The Time for Second Thoughts
I was vacationing in Florida when my brother's text message appeared: Aunt Elaine died last night.
The news was no less shocking for being unsurprising. Aunt Elaine was 88 and had suffered for many years from a rare and incurable lung disease.
A regimen of antibiotics neutralized the illness, but damaged her other vital organs. Toward the end she became an invalid requiring live-in care, unable to bathe unassisted. Her weight dropped to a skeletal 79 pounds. Still her voice sounded strong enough and I assumed she'd somehow survive for another year or two.
Back in Manhattan to help with the funeral arrangements, I found myself thinking of Aunt Elaine far more than when she was alive. And far more benignly. It was similar to what happened after my mother, Elaine's only sibling, succumbed years before. Death possesses the unique quality of being able to sweep away the negatives.
The word for the elderly Aunt Elaine was querulous. Self-absorbed, too. She was the opposite of stoic. Are you getting the picture, reader? But in my better moments, I would remind myself she hadn't always been a sick old lady.
She had been a pretty, alluring schoolgirl, astonishingly popular with boys. During our adolescence, my brother, two sisters and I often heard the tales. If a dozen youths were at the party, one story went, eleven would ask for her phone number. (Presumably the twelfth was gay.)
"And the reason isn't what you're thinking," my mother once chastised me.
Aunt Elaine had also been an outstanding student, in the Bronx public schools and then Hunter College , graduating with honors. While a Ph.D student at Columbia , she married her mentor, an eminent, much older professor of experimental psychology. As the wife of a distinguished scholar, it was an exciting life, with frequent foreign travel. She attended the 1953 coronation of Queen Elizabeth in Westminster Abbey. She went to a reception at the Nixon White House. However, my uncle died relatively young — they had no children — and Aunt Elaine never re-married. She lived alone nearly half a century in an elegant, prewar apartment on Riverside Drive that always struck me as empty. Though too large for her, she hated the thought of giving it up. She chose not to work in her field, instead occupying herself with volunteering, managing her portfolio and auditing classes.
In the mid-1970s when I first moved to the city, she was a great companion. She would take me to restaurants and we'd also go to museums and the theatre, Broadway and off-Broadway. She created stimulating conversation and as a trained scientist was rigorous in debate. I recall one political discussion in which she frustrated me by continually questioning my "facts." Finally I spluttered, "A person needs statistics just to talk to you!"
"That's right," she retorted.
Even into her late middle-age, the vivaciousness that once dazzled the college boys was evident.
So my brother, a lawyer on Long Island and I were her only family. As her health worsened, her hypochondria grew.
Increasingly my visits with her meant listening to updates on her various ailments. Indigestion and ingrown toenails, rashes and runny noses — no condition,
it seemed, was too minor to dwell on.
I tried. Because I knew that, even at her most narcissistic, she cared about me. And because as a beneficiary of her will I felt a sense of duty. But then there would be her frantic calls saying she's "in desperate trouble." I'd rush to her apartment only to find her sitting comfortably in the den watching television as usual. It wasn't a heart attack, after all. Other times I'd stay with her for hours in the emergency room waiting for the inevitable non-diagnosis: stop taking this or that medication for awhile and see what happens.
After Aunt Elaine's death I learned from my brother, the executor of her will, the amount of her bequest to me; it was much more than I expected.
While she'd been alive, I couldn't bring myself to ask. The revelation caused me to view in a different light her frequent admonition — "try to be more understanding." Since she was being so generous to me, she was saying, I should show her some concern. But her refusal to lord her bequest over me to play on my guilt now seems to me noble.
"I think you'll miss me when I'm gone," Aunt Elaine said to me once.