5.21.2008

Round on the sides



When I learned my aunt had pancreatic cancer, I resolved to go and visit her. To pay my respects. My aunt named me. If my mother had her way, I would be Curtis Carver. If my father had his way, I would be Travis Austin. I had to, at the very least, tell her thank you for sparing me either of those atrocities. (Can you imagine how horrible my young Texan life would have been if I had been named Travis Austin?)

So I packed my bag, bought the issue of the New Yorker with the David Sedaris article on quitting smoking, and left for Cleveland.

My mom had flown in the day prior, and she and my aunt picked me up at the airport. If I didn't know differently, I wouldn't have thought that my aunt was wearing a wig. If I didn't know differently, I wouldn't have thought that she just finished her 6th round of chemo the previous week. She looked good.

I had considered writing her a letter and leaving it for her to find after I left, but instead, I played it by ear, hoping I would be able to find the courage to verbalize my thanks to her. The first day my mom, she, and I played Blokus and Skip-Bo. We laughed. We reminisced. My aunt asked me about Phil.
What's he like?
What's he studying?
Where does he work?
How long have you been dating?
My mom, I think, didn't want to seem out of touch with me, so she acted like she knew things about Phil--about his work and school schedule, about how much time we get to see each other. Maybe its my fault, I thought, Maybe my mother is truly curious about my life and not ashamed of it. But there has already been so much damage to our relationship. I destroyed any trust and hope my mother had in me. She destroyed the safety and security I felt in my family. So my aunt, who has never been encumbered by the dynamics of my relationship with my mother, was able to sidestep those land mines and just show genuine interest in my life.

The next day my father and uncle arrived. My uncle works out of town and comes home on the weekends. My father came to see me. We made small talk. My uncle told me the "What's better than roses on your piano?" joke. When a commercial for National Treasure 2 came on, my dad told me he had seen it with the grandkids. He liked it--"You'd like it, too," he said. Then, realizing who he was talking to, he added, "I think."
I found it interesting that the men seemed the least well-equipped to handle the situation. They go stir-crazy quickly and look for any excuse to leave the house. I went with them once on an outing to get snacks before dinner. We didn't go to the grocery store around the corner. We took a twenty minute drive to a mom and pop place that sold "trail bologna." I would have rather spent the time sitting in the same room with the person I came to see, even if she were sleeping.

Every night I rubbed my mom and my aunt's feet. Both appreciated it, but my aunt, who uses crutches because the cancer is now in her legs and the chemo causes numbness in her legs, would close her eyes, lay her head back, and sigh. Those sighs, to me, held the secret of how much pain she was actually in. In fact, by the time I left, I got the impression that most of her behavior was just show--she was in a great deal of pain.

Sunday was the Kentucky Derby. We all picked a horse. I picked the longshot. My mom picked the surefire thing. My dad and uncle went for ones that had decent odds, but weren't supposed to win, place, or show. My aunt picked the only filly.
When the race was over, the filly was in second. As she crossed the finish line, two of her ankles shattered and she had to be euthanized.
It was moments like that acted as the counterpoint to any normalcy we felt. The spectre of death that was biting into my aunt's femur shattered the ankles of that horse--he wasn't going to let us forget that he was there.

Sunday night brought the shows they all watch--"Desperate Housewives" and "Brothers and Sisters." I watch both shows at work. "Brothers and Sisters" was the episode where the gay guys get engaged. It was torturous--sitting in the same room with my mother and father watching two men kiss on TV. And not just kiss, but full-on, spit-swappin' kiss. Everyone was silent.
"Chuck and Donna, friends of ours, have two sons--both are gay, and they introduce their partners as 'husbands'," my aunt said, "Do you think that's strange? I mean, I always hear 'partner' but 'husband' sounds like a man and a woman to me."
"Well, most of the people I know," I answered, "Use the term partner."
My father almost doesn't squirm at talk like this any more. Recently he told me that he really liked Ellen DeGeneres. Some progress is better than none (and dude is 71).


Monday morning everyone left--mom and dad for Texas, my uncle for work. My flight wasn't until the next day. I had an entire day with my aunt, and I knew what I wanted to say. I didn't know if I'd find the right time to say it.
So she and I played Skip Bo. We sat on the porch as yet another rain storm came through. She told me how angry she was. How she's played over and over in her mind things that she might have done differently to avoid this impending painful death. I told her that my mom had always wanted to grow old with her--even moreso than my dad. She said that more than anything she wanted to see her grandchildren grow up and get married. I told her that she would, but she wouldn't be in pain.
And I don't remember exactly how it came up, but the moment presented itself.
"Out of all the members of my family--your daughters included--you are the only person who never made me feel less than or different because of my sexuality. You always welcomed me and had a place for me at your beautiful Thanksgiving table. And I just wanted to say thank you for that."
Maybe it wasn't exactly as eloquent as that, but I told her most of what I wanted to tell her.

7 comments:

emeraldcityguy said...

Eloquent or not I'm so glad you had the chance to express your true feelings. It's so important for those that we love to know how we truly feel.

red said...

wow jerms. that is so touching. it brought a tear to my big gay eye. well done.
xo
-A

Thomas said...

this choked me up as well. thanks for sharing this. your aunt sounds like an amazing person, to go through this horrible disease and handle herself with so much kindness and grace. and with her husband only around on the weekends. it is truly remarkable and so sad.

Tennille said...

ah, I teared up too. She sounds like an amazing person and lucky to have you as a nephew.

Earl Cootie said...

Tulips on your . . . Tulips on your . . . I know this, but I can't for the life of me remember. Piccolo? That's not right. Oh, well, it'll come to me someday.

It's nice that you got to spend time with your aunt and talk with her.

TonkaManOR said...

Thanks for sharing. I'm happy you got to tell her what you wanted. I lost my mom to breast cancer March 1st. I luckily got to sit with her for almost a week and talk with her before that.

Again thank you for sharing!

heidi lu said...

Jer - well written... turned me into a big sobbing mess (surprise). thank gawd you have someone in your family that let's you be you. I'm sorry she's in pain. Love, LU