I just returned from a flying visit to my Aunt. She is my mother’s sister, and my favorite aunt (my father had five sisters, all fiercely accomplished, but none of them were as flat-out lovable as Julie; I’m not sure that was their goal). The thing about her is that she was also fiercely accomplished: she had an extraordinarily complex job at UCLA for a couple of decades, and oversaw the switch from analog to digital communication and records. She married a marvelous guy, a professor of anatomy who very sensibly thought the sun shone out of her every pore Together they traveled the world and had adventures and made friends–and yet managed to be intensely private and very happy to be by themselves or with the handful of people they loved best. My brother and I were fortunate enough to be on that short list.
Ten years ago my aunt was the sharpest, funniest woman you ever met, able to balance details and organize troops, and make the troops love it. My mother, half-kidding, used to call her “Mrs. Megaphone,” but my aunt rarely raised her voice or got angry. Charm, a sense of humor, and a to-do list and organizational systems made it easy for her to get what she needed to get done, done.
Then my uncle got sick, and for perhaps five years their world got smaller and a smaller, and she became more wrapped up in my uncle as the inevitability of losing him became clearer. After he died she was devastated. She was still perfectly lovely, but broken. She didn’t return phone calls or letters much, she withdrew, and increasingly relied on the assistance of her marvelous housekeeper. And her memory started to fray. It was sort of a perfect storm: her hearing isn’t good, but she never remembers to wear her hearing aids, and when she does she doesn’t wear them long because she’s not used to them, and they annoy her. She used to have an iron organizational grip on the business of their house, but during her husband’s illness she’d put a lot of that aside, and while she expected to go back to it, she just never did. She didn’t want to see many people–family and the occasional friend who wouldn’t take no for an answer. So mental stimulation took a hit. Then COVID struck, and she was necessarily housebound. She is now 97 and unable to live without help–which thank God and all the fish she can afford.
My family went down to visit her over Christmas. My younger daughter lives in the same building as Julie and is sort of my agent in place. My older daughter and my husband hadn’t seen her recently, so they were expecting the Julie of a few years ago–sharp and funny and able to keep up with most of our rat-a-tat badinage. They wanted her to be the Julie of ten years ago. So do I. Until this visit, when I found myself letting that go.
When my uncle was so sick, I was there to support them both in whatever way I could (as their whole family was). But I have come to realize that in some part of my brain I believed that after he died, and after she’d processed the terrible loss, I’d get my aunt of ten years ago back. And I’d been mourning the fact that that isn’t going to happen–which is not unreasonable, perhaps. But that mourning was getting in the way of my enjoying the aunt that I have. She’s still funny, she’s still immensely lovable, she lights up when the people she loves arrives. We don’t have long conversations anymore–it would be more like a monologue, with her trying to catch up. This trip, for the first time, I just sat there, responding when she said something, talking a little, holding her hand. When my daughter came by we clowned around, which utterly delighted her, which in turn, utterly delights me. Somehow, rather than holding on to the person my aunt was, on this visit I was able to just be with the person she is. And it was swell.
My father made to not-quite 98, and had all his faculties until the last week or so when he was actively dying. I’d like to live as long and stay as sharp as he did. But nothing is guaranteed. If I live that long but am not as sharp, I’d like to be like my aunt, full of love and joy, and grateful for the people around her who love her.