My mother called me tonight to say that her sister’s son had just called to say that she had died. And my first reaction was, “… of WHAT?” because I had no idea that she had been dying of anything. So it turns out that she had leukemia, and that she didn’t want to go through chemotherapy because of her age (she was almost a decade older than my mother). So she was in a hospice for several weeks, and then she died there.
I may have mentioned before that several of my family members had spent a lot of time talking about and planning for their deaths. This included my mother belonging to the Hemlock Society when I was too young to understand what hemlock was but old enough to read the word on the envelopes she got in the mail. This included my paternal grandfather giving my mother revised lists of which people she should and shouldn’t allow at his funeral (like it would be a standing-room-only event and my mother would be standing at the door with a list and a velvet rope). This also included my father telling me on numerous occasions about the suicide pact he had with my mother, which — surprise! — never really existed.
My mother was usually the one to break the news to me about a death in the family. She’s always been sort of pragmatic about death, and the messages she would leave on my answering machine would usually include phrases like “… and it was for the best.” There have been times she’s turned to the subject of death too quickly, like when I told her years ago that we had just adopted an FIV-positive cat and her first response was, “Why don’t you just have him put to sleep?”
So yes, sometimes it’s a touchy subject.
But this time it was different, because she was discussing someone who was close to her own age, and someone she cared about. She was talking to me about how her sister was the last person who had known her as a child, and I totally understood and empathized with that. And then she said that her family was all gone now, and she was completely alone. And I’ll admit that I was taken aback.
I had several responses that came bubbling up from my brain, but each one sounded more defensive and passive-aggressive than the last, so I kept my mouth shut and didn’t say any of them. Which is probably for the best, because, “What are we, chopped liver?” is probably not the way to go in that conversation.
After I got off the phone I started trying to explain to my boyfriend how and why I was feeling stunned, because my brain is still trying to analyze and compartmentalize my reactions.
I’m stunned because my aunt is dead, and I didn’t even know that she was dying. We weren’t close, and in fact I only met her a handful of times in my life, since she lived on the other side of the country and rarely visited New York. But still, my family tree has very few branches, and she was one of them.
I’m stunned that my mother said that her family was gone and she was completely alone when my brother lives with her and I see her every week. And yes, I DO understand (as my boyfriend points out, because he is a much kinder and more forgiving person than I am) that SHE DIDN’T MEAN IT THAT WAY. And yet when she said those words to me I had an immediate flashback to the time she told me that she would have made a great surrogate mother because she didn’t feel an emotional attachment to her children after they were born.
And I’m also stunned because of the larger implications of what this might mean to my mother’s life. That she has less reason to live now that her sister is gone, and that my brother and I can’t make up the difference. And that is the saddest part of all.