"Aging is not lost youth but a new stage of opportunity and strength. " Betty Friedan

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Heart of Our Family

As most people who know me know, when I am upset (or happy) or even over thinking, I write. I write to get my feelings out. Much of what I write is never seen, even by me because I don't save it all. I certainly don't share it all since I am not always big on sharing my feelings, especially the hard ones.

But, sometimes my feelings are so strong that I just have to get them out. Those who have read "In My 50th Year" know all about me being in the throes of a stereotypical midlife crisis. It is so "I Me, Mine;" using modern technology to talk about myself via blog. The only narcissistic element I missed is a selfie or two.

Right now as I type this, as I whine about my completely petty problems, and my seemingly never ending existential and mid-life crises, my Auntie Jeanette is lying in a bed, in hospice care, slowly slipping away. And, this morning we got news that she is almost near the end of her journey.

To say she's my "favorite" aunt is disrespectful to all of my aunts, and would diminish the love I feel for them. But, to say I am the closest to her also seems like it's not enough. There's never been a time in my life that she hasn't been there, hasn't cheered me on, or held me up after yet another heart break or disappointment. There is nothing I have never been able to say to her or to share with her. 

Mother's Day 2006
Just as she has always been, even now, she remains as my cousin Tracy calls her, "the heart" of our family. While in the hospital she was worried about everyone, including me, and worried about my biopsy (it was negative) and even asked me about the book project from hell that never seems to end. She even made sure to call my cousin on her 40th birthday and she is worried about how hard her impending death will be on my dad, her big brother.

Just as she always has, she's taught me so much through this. I have never gone through the hospice process. I have lost many people in my life, many I have loved deeply. But their impending death was always the elephant in the room, never to be spoken about. This is different, because she is different, and even in dying, she has made it easier on those who love her.

Her courage and strength seem limitless. Her honesty at what is happening to her has been startling to me. We are a strong family, and we take pride in that. We "tough it out" no matter what "it" is. But, we are always warm, compassionate and loving with one another. One just has to get through the tough side first, kind of like a Tootsie Pop: you have to get through the hard outside to get to the soft, sweet chocolate on the inside.

So, after she was moved to the hospice, I finally started to let her see me tear up and said, "I want to get mushy but I don't want to make this harder for you." She told me, "now is the time to get mushy, I am dying and you need to say whatever you want to say." 

As hard as it was to get the words out through my tears, it also felt like such a gift to be able to tell her how much I love her and to thank her for always being there for me. I thanked her for being a refuge and a safe place for me; including me as part of her immediate family; for giving me a sense of normal in an often chaotic childhood, for giving me so many happy Thanksgiving, Hanukkah and Rosh Hashanah dinners and parties that have continued well into my adulthood. 

I told her how much I love her and I asked what I could do for her and my cousins.She told me, "keep the Mother's Day picnic going, it is a 66 year tradition, but it's not really about Mother's Day. It's about our family, it IS our family, it keeps us connected to the generations before us and the generations that follow."  And she said to make sure we still have holiday dinners, and that we laugh and eat and love each other. I promised her I would, that we all would.

She told me that she loved me very, very, very much and also told me that she was proud of the woman I have become. She asked me to make sure that I am happy, and said that I need to follow my heart no matter what, even if that might make others unhappy, and said that "maybe we Gerbers don't always need to tough it out so much."  As we said our goodbyes we hugged and kissed, just like we always do, but we both knew it was different.

My sadness and grief at losing her is almost overwhelming.  Yet, I also feel a strange sense of peace at being able to tell her goodbye openly and completely, and at seeing the peace she is in, and that she's no longer in pain because of the compassionate and loving care she's received.

I also keep thinking about how important it is to say what you need or want to say to those you love, not while they are dying, but now, let them know how you feel. 

I think that's also why I feel such peace, I never held back from her, I always told her how much I loved her and my hope is that she can feel that love now in her final hours.