What Happens When Your Homeless Aunt Shows up for Christmas?

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
Dec. 24 2012 8:06 AM

Christmas With My Homeless Aunt

She spoke fluent French. She came with mice in her suitcase.

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Debbie died of esophageal bleeding on Thanksgiving morning this year. She was dead on arrival at the hospital. Her bender must have been unprecedented in scale for her not to have noticed the persistent blood in her stool and vomit. On the phone with my father, the coroner said that the cause of death was without a doubt a complication of alcoholism, but protocol demanded that an autopsy be done the next day to exclude foul play.

My aunt was 56 years old when she died. Though, in a phone call with my dad on her birthday the month before, Debbie announced she was 57. My dad corrected her miscalculation, wondering when she’d lost the year and how it was that she’d managed to lose only one.

Over Labor Day weekend a few months before Debbie’s death, my dad and I road-tripped south to shuttle my rescue cat from New York City to Zirconia, N.C. Our drive-time conversation meandered enjoyably, and a couple of hours in, we got on the topic of where my dad’s and Debbie’s fortunes had split.

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On her deathbed, my grandmother made my father promise her that he would go to college. She had a brain tumor that went undiscovered until a routine eye exam, at which point treatment options were strictly palliative. A hail-Mary brain surgery was attempted at the very end, but the operation’s only effect was to put her into an irreversible coma. My dad and his sister had only a handful of weeks to adjust to the reality that their mother was dying. My father was 15, and his sister was 13.

Owing to ignored and unaddressed learning disabilities, my father’s high school test scores and transcripts were not a sight to behold. His guidance counselor told him that he wasn’t smart enough for higher education. Most in his position would have taken this opinion as fact, but my dad had no choice but to press on. He was the first person in his family to hold a college degree. As it turns out, my dad’s mind was made for chemistry. He was published in Nature at the age of 23, before he’d even finished his master’s in chemical oceanography.

On our car ride, my dad and I imagined together what Debbie’s life might have been had she been guided by a deathbed promise as he was. Then, my dad confessed that, after all these years watching his sister live terribly, something in his heart had shifted. He was now having a harder and harder time summoning sympathy for his sister. He used to feel for her what he would feel for a diseased puppy left to fend for itself. But suddenly, his sympathy couldn’t surmount her wasted life.

Recalling a recent visit with her during her last stint in rehab, he said that she seemed like a caged animal. She did not revel in her success and seemed tortured by the restlessness and boredom her clear-headedness produced. At the halfway house, it was a matter of days before she fell off the wagon. And, it was a matter of weeks before drinking mouthwash put her in the hospital. The doctors told my dad that the day Debbie embarked on her next bender would likely be her last. Her resilience exceeded expectation, but only by degree.

The Friday night after Thanksgiving, my parents stayed with me in Brooklyn. My dad’s audible fidgeting on the air mattress made it clear he wasn’t able to sleep. I followed him into the kitchen and got him a bowl of cereal. He said that he couldn’t stop thinking about Debbie alone and cold in the morgue, only a sheet covering her post-autopsy, sewn-up flesh.

There was nothing I could say in response. There never has been. But, having been my dad’s sounding board for things related to Debbie, I’ve learned that love is bearing witness.

That’s how my dad has always had to love his sister. He’s given her help whenever he’s had the opportunity, but mostly he’s had to show his love by bearing witness. Living every day with the knowledge of his sister’s voided life. Feeling the fury that the facts of her life ignite. Knowing that he will never feel anything but angry love for her.

He doesn’t simplify or ignore or move on from or gloss over or swallow back memories. He refuses to look away, refuses to sugar coat, refuses to accept or deny. He refuses to forgive, and he refuses to forget. He refuses to say there weren’t other possibilities, constant in his refusal of the solace of fatalism. And, with her death, he now refuses the comfort of the clichés on offer.

He loved her by bearing witness. And, in his grief, bearing witness is how I love him.

Janet Mackenzie Smith's forthcoming book is called Generation Special; she's also a contributor to The Hairpin.