On One Hand

June 19, 2006


Filed under: Uncategorized — ononehand @ 9:17 pm
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Lately I’ve been pulled away from the real world into a sort of transitory limbo that lays hollow between fond memories and vague, indistinguishable future. Two people in my extended family are dying, in the same hospital, of unrelated causes. One has been on kidney dialysis for several months and is now tired and has chosen to be unhooked. He is 89. The other is unconscious and finally cannot breathe on her own after decades of emphysema. A few hours ago, while I was at work, my dad called to tell me they unhooked her from the machines keeping her alive. She could be dying at the very moment that I write this. She is 79 years old and an only child. Her mother, who is 99, is still alive in a nursing home.

I don’t know either of them well; I’d have to ask my mother exactly how they relate to me. In my life I’ve probably spent a total of 100 hours or less with either of them; far less than I have spent with coworkers I feel absolutely no attachment to. I think that one, Gloria, is my great-grandmother’s, sister’s daughter, making her my great-aunt. The other is my grandmother’s, daughter’s husband, making him my great uncle. Beyond that I know little of them except for memories of family reunions and holidays.

I do distinctly remember talking to my uncle Jim when I was four or five years old, his perpetually frowning yet good-humored face seeming to glare down at me under a shock of straight, wash-white hair. Jim was loud, sarcastic and rude, with a cutting sense of humor that was hard for me, a small child, to find as anything but hurtful. But I was always intrigued by an old wound on his shin that had healed long ago with bone showing through. Like a cut-off branch of a tree now partially grown over by the expanding trunk, the white surface peeked through a cusp of skin and gave me a sense of amazement that I could actually see the inside a living person’s body. To look at a living bone defied one of the laws of nature and I felt I was a part of a spectacular magic trick. I have not seen my great uncle in the few years that have passed since that leg was amputated, but always remember him by that peculiar, and to him either annoying or insignificant, wound on his shin.

My aunt Gloria was much quieter but always had kind things to say to the kids, always invited us to pick from bowls of peanuts or candy that lay around the house for guests, and was always concerned about her mother, Leena, who Gloria lived with almost all of her life. Leena was hunched over from osteoporosis and sat a fleshy lump on the couch, face seeming to come from the middle of her chest and two beadlike eyes peeking out at all of us. I saw Leena last year around Christmas time and she joked joyfully about how the men in her nursing home complex “don’t do nothin’ for me” and that when I was a toddler I used to jump on her bed. Despite her shriveled appearance, she is very healthy. Recently she asked her daughter to will her two thousand dollars, and the fact that she will outlive her only child isn’t a surprise to most of the family.

I didn’t visit Gloria or Jim in the hospital as they were dying – this all caught me off guard and I didn’t think to skip summer classes and would likely get fired if I skip work. And at this point it’s too help much anyway.

I don’t know what my responsibility is to dying family members so far removed from me. At this point in my life I’m realizing that the most important thing I can do as a human being is to be there for others in times like this, but I think my mother would have asked me to go to the hospital if she thought it was important. Aside from the biblical imperative to care for the sick, I know that my dying relatives haven’t been lonely; my mom said that Jim was extremely touched by all his visitors he has had in the last week, while Gloria is completely unconscious anyway. Jim is now fading out of reality; my dad told me Jim was babbling in his hospital bed this afternoon, telling my visiting parents to “remember to pick up some ice on the way home,” and he soon won’t be able to recognize us.

I have never experienced the death of someone I have been close to. All times I have felt great loss have been when relationships end, and those are the moments I dread more than any others. I remember when my uncle died and my dad fell apart for two years, and I remember my cousin’s death when his mother, my aunt, lay on the floor for hours, and my dad found her sobbing on the carpet when he arrived at her house. I’ve only seen such loss in other people – I didn’t know my uncle or my cousin well – and have always been unable to help those who were suffering greatly.

Yet whenever someone in my family falls apart, someone else steps up, if not for the sake of the person hurting, then for everyone else. When my Dad’s brother died my father was an utterly different person for two years – angry, violent, demanding, artificially masculine; I was sure he hated me and we fought every time we spoke. I was afraid of him, flinching ever time he raised his arm to point or pick something up, which made him angry, and I think also hurt him to see what his behavior was doing to his son. Back then it was my mother who became the strong one, not always knowing what to do but doing the best she could. When I came out to my mother years later, she cried, prayed rosaries, prayed over me against my will, threatened suicide, said I hated her, said I hated women, said that the her life was ruined forever. That was when my father stepped in, and he was always calm and rational. Then we formed a closeness we have kept ever since. The way one person would fill in the other person’s gaps seeded my concept of what I now feel a family should do, what people should do, and I’ve been looking for that in all my friendships and relationships ever since.

I guess my family is filling in for me now. I have school, work, and my therapeutic activities; while my emotions are shattered across the floor and I’m trying to put them into some logical order, and I can’t accept much responsibility. My family is filling in by recognizing my condition and therefore not asking me to do what I can’t. My parents are getting older, and though they’re doing fine now, someday they won’t be. Then will be my turn to fill in the gaps for them.


1 Comment »

  1. Family is weird. You don’t get to choose your parents and you don’t get to choose who you’re related to. I still don’t know how I feel about family.

    Comment by randomcha — June 20, 2006 @ 6:30 pm | Reply

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