.


Anonymous FawnDoo said...

Families are funny things - and I mean funny as in "peculiar", not funny as in "ha ha". I can't understand your aunt's actions any more than you can, to be honest, but it's not limited to your family. We live in Scotland and like many Scots families, have relatives in Canada thanks to a WWII marriage. My grandmother has a sister over there, and she wanted to go over to see her for her birthday. We started buying tickets and getting things sorted out until my great-aunt - my grandmothers own damn sister - said she didn't want to see her and put the brakes on the whole thing. There hadn't been any friction, no fights to that point, nothing. People are just weird sometimes, and while families will bring out the very best in people nine times out of ten, there is always that one time that it will bring out their absolute worst.

7/22/2010 5:19 AM  

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