Wednesday, July 16, 2008

I Am Sorry To Be So Far Away...

I've been here in Berlin over three years. In that time I've never really looked back at my former home/life with any regret at having left. Unfortunately that changed just recently.

An e-mail with the innocuous subject heading, "Happy July 4th" from my Dad's wife was in my in-box. I assumed that it would be the normal catch up e-mail, but I was wrong.

There was nothing about the 4th in this e-mail... it was only written on the 4th. When I started reading it, I had a horrible sinking feeling which has been with me since that first sentence.

"Your Aunt Virginia is slipping away."

I'm not a sentimental person. I'm not prone to crying or to fits of emotion. But this news has really bothered me in a way I never thought possible.

Aunt Virginia is my father's sister and has lived in the same small Kansas town for the last 85 years. About twenty of those years were spent in an insane asylum because life was not fair for women in the 40's and 50's.

She was a beautiful woman who married a handsome man when they were not even 20. After about 10 years she discovered her husband had been having a long-standing affair. This sent her off full-bore. Of course there is never a good time for learning this kind of information, but they had a daughter aged three years, a house, and many bills.

Details from my family are sketchy, no one likes to talk about these things, but I gather that she hauled his ass out of the bars a couple of times making lots of noise. Then there were many loud and semi-violent fights at their home. Before she knew it, he was signing papers to have her committed and to take their daughter away.

Of course she was livid, and let her anger out at the hospital with anyone who would listen. Unfortunately this did not help her situation, and things only got worse for her as she started learning what was happening on the outside. Her shit husband disappeared and put the daughter in Foster Care. Her family was freaked that their Virginia was in a mental institution and I gather they were not supportive. The doctors put her in a different ward and soon she was getting shock treatments.

Thanks SedanmanFast forward to 1976, when I met my Aunt. She was 53, I was a tender 8 years old. My immediate family lived in Pennsylvania and I was almost completely ignorant of my father's family in Kansas. We made the long driving trip halfway across the country on one of the last trips we were all together. Five kids, two parents in one '73 Ford van pulling a Coleman trailer.

On the drive to Kansas I heard a few hushed conversations between Mom and Dad in which Mom was wondering about "Ginger". I had no idea who this Ginger was, but I knew that it was an unpleasant subject for my father just by his tone of voice.

We pulled up to the "family compound" (my Grandmother and two Aunts lived within shouting distance of each other) and I was blown away. It is so SMALL! There were three houses together in the same area as the space our house occupied. Grandma's four room house was the same one in which she'd raised five children. HOW!?

Of course Grandma (Goldie - nicknamed for her golden hair when she was just a girl) came running out, and my Aunt Juanita and her family followed close behind. Hugs and kisses were passed around and as the noise started to die down I saw her. She was standing in the back of the group just looking blankly towards the rest of us, not really focusing on one, almost looking through us. The hair on her slightly lowered head was graying and disheveled, her shoulders were slumped, and she was noticeably listing to one side.

I remember going up to her and asking if she was Ginger. She kind of snapped back into our reality for a moment and looked at me with the biggest brown eyes I'd ever seen. One side of her mouth went up in what I learned was a Ginger smile, and she slowly nodded her head up and down too many times. When it was time for everyone to move on, Grandma took Ginger's arm and they shuffled toward the house at a slow, controlled pace.

My new-found Aunt was almost catatonic, in a drugged up state, and barely able to take care of herself, and this had been going on for over 20 years. Not long after we got back home we learned that Virginia was in the hospital... the regular hospital. It seems that she stopped eating and that worried her mother enough to take her to the doctor. This time Virginia went to my Grandmother's doctor who immediately took her off of all mind-altering medications. Within a week a spark was back in her eye and she was talking and giving everyone her own kind of Virginia love.

With this new awareness of her self also came a sense of pain from her abdomen. A few more doctor visits and she was diagnosed with stomach cancer. The medications had masked the pain enough that it had been allowed to go without treatment too long. When that same doctor opened her up for an exploratory surgery he promptly closed her back up without doing anything. He said that the cancer had spread everywhere, and he had seen it on her liver and several other organs. His suggestion... take her home and enjoy her last three to six months.

When she did get home she loudly proclaimed to anyone who would listen that the silly doctor didn't know what he was talking about. She had been told by God that now was not her time and that she would be just fine. That was 1977. No chemo, no radiation, nothing was given to her in the way of treatment for cancer. In fact they kept her off of all mind-altering medication as well. She was soon able to live on her own with only slight supervision.

And live she did! She never went to work, but she began going to a different church in town... the others all knew about her. When she would go to the doctor for checkups he would consistently say that there were no signs of the previous cancer. After a year he got the OK to open her up again for a status check. His report... the cancer was all gone. There were signs of where it had been, but certainly no further damage. It appeared to be in full remission... I guess God was right.

She was never a "normal" person. Too many years in the hospitals had stained her behavior forever. She was very much like a child in that she spoke only the truth, never softening the blow of "you're too fat" or "I don't want to be here". At family gatherings she would eat loudly and without table manners. She would get wound up for no particular reason and suddenly be argumentative with seemingly nothing to set her off.

In 1980 my grandmother, Virginia's caretaker, died. This put the burden of caring for Virginia on another aunt, the closest sibling. The houses were side by side, so the distance just worked out to give my aunt Juanita this hand full of trouble. Unfortunately for Juanita, Virginia saw her sister as some kind of nemesis, and treated her accordingly even though Juanita tried her very best to take care of Virginia, bless her heart.

When I moved to Wichita in 1984 she was very affectionate towards my father who she credited herself with raising, as their mother had so many other children "to look after". My Father had moved back to Wichita from Pennsylvania in 1982 or so and she had her "little boy" back. She would call him and talk for an hour about nothing. He would listen patiently, smoking one cigarette after another and nodding his head... nodding because he wasn't allowed a word in edgewise. When he would try to get her off the phone she would get angry and say nasty things which caused such a look of sadness in my father's face.

1996 saw the death of Juanita. Bless her heart.(This is what we mid-westerners say as a way of showing that she was a good person. It is not reserved just for death, simply as a way of showing that whomever we are speaking about is close to sainthood in some way or another.) Now my father was Virginia's unofficial and official caretaker. Virginia was still argumentative, often being quite mean to my father's new wife, making it difficult to invite her to family meals. The distance from her small town to where we lived in Wichita was just too much for her to bear, even though it could easily be traversed in about thirty minutes. She did not enjoy going too far away from her home, her comfort zone, so she spent many holidays mostly alone.

Since the time I had a car, somewhere around 1986 or so, I would go to visit Virginia occasionally. We would have nice chats and nasty spats. She would get upset and I would calm her down. I would take her to a restaurant and she would embarrass me by spitting the food back out into her hand, or needing that 5th napkin because she was so messy, or telling the waiter her life story as he tried to pull away - then screaming at him across the restaurant that she didn't like him anyway.

On any topic brought up she would tell me that she had seen it all on TV. When my headlights would stay on after we would get out of the car, she could not understand how they would shut off all by themselves, and would insist every time on standing there watching them until they would go off. I would take her to do her weekly grocery shopping and she would walk the aisles for up to two hours talking out loud to and with herself about all of the options she was seeing. "Libby's green beans, forty-nine cents... Kroger green beans, thirty-nine cents... I should take the Kroger, but the strings get stuck in my teeth, and Kroger has strings. Yes, Libby's" Sometimes when I offered to pay for her groceries she was sweet and gracious and accepted my proposal. Other times she would almost spit at me and tell me that she didn't need my charity.

Virginia loves to feed the birds, and I "fed" that habit. Four or five times a year I would take her a five gallon bucket of bird seed. She would squeal in delight and exclaim that her "red bird" was going to just LOVE that. It was not unusual for her to tell me about conversations she would have with the birds, about how they needed more water, and that it must be fresh. It was the reason she couldn't have a cat... because the birds told her that they wouldn't like that. My father and I would buy her bird feeders but she was quite happy giving them food in the lid from a butter tub. She was a simple woman who only wanted simple things.

There was the microwave that was a present from my father and his wife but hardly used because even though I showed her how to use it, she never got the hang of it. The rotary phone she continues to rent from the phone company to this day because "it has never caused me a lick of trouble, why should I replace it". The curly gray/blue wig that had outlasted its reasonable wear about 20 years before, but was still in use. And of course the boxes from Meals on Wheels that were "so useful", leading her to save them in piles in her already small kitchen.

Through the years she was kicked off of the "Senior Bus" for bad behavior... I wonder how bad you have to act before the senior bus kicks you off? She had gone to every church in town except the Catholic ones of course. Eventually she would find the parishioners not so friendly and she would just never go back. When she called a taxi to go get groceries on weeks that I could not be there, the driver would have to understand that he would be required to wait for her outside (off the meter of course) the whole time she was inside the store, AND of course he would have to carry the groceries into the house ... all of this for no tip I would suppose.

The last ten years or so have been a bit different for my aunt Virginia though. She's slowly become easier to deal with. It is as though old age has tempered her... that or the Presbyterians across the street from her house. She's been going to that church for about the same amount of time, and she's made many friends. Until her most recent bout of health issues, she was going on outings with the church ladies, and even counted several as friends. She would go to the neighbor's house for lunch almost everyday and was proud to say that she could bring something to the feast even though it might be a can of peaches, she brought something.

It is as though she had come into her own. All of her life had been a struggle and she simply stopped the fighting. On the other side was acceptance and openness. When the son of my aunt Juanita called my father to say that aunt Virgina wasn't doing so well, my father arrived at the house and found that one of the church ladies was visiting Virginia while preparing a meal and cleaning the kitchen. Soon he learned that the church ladies had arranged a rotation to make sure this was done for Virgina every day, and this had been going on for some time.

Now she is being sent to a home because her doctor judges that she can no longer take care of herself. Time means nothing to her now, so taking medication is a risky procedure. Her hearing and her eyesight have been getting steadily worse, and her normally razor sharp memory is gone.

It is sad how age takes us. About a year ago we could have clear conversations on the phone, and I got something from her in the mail at least once every two or three months. Her logical way of thinking and her sharp way of talking will be missed.

Maybe what makes me the maddest is that I'm really the only family she has that seems to understand her and have the patience to deal with her. It's almost as though she is alone, even when I know that she is not.

What frustrates me the most is that I am so damn far away!
I would like to be able to see her, to hold her hand or give her a hug the way I used to as I tried to calm her down. It is no longer a drive into Butler County, the land of hanging electric lines... it is no longer a thirty minute drive... There is an ocean between us, and I hate it!

Maybe her God is ready for her now. Bless her heart.

I went looking for a picture of the van we had when I was a kid and managed to find one on Flickr. Thanks to Sedanman for helping me walk down memory lane. The picture above could easily have been our van. It rusted into a pile of dust before the mid-80's, but the thing made many long-distance trips and hauled us around for about seven years.
'72 Ford "Chateau Club Wagon" Van
Originally uploaded by Sedanman


CrackerLilo said...

Oh, Snooker, how awful. *hug* Awful to read about your Aunt Virginia's life, awful that you can't be there for her. My grandmother and one of my aunts have died since I came to NYC, and for my aunt, I didn't know about her funeral until it was too late. That damn near killed me. I can't imagine what you're feeling.

Helen said...

Snooker, I hear the frustration and sadness you feel about being so far away from your family at such a sad and difficult time. What shines through for me when I read this post is the love you have for your aunt - and that is a beautiful thing.

Claire said...

Oh my goodness! This made me cry. It also made me think that Virgina's life would make a wonderful book.

Jul said...

Wow, what a life story. And so well-told, too. What a great way to honor her.