Wednesday, April 25, 2012

In which I have the bravest aunt in the world

My cousin John passed away a week ago.  It was sudden, expected someday but someday was too soon. He was too young; he'd fought diabetes since he was a small child. The news arrived in the way you always worry about; I woke up on a Sunday morning thinking I’d heard my phone buzz. There was a missed call and voice mail from my dad and a text from my mom that just said, “Call me.”

I was just in shock afterwards. I did what I always do when I’m upset- I cleaned. I dusted the kitchen shelves, I washed windows. I guess that’s why I hate housekeeping; it’s hard to enjoy something that you revert to when you’re feeling bad. I took a bath and cried. Crying comes easier in the tub; I wonder if it’s the presence of other water that makes tears finally come. My sister was out of town but came straight over to my house when she returned. We watched tv to distract ourselves: a Titanic documentary, the movie about the guy who muppets Elmo, Wet Hot American Summer. We tried to drink coffee but it didn’t taste right. We didn’t want a beer. She went back to her apartment and came back with a change of clothes to spend the night. I made salmon and spinach for dinner. We watched more tv. I didn’t know what to think or how I should feel, except that I was sad.

John’s death was the first for me of someone close to my age that I had known my whole life. I’d known other people my age who had passed away, including a former classmate earlier this year, but none of them had been people I’d been close to. I’d known John since I was a baby. All my cousins are unusually close. They were always more like big brothers and sisters to me; granted, brothers and sisters you didn’t see everyday.

John and I were the history buffs in the family. When he lived in Ithaca for a short time, we went out to dinner then back to my apartment for beers. We talked about all the sights he’d seen when he’d been to Ireland back in the 80s and all the things my husband and I had seen when we’d gone just a few years ago. We talked about all the things we’d wanted to see that we didn’t, and how much of the family history we didn’t know and wished we did.

It was hard seeing my cousins at the funeral home Friday night. There was the usual elation we get from seeing each other, tampered by the reason we were gathered together this time. John had a lot of friends; Brett and I drove over after work and by the time we arrived at the funeral home, the line was almost out the door. After being greeted by my cousin Matt’s daughter Kieran (who had touchingly waited by the door to watch for us, because, as she said, “No one should have to walk into a funeral home alone”) we stepped out of the line and went to the main room to say hello to my father, brother and sister and the assorted relatives sitting on chairs in the middle of the room. Then we got back in line. I’m not a fan of open caskets; the body never looks like the person to me, and I’d rather remember them the way I’d seen them in life before, not laid out, dressed up and perfect. They always seem to me like a mannequin made in the image of the deceased whose purpose is to stand in for the person who’s gone. My aunt Mary Margaret, John’s mother, was first in line. I hugged her and told her I had something I’d like to put in the casket with John: a piece of stone I took out of the lake in the Killarney National Forest from our Ireland trip. She nodded, smiled, and said that Andrew, John’s brother, had done the same thing. I held out the piece of stone to her and asked her if there was somewhere that she’d like for it to go. She suggested I put it in myself, and I think she saw something in my eyes that made her walk with me over to the casket, her arm around me while she suggested I tuck the stone in next to his arm.

That moment, with my aunt gently guiding me in making my little tribute to my cousin, reminded me of my aunt’s great strength, and the way that she has always looked out for me. I felt like a little girl at that moment and it took me back to another time when she had taken a bewildered and upset little girl by the hand.

We had a house fire when I was ten, the particulars of which I won’t get into here, but it happened in the middle of the night while my parents were out and we had a babysitter, and involved me having to get past the stultifying fear of fire that I had harbored obsessively for at least a year prior so that I could wrestle my siblings out of their warm beds and outside to safety in the record-cold February weather.

I must confess, what I’m about to describe aren’t first-hand memories. I blocked out everything after we arrived at our babysitter’s house and were reunited with my parents. My aunt Mary Margaret and my grandmother drove hours in the middle of the night to come get my brother and sister and me and bring us to my grandmother’s house. (My mother and father were staying with friends.) Apparently when we arrived at my grandmother’s, as the sun was still rising in the sky, we were helped out of the car and tucked into beds… and all three of us kids began throwing up. Whether it was from smoke inhalation or the cumulative effects of so much trauma, all three of us were vomiting and crying like a bunch of baby chicks with a nasty stomach virus. 

After we were cleaned up, put back to bed, and had slept for awhile, my aunt decided we needed to go to the Laundromat. We had a sad little pile of clothes my mom had managed to snatch from the remains of our house so we’d have something to wear (we left with only the pajamas on our backs, not even slippers on our feet) and they stunk horribly of smoke, filthy with soot. Mary Margaret decided the best shot we had at making these garments wearable was to put them through the industrial-strength machines in the Laundromat the next town over. She wanted me to come with her. I refused.

This wasn’t a petulant, truculent refusal, both she and my grandmother could see that. And I was normally a cooperative kid, especially when I was being asked to help. But I said no. I refused to go. My grandmother exchanged a glance with my aunt, leaned over, looked me in the eye and said, “I’ll watch them for you.” She knew I had, albeit wordlessly, taken upon myself the complete and total responsibility for five year old Katie and eight year old Kevin. I had been the one that night to get them out of their beds and out of the house. I believed that it now fell to me to protect them. They were my obligation. This was my job from now on.

She almost had me, but I still wavered. “And I won’t turn on the stove while you’re gone.” My grandmother knew I had always been wary of her gas stove with that visible blue flame, and that now, I was terrified of anything that had the remotest chance of starting a fire. She was the only one who was not surprised when later I began my habit of creeping around the house after everyone had gone to bed and unplugging everything in sight, as well as touching electrical cords, things near heating ducts, and patting down the walls in general to see if they had grown dangerously warm.

With that reassurance, I left for the Laundromat with Aunt Mary Margaret and our pathetic pile of smoke stained clothes. I don’t remember being there; I don’t remember anything of our conversation. But apparently I told her everything that had happened that night, the all of it, as they say. My anger, my fear, the sadness that I couldn’t yet completely articulate that my childhood was now over. We returned to my grandmother’s house, only mildly successful in our mission to resurrect the clothes. I overheard my aunt on the phone with my mother, telling her, “We talked. She’s going to be fine.”

It was that memory of my aunt shepherding me and shielding me that I was reminded of as she helped me put my piece of stone in the casket with her son, as she jokingly told the funeral director who was standing behind us to look away while we tucked my offering in amongst the silk. She’s one of the strongest people I know, one of the people I’ve always felt safest around, and I wish I could give some of that back to her now. 

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