A cadaveric study of my aunts
One by one, my aunts are dying of cancer. Some of them died before I was born and some of them haven’t died yet, but I know they will.
curse, family, funeral dress
My grandmother didn’t want her twelve kids to know they were Irish. Well, they knew they were Irish, but she didn’t want them to have feelings about it. Despite this she is very Irish.1 She’s sharp, she’s funny, she never gets sick, and she’s been watching her children die for thirty years. Of her nine daughters, seven have had cancer, two of those have died from it, and one is dying now.
My aunt Barbara came to visit us when we lived in Spain, when I was nine years old, and she had already shaved her head. She was so soft and pale. She helped me turn my hair into a spider of braids and we laughed all night. She died a few months later.
I want to know more than what I know on a genetic level. I don’t want to know how cancer invades a body–I can read about that, and every textbook patient will be my aunt Barb, who died while I was at summer camp. I can tell you how cancer invades a family. It spreads from the hospital bed to the waiting room and then to everyone’s phones across the country, and then we put the phones down and cry by ourselves, everyone in their own room, until the funeral.
What I really want to know is how I’m supposed to say goodnight to my mom when we both know her sister is dying, halfway across the world, of something my mom survived.2
Every time it’s six in the morning and my mom is on Skype, I know that my aunt Kathy is dying. She’s in India and she’s full of light. My mom always says she was the first person at their school to wear Birkenstocks. My aunt Kathy is better than George Harrison. When her sisters were dying, Kathy was the one who flew to where they were, all spread out across the world like beautiful, lonely wildflowers. Kathy was the one who sat with them with just her linen voice and her brown hands. I ask my mom, when the call is over, “Who is the Kathy for Kathy?”
Every time I’m ten years old and my parents come to pick me up early from summer camp, they tell me my aunt Barbara has died and we have to go to the funeral. I wear a gray dress3 and we all dance to her favorite songs afterwards. My mom stands with her brothers and sisters in a big circle and she laughs and the corners of her mouth come up over her gums and she’s so beautiful I think I can almost understand her.
It’s exhausting to hear someone die from far away. I almost heard my mom die from across the hall when she was sick, but I was fourteen and then I was seventeen and she wasn’t sick anymore. My cousin and her husband and their new baby will hear my aunt die from down the hall, if she makes it to Seattle. I love them and I’m afraid of them. I have nightmares about their closed, crying mouths and the baby looking up at them and the baby growing up and never hearing her grandmother sing harmony in the night air on the farm in Michigan.4
I want to be with my aunt while she’s dying, only I don’t want me to be there. I want to be raptured out of my body and I want my body to be filled up with someone better than me. While I’m sitting with Kathy, I want to be Kathy for her. I want to be her when I was nineteen and she came to visit me in Spain and we drove to the little ashram in Piera.
She asked me to sing for her in the car, and I love to be asked to sing and to pretend not to love it. She told me what it’s like to see her son grow up to resemble his father. She introduced me to people who clean beans at a wooden table, for hours, and never complain. I want to be her when she walked with me through an olive grove and didn’t get mad at me for taking stupid pictures of all the raindrops. I want to not get mad about anything, to not upset anyone with my anger. I want to be able to make her unafraid just by sitting quietly beside her, but fear and fury are so much a part of me.
Who is the Kathy for Kathy? Who will be the Kathy for Grandma, for mom, for me?
1. My mom wouldn’t like this.
2. How long do you hug a woman who doesn’t feel sorry for herself? Do you hug her until it makes her cry?
3. I don’t remember what dress I wore. I’ve never had any black dresses. Maybe I had a gray dress.
4. The farm is my grandparents’ small land near Kalamazoo. When my grandpa was alive, he built bonfires there and we sat around them singing old folk ballads and Simon & Garfunkel and Beatles songs and Depression-era tragicomedy songs about dying hobos and insincere lovers. My mom’s siblings have voices like angels, or bonfires, or really sad stories.