Sunday, December 20, 2009

Blue Christmas

"What do we live for, if not to make life less
difficult for each other?"
--George Eliot

Today I accompanied my parents to visit my mom's sister and her niece, who are both extremely sick. They were heavy smokers for years, and even though they quit years ago, they are now paying the price. My Aunt Janet is in her 80s and is in the hospital with pneumonia and possible lung cancer (her husband died of lung cancer several years ago). My cousin Jan--in her early 60s--is in the end stages of emphysema and is in hospice care. Now we are approaching Christmas, and they are both confined to their separate beds, mother and daughter, and unable to see each other because they are both so weak and sick.

I hadn't seen either of them for several years, so I felt really glad to be able to visit them today. When we walked into the hospital room, my aunt's eyes lit up with surprise when she saw me.

My mom's side of the family is much more reserved than my dad's. We tend to get together more with my aunts, uncles, and cousins on my dad's side--they are more gregarious and social than my mom's side of the family. I've never felt that I have much in common with either side of my family. My mom's relatives tend to be inclined toward hunting, tobacco, and alcohol. (In fact, one topic of conversation at Jan's bedside was the number of mountain lion that Jan's husband and her son have shot--tastes like pork, apparently.) They are also less into food than my dad's side of the family.

As a child, I always felt much closer to my mom's parents than to my dad's parents. I remember them as being more cheerful and fun-spirited than my fairly serious paternal grandparents--my grandpa, though he apparently had very strong opinions and a temper, loved to joke with us as children. I remember that my Grandma Allen had an amazing green thumb. She had an enormous garden and loved to press flowers and make greeting cards out of them. I also remember her tuna casserole with filberts (hazelnuts) on top. Whenever we went to visit their house, my grandpa would take out a beloved green stool, which I would sit on for dinner. Before me, my cousin Mike (with whom I share a birthday) sat on the stool. After my grandparents died, I ended up with the green stool--which had to have its legs lopped off--but it still stands and reminds me of my grandparents. They had what I recall as a lot of land, full of a wonderful pear tree, a meadow with cows, and a chicken house. They died when I was in the early grades of elementary school. My mom was the surprise baby for them, so she is much younger than her siblings (14 and 17 years younger than her sister and brother). That's why her niece is not much younger than she is.

After Grandma and Grandpa Allen died, we began seeing Mom's side of the family mostly on Christmas Day, but several years ago that stopped as well.

I remember Jan as being sassy and spunky, always ready with a quip or sarcastic comment and absolutely full of energy. When we arrived in their neighborhood today, we accidentally went to their next-door neighbor's house (we'd never been to their house), and essentially marched right into their house (we thought that the neighbor was helping out with Jan). She let us enter her home--reluctantly--and then asked us how Jan was doing. Then we knew that we were in the wrong house. Although it was embarassing, it turned out to be positive, because the neighbor talked about what wonderful people Jan and her husband Mike were. Apparently when we marched into her house, she thought that we were arriving to tell her that Jan had passed away.

Jan is a shadow of her past self. She has withered away to almost nothing and she looks 20 years older than her real age. She's on oxygen and has troubles staying awake, talking, and breathing. She actually seemed to be doing slightly better than I expected, in fact, but she is very, very sick. Her daughter--who I always liked but I had lost touch with--and her husband are trying to prepare themselves for the end.

Meanwhile, another aunt of mine (on my dad's side) is fighting a fierce battle with recurring melanoma. I suppose I'm getting to the age when more and more of my relatives will get sick and die. I don't want to face this part of my life. It's just too sad.

I know I'm very lucky to have so many family members living in the same area. Having Mike's aunt and cousin's daughter both die suddenly this year is a vivid reminder of the fact that we just don't know what life holds for each of us. We must not take life for granted, and we must appreciate all the time we have with our relatives. Even though we might be very different from them and might not see eye to eye, we are bound together by blood, love, and shared history.

My heart goes out to all those people who are facing a very difficult Christmas this year--because of illness or impending death--and for their family members, including my mom. The best we can do is to be there for those people and express our love for them. That might be all they have to hold onto right now. It might have to be enough.

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