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Like losing my mom all over again.

Aunt Bea died this morning. Chemotherapy had tamed the stomach cancer for the past year, to the point where she was getting around with a walker and even eating a little bit again.

But a few days ago she was suddenly unable to rise from a chair. She started sleeping almost all the time. When my cousin e-mailed this on Friday, I knew I probably wouldn’t see my aunt again on this Earth.

On Saturday, my cousin put the phone up to Bea’s ear so that I could talk to her. All I could say was that I was thinking about her and praying for her, that I loved her, and that I thanked her for everything she’s done for the family. I heard her struggling to reply, but ultimately she couldn’t.

After hanging up, I spent the day struggling with memories of my mother’s death, back in August 2003. Losing Bea is like losing Mom all over again.

She and my Aunt Dot are Mom’s last two siblings. Dot has been practicing to die for years but she always pulls through. (Her theory: “We’re part Indian. Indians don’t quit.”) I know she could go at any time but I hope I get to see her when I visit my father in August.

What kind of life could she have had?

Bea (real name: Univee Imogene) was 80 years old, although she never really looked her age until cancer left her gaunt. Another reason she never seemed old is that she has a developmental disability, and was generally assumed to be/treated as a kid.

She always lived at home, helping with the garden and housework and the babysitting of several generations of children. Bea loved babies and kids and she was good with them. In fact, my daughter spent most of her first year being cared for by Bea, Dot and the oldest sister, Elna.

Elna, who never married, developed Alzheimer’s disease five years ago and had to go into care until her death. Bea stayed put in her half of the duplex; Dot lives in the other half.

The next time I visited, Bea struck me as different: She was more confident and her mild speech impediment had improved. Now that her older sister was no longer there to order the days, Bea had to go it alone and she did pretty well, with help from a cousin who brought groceries, ferried her to appointments, helped her with paperwork, etc. (The same cousin and her husband cared for Bea in their own home for the past year.)

Over the years I’d wondered what kind of life Bea might have had if times had been different. She attended school until either the fourth or fifth grade before being told not to come back. In those days there were no special education classes. No worker training programs, either – if you were developmentally disabled you either stayed at home or were put in a home.

These days she would have had the chance to work. She might not even have needed a sheltered workshop type of job because she communicates pretty well and can read and write a little. Bea also has an instinct for grouping or filing, keeping thick scrapbooks of newspaper clippings and photos of the extended family.

Every time I visited she’d want to haul out the albums and show me pictures. Most were the kids and grandkids of cousins I played with 45 years ago but now wouldn’t recognize if they rang the doorbell.

Blood is strong

I’ve got cousins unto the seventh generation, or at least unto the second and third. But I don’t know where most of them are.

In part that’s because I moved away from that region for good at age 21. But the drift had begun in my mid-teens, when my parents split up and my brother and I remained with Dad in the family home. We became our own little island, cut off from much of Mom’s side of the family. After all, her family was siding with her; by living with my dad, we were in effect siding with him.

Thus I’ve spent decades away from much of my family, never getting to know very many of them as adults. Moving away meant different choices, different paths and ultimately a very different life. I’m also wrestling with guilt over not wanting to know some of them. Frankly, some of them are hard to be around. We have nothing in common except blood.

But blood is strong, and part of me yearns for that connection. No one understands you like the people you came up with, even if your paths diverged 40 years ago.

My sister, who also moved away and rewrote her life, put it this way: “We’re missing a big piece of who we are. No matter who we are now, that’s how we grew up.”

My sorrow over losing Bea is compounded by the approaching anniversary of my mother’s death. One of her last two sisters is now dead and the other is very ill and frail. These two women represent a big part of my childhood, when visiting family members was a major source of entertainment. And they’re the women who helped raise Mom, the baby of the family. They’re the last people who can tell me about my mother.

Wanting more out of life

I strongly identify with Dorothy Allison’s book “Trash,” a collection of essays and short stories about her extended family. More than a few of my relatives are like hers. Their lives have more sorry chapters than the book of Job, lives that verge on C&W-song parody: divorces, unemployment, out-of-wedlock births, alcoholism, infidelity, drug abuse, trailer fires, you name it.

But as disadvantaged as some of them were (and still are), they give whatever they can and support one another to the very end. They make do with what they were given, which was precious little. It never occurred to most of them that their lives could be different.

Ignorance is not just bliss. It’s a survival mechanism. My relatives came through poverty, hunger, disease, abuse, loss and hopelessness, and they kept standing up under it.

I guess I come by my stoicism honestly. But I don’t think it’s too much to want more out of life than just to survive it. That’s what makes me different and what, truth be told, isolates me. I can’t ever go back there to live. But I miss the people I love.


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45 Comments

  1. Bless you Donna. Aunt Bea was certainly blessed to have a niece like you.

    • Donna Freedman

      @Codee: Thanks for your kind words. Like many other people after the fact, I wish I’d done more.

  2. Chris D.

    Thank you for sharing – it was touching.

  3. I’m so sorry for your loss Donna. I hope you can take comfort knowing some of your mother’s and aunts’ positive qualities like frugality, generosity and hard work (and I’m sure many others) live on in you, and that you in turn have passed them on to your daughter and are now passing them on to your readers. You are such an inspiriation in resiliency and determination and I have no doubt that your mother and your aunts must have been exceedingly proud of you. Take care of yourself, and again, my condolences.

  4. I’m sorry you loss Donna…

  5. Marcia Carli

    My deepest sympathies Donna. My prayers go out to your family.

  6. Reta Davis

    It is so hard to lose the ones we love. All you can really do now is grieve properly and remember the best of Aunt Bea (sounds like there was a lot of it). Relieve yourself of guilt over what might have been. So sorry you had to lose her so soon. I believe you will meet again and she will not be having to deal with her illness. Bless her and you. Yer fren Reta

  7. I’m so sorry for your loss, Donna. It’s so hard to lose those connections… but know that a part of them lives on in you and your daughter. Wishing you comfort and sending prayers to your family.

  8. I’m very sorry about your aunt, Donna. It does make you wonder how her life might have been different had she been born a generation or two later. But from your post, it sounds like she really did okay for herself considering her disability and the rather unenlightened times in which she grew up. She had the love of her family, and that’s what counts the most.

    Thank you for telling us about her, Donna! She sounds like a really nice lady that I would have been honored to meet. My condolences on your loss.

  9. Donna, I am so sorry you are losing connections along with loved ones. I do understand. I think my mother’s cousin is the last on either side of the family in the generation before me. I wish I had asked more questions, slowed down, and listened more. When it is gone, it’s gone….all the information about our mothers. Your plight made me cry. Tonight, I will start the blog I have intended to start to tell my children stories my mother told me about her grandmother and stories about my grandmother and mother. That will be seven generations of stories to tell before they slip from my addled brain.

    I know from the things you have written about her that she was special to you. She knew it too.

  10. Jeanne

    I’m so sorry for your loss.

  11. Harry Martin

    Wow, thank you so much for sharing, and what a wonderful tribute you did for your aunt.

    I weathered my second Father’s Day without my Dad, but I must admit I was thankful when the TV ads stopped. My Mother has been in the hospital for the past 12 days and went to stay with my brother today. I watched the AFI tribute to Morgan Freeman last night, and when they showed a clip from “Driving Miss Daisy” when her ailments began to take a toll, I had to leave the dinner table and go upstairs and cry.

    My beautiful Mother has aged so much since my Dad passed away 13 months ago. The pain is nearly unbearable.

    But, again, on what you wrote, I stopped Art from talking about my sister the other day and the selfwish ways she is responding to my Mother’s illness , because, as you said, “ignorance is bliss.” It’s the only coping mechanism I have.

    So instead I try to focus on the good my brother and sister-in-law are providing.

    Sorry to make this all about me. I just wanted to relate what a chord you struck with me.

    Big hug to you in this very difficult time.

    Harry

  12. lostAnnfound

    Donna, I’m very sorry to hear of your aunt’s passing. Thank you for sharing her with us.

  13. Donna,
    i am so sorry about your loss. i had a similar one exactly 3 years ago to the day, my favorite great-aunt passed. we also spend many many happy days when we were children with her and her sisters who all lived in the same house. i too, cannot go back home to live, because i am too different from the relatives, but i DO miss them. in a way it is a blessing to be able to reflect on the times when we were closer and could spend time with the ones we love. this blog was a great reminder of that.

    God bless.

  14. Thank you for sharing memories of your family with us. I’m sending warm thoughts your way this day.

  15. jestjack

    Sorry for your loss Donna. I feel your pain in many respects as DW lost both her parents last year and the “old folks”…the Aunts and Uncles that were such a large part of her upbringing become more and more frail. My folks require more and more attention as health and financial problems mount. Sure would be nice to have siblings that you could depend on….but that commodity seems to be in short supply. Once again sorry for your loss and wish you nothing but the best….

  16. This the worst part of growing older; losing our elders.

    I’m so sorry for your loss; you honored her with this post and I know your actions as well.

  17. ImJuniperNow

    I lost my Mom last Friday after a long battle with COPD. She was 80. I spent the last 12 hours of her life tapdancing around her, reassuring her everything was okay and she was coming home from the hospital only to come home, not to die (She didn’t make it home). Everything you wrote is going on inside my head, especially the “what might have been” thoughts. You’re very fortunate to be able to put them to paper and share them.

    I guess we can only take comfort in our memories and knowing there are so many others who share our experiences and they care.

    • Donna Freedman

      @ImJuniperNow: I’m sorry for your loss. And you’re right: We can take as much comfort as possible in our memories, even as we grieve.

  18. Sarah L

    You have my heartfelt prayers, and sympathy. I’m so sorry to hear about your aunt, she sounds like she was such a wonderful woman!

  19. bobbysgirl

    Donna,

    I hope you know how sad my heart is for you. Mourning is so difficult. At the other end we hope to find some good from the process. Hugs to you in this most difficult time.

  20. Elizabeth

    Donna,
    You and your family are in my thoughts and prayers.
    You really have a gift with writing – and, congratulations on having the foresight/imagination and courage to know you can get more out of life than just surviving it, and for going after it. Life is not easy…so we may as well aim a bit higher…

  21. Coupon Ninja

    Praying for you at your time of loss.
    Grief sucks. But at least you have the wonderful memories of them all to cherish.

  22. I am so sorry for your loss. You are a wonderful soul because of Aunt Bea. And she can’t leave you because she lives in your heart. At least, that is what my dad used to say. That is what I thought of when he died.
    My thoughts and prayers are with you.

  23. I’m so sorry for your loss, Donna, and am keeping you and your family in my thoughts.

  24. Thank you for being transparent. Many people are not able to do that.We all come from some form of dysfunctional families, some just more dysfunctional that others. I think you gave some people permission to dig up their real feelings regarding their past. When there are sides taken, the younger generation suffer more, they don’t have a chance to get to know the people of their roots. I believe God gave us all and inate desire to know our roots. Keep up the good work. My mom passed in 1994 I still miss her!

  25. I was so saddened to read about your loss, Donna. God bless.

  26. Firstly, sorry for your loss. Also, thank you for sharing. When my grandmother died, it was so weird seeing all these relatives I knew existed (and sadly, some I did not) standing in the crowd. I thought deeply if I wanted to connect with any of these people and said no. My family is extremely small and I like it that way. I have cousins I grew up with and don’t talk to today… all by circumstance of life change. I could really care less that they are blood, I have no interest in connecting to them. May sound cold but meh, my siblings and I could care less. We do have some relatives we cannot stand due to things they have done to my parents and that bond is severed forever in my book. Like you, I need to keep these people away from me as a matter of survival and personal sanity. Too much unnecessary drama for my liking.

  27. Your family sounds lovely, I am sorry for your loss.

  28. Donna-I am so sorry to hear about your Aunt Bea. I remember that when we had coffee last summer that you were back East to visit with her. Don’t beat yourself up about not doing more-hopefully, she knew that a big reason for your trip last summer was to spend more time with her. I am sending intercontinental hugs 🙂

  29. M Dunne

    Sorry for your loss, Donna. I lost my Daddy and Grandmother both in January 2011 and reading this makes me remember, not just the grief, but the goodness about them both. God bless.

  30. SherryH

    I’m so sorry for your losses – both the death of your aunt Bea, and the gentler regret for your voluntary distancing from your extended family. My father was in the military, and we grew up far away from extended family, though we stayed in touch and visited. When I moved away to get married, I didn’t think the separation would bother me much, but as my kids and I get older, it weighs on me more than I would have thought. Which is a long way of saying, our situations are somewhat different, but I empathize and you’ll be in my thoughts.

  31. Catseye

    My condolences on the loss of your Aunt Bea. What a beautiful tribute you’ve written to her! I’m sure she’d be proud.

  32. Insurancegal

    I am sorry for your loss, Donna.

  33. I’m so sorry. You paint a beautiful picture of your strong female elders. I’m sure they are proud of the clever resourceful woman they had a hand in raising.

  34. Evening Star

    Donna, you don’t know me personally. And I’ve always felt too shy to leave a comment on your posts. But I’ve been a follower of your articles since MSN first posted ‘Surving and Thriving in $12K”.

    I can’t meet you personally, so I’ll send this thru this comment, a BIG VIRTUAL HUG. I have no words to tell you that I know will console you. There are just some feelings that are too deep, to painful, that words can never can capture.

  35. I’m sorry I missed this post when it came out. My condolences, and how beautifully written.

  36. Victoria

    Thanks for sharing. You put into words exactly how I feel about my family (your last paragrah). You continually inspire me and keep writing. You have an amazing ability to touch people, relate, and inspire folks. Thanks again and many blessings.

    • Donna Freedman

      @Victoria: Thank you for your kind words and encouragement. It’s good to know I’m not alone in feeling conflicted.

  37. Hootieman

    I am so sorry Donna. I have been praying for you.
    I felt that way when an older cousin passed away. I felt that way when a few friends died. Our families were close just like we were related. It is part of getting older that really stinks. I think it hurt me more that my cousin died than it did when my mom died.
    Now, when I die, there’ll be cheering in the streets. I’m kind of naughty. 🙂

  38. I’m so sorry for your loss. I lost my mom this past February (she was very young). I’m still grappling with a sea of emotions. I can only hope it gets easier with time for all of us.

    • Donna Freedman

      @ADoseofTLC: I’m sorry for your loss, too. It doesn’t get easier as in “Hey, I’m over it!” It gets easier as in, “This is the way life is — and sometimes that stinks.” I get big waves of “I miss my mom” or “I wish I could tell Mom about this.” Then I’ll be OK for a while, and then the sadness returns.
      Over time it’s gotten to be manageable sadness, i.e., it doesn’t leave me paralyzed with grief and regret. But yes, it still hurts.
      Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

  39. M.Koontz

    I never post comments but I felt a connection to everyone who wrote. I lost my mom Feb. 28 this year and though I continue to miss her every day I have become aware of the connection we all have who have lost those we love. It can feel like such a solitary sadness that we suffer alone, yet there are many who are also traveling this path. It is good to read and feel that connection. I also have felt the waves and sometimes even a wall of sadness that rises unexpectedly but like everyone else I continue. Thank you for this post.

    • Donna Freedman

      @M.Koontz: I’m sorry for your loss. Waves of sadness still come and go, especially when something exciting or funny or interesting happens — I’ll think, “I wish I could share this with Mom.”
      Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

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