Eulogy to my Aunt June

Had a surprise reunion, patching up of relations with my mother’s only sister in early September. My Aunt June passed away yesterday.

The boys and I had arrived in Boston for a conference we were attending that weekend. The balance of the conference was to take place in Quincy, going out towards “The Cape.” I had planned to visit my Aunt June, who was recovering from a hip operation, with my boys on Saturday night or Sunday after we settled in and could assess the best time to break away, or visit after the conference ended. Finding ourselves with a car in Central Boston at rush hour on a Friday afternoon, however, it seemed most logical to head over to the hospital for a visit with my aunt while the traffic sorted itself out. Truth to tell, as soon as this idea occurred to me I realized that I was quite anxious to see my aunt.

This is what happened next,

“We also missed dinner served Friday because we went to see Aunt June, who just had a hip replaced. She was waiting for transportation to a nursing home since she was stable and out of pain a week out of surgery and it was a long wait (about 3 hours in the end), so we just stayed there visiting with June and Uncle Jud. It’s been 30 years since I just “hung out” with them and it was nice to renew our friendship. June is dramatic and can sometimes be overbearing, but I enjoy her and of course, Uncle Jud is a true gem. I learned by way of conversations taking place that June also has colon cancer. Poor thing, she’s had huge fights on the healthcare front.

We called the hotel after June’s transportation arrived and learned that dinner had been already cleared away, so we headed for Chinatown – very hungry, as it was close to 9 pm when we left the hospital. We were fortunate to identify a Cantonese restaurant which looked promising and fulfilled its promise wonderfully well! We were served one of the best meals I’ve ever eaten. Wow! We returned the next night because it happened that dinner wasn’t being served Saturday at all, and we (almost unbelievably) had an ever better meal than we had the night before. That was a fun experience, and had a magical quality to it almost like being on an adventure in a fairy tale.”

June was very relieved after the surgery to get relief from the terrible pain of bones in her hip grinding together but she had ups and downs in her recovery. She was at home, finally, on Friday night but was being treated for pneumonia. It turned out that her actual problem was internal bleeding at one of the cancer sites, which undetected, became progressively worse; and my aunt passed away in her sleep in the early hours of Saturday morning.

This Aunt June of mine was an extraordinary person in many ways. A wonderful actress in her youth, she enjoyed a long, second career as an acting coach. She was an arts patron and Mass Council on the Arts Board member. She also helped organize MIT’s annual break dance competition, helped get it off the ground and supported it enthusiastically too. June was a world traveller and along with her husband, Jud, a great collector of interesting musical instruments, masks and art from traditional ethnic cultures all over the world which they displayed all around their living space, Being in their home is akin to being in a living global museum of art and crafts.

Aunt June was also remarkable for an achievement I think of as stupendous. When I was a child of about 12 or 13, June was diagnosed with lymposarcoma and given the prognosis of having a year to live. Not wishing to squander that time away, my aunt applied for a grant – which she was awarded – and spent much of her last year researching the lives of women abolitionists in the States and writing a play about them and the mechanics of the Underground Railroad. That play was performed throughout the Greater Boston Area in libraries, and at a church near Central Park West in NY (where I saw it).

I’ve just turned 50, so obviously my Aunt June did not die at the end of that “last year”. She did battle cancer several times, though, and extensive chemotherapy treatments burned out parts of her anatomy so eventually June required the use of a colostomy bag. During the past several years she had a lot of difficulty walking and became bedridden because of leg problems for several months at one point.

Truth to tell, I did fall out of favor with my aunt many years ago. She expected to run our family with a strong matriarchal hand – when it humoured her to do so. The fact is that she was good at this when the spirit moved her to act. My brother Jared, who schooled and lived in Boston for a long time, always had a place at June’s holiday table and calls and visit from my little brother Thom were always warmly received (and returned by either June or Uncle Jud, which was dazzlingly comforting and special). Because I gave so much of my own young life to my family, and sacrificed career and possessions in deference to providing for their wellbeing, I felt I had acquired the right to also share a strong voice in family matters. Unfortunately, I got right up my Aunt’s nose when I took a stand on how my mother’s care should be handled when her cancer returned for the second time after she had relocated from Israel to Boston.

After all, I thought, I had nursed Mom back to health after she fell dangerously ill with Hepatitis B and my extended stay, of close to a year, in Israel to care for her caused me to eventually lose my home in Englewood, NJ not long after my older son was born. And, I had provided long-distance for Mom’s care when she first became ill with cancer by staying in close touch with the unofficially adopted “nephew” who resided in her apartment; the Tel Aviv lawyer I negotiated an affordable rate with to monitor Mom’s spending (before I did that Mom was running through money as if it were water and she ran the risk of becoming homeless and starved); and I sent my brothers to look after Mom on several trips which I arranged down to providing them with Israel Shkalim and telephone tokens (asimonim) before departure so they could pay for incidental expenses after arrival at Tel Aviv airport without needing to worry about currency exchange to cover the cost of taxi, and could use public phones if needed, too.

I remained in the States working my heart out, trying to raise the money to save my house and pay for the expenses of caring for and communicating daily with my mother, half a world away.

After her recovery from the first bout with cancer Mom decided to move back to the States. She moved to Boston to be near her sister, whom Mom felt she needed to patch up her own relationship with. The sisters buried their mother that year. When Mom fell sick again June wanted to set up a schedule of round-robin care for her that my brothers and I would keep. I wanted to have the chance to work out with my brothers to figure what care Mom most needed and work out care terms that would take into account our schedules and lives as well as Mom’s.

Money wasn’t a concern since one of my father’s brothers was prepared to fund whatever care Mom needed, and he had very comfortably deep pockets (plus a Lear jet at his disposal 24/7).

Very unfortunately, by attempting to network with my brothers in this way I had inadvertently and unknowingly, declared war on my aunt’s authority. My brothers followed June’s proposed arrangement and because I didn’t, I was pronounced (by Aunt June) an uncaring offspring and requests from my mother and brothers were made that I stay away from mom and Boston, as if I appeared June had apparently made it clear that she would cease to be involved in my mother’s life.

Shortly before the recent visit with my aunt ended, June cried softly as she told me, “I have never stopped missing your mother, Kim. I still miss her and think about her every day.” June said, “It was more difficult for me to lose her, Kim, than it was for you because I grew up with your mother and we were so close all our lives.”

I sympathized with my aunt and shared tears with her. How can a daughter dispute with an aunt that her own feelings of pain over losing her mother might be (at least) equally as deep as the aunt’s, even if that were true? Would it be reasonable, helpful, loving, kind to indulge in such a dispute? Of course not. As these were my aunt’s feelings, they were terribly real to her, and I could see that she had been holding them in for many years wanting it seems that I should acknowledge her love for my mom (which was never in dispute) and her pain over losing her (which was never in dispute either). I was aware that perhaps my aunt wanted me to understand why she drove me from Mom’s side in the final months before Mom died and just maybe, she wanted me to forgive her for doing that. If that was the case, it was certainly easy for me to appreciate my aunt’s possessive love for my mother and be fine with that. It seems it would be nonsensical for me to begrudge love of any type to any person who felt it towards my mom, most especially when the holder of that love was her own sister and my aunt.

Well, I didn’t pretend then to wholly understand the dynamic that provoked that misadventure, but it was transparently clear to me at my Aunt’s bedside that she desired to bond with me in a shared love for my Mom. I saw that that moment as being providentially provided for my aunt and I to mourn with each other the loss of a very special, very kind lady we both loved and have missed greatly … mourning that June was not able to share with me at the time Mom died.

As if we had been in an alternate astral plane and had suddenly reemerged into the everyday, material world, just after my aunt and I shared these moments remembering my Mom, Aunt June’s transport team arrived and preparations to move her to a nursing home went into full swing.

Now June has moved on again, to a more remote location. My son, Ari, said that June has been reunited with the sister she loved so much. I hoped to share many more visits chatting with my aunt, exchanging ideas and memories and am sorry that won’t happen the way I imagined.

Aunt June, you were a fabulous lady. As full of delicious surprises, treasures, sunshine and goodness as you could sometimes be egocentric and dramatic. I can truly say that times shared with you never were lacking in either excitement or depth. I will miss you terribly, and the best I can say about that is I will not be alone in my bereavement. There are a great, great many friends I know and have not yet met, and relatives, who will feel your loss as sharply as I, and of course there are your daughters, granddaughter and husband who will feel it more.

I hope to support your daughter Jill with a mighty heart and a helping hand. She is strong, but will really miss your wisdom and company.

We are the sum total of our beings, Aunt June – the good and the bad. Measuring who you were by the yardstick of totality I can truly and honestly say that you were always one heck of a woman – and a women very dear to me in so many ways.

Enjoy the next part of your journey. And please, in future, team up with my Mom to share some good guidance with us from up where you’re on watch.

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