Deaths in the Family

All the news coverage surrounding the drawn-out deaths of more famous people back around the Kalends of April this year cast a macabre shadow over the much quieter deaths of two of my kinfolk, my second oldest surviving uncle and my youngest aunt.

As their deaths began to sink in, I found myself reduced to a kind of catatonic state: staring off into the distance rather than burying my nose in a book as I usually do while waiting for the bus to work; tolerating sappier shows on TV than I would normally have the patience for; damping down my verbal input and output while silently recycling old memories through my head—all subtle mourning behaviors for someone who is fairly quiet to begin with.

Although he had a Hebrew middle name like half his brothers (whose monikers included Jeptha, Joel, and Jahue), Uncle Bernard Elijah was not a recent Jewish immigrant. His (and my) ancestors arrived from England on the Atlantic shores of Virginia back in the mid 1600s, but they didn’t get very far past the Great Dismal Swamp until the mid 1900s. Most were either Baptists or Quakers, the latter being especially fond of Hebrew names, it seems.

As the middle kid of seven who survived childhood on tenant farms in Southampton County, Va., Bernard was my father’s next older brother. Although not very religious himself, he looked after his missionary kid brother’s family in Japan. We always enjoyed the Virginia ham he would send every Christmas, and looked forward to visiting him and his family every furlough.

He had retired after 33 years as a produce buyer for Colonial Stores, and had been married to my Aunt Marie for 63 years. He was a tough old bird. He was riddled with cancer, was in constant pain, and had been given six months left to live for about eight years before he finally gave up the fight. He was 84.

Aunt Becky was not blood-kin. She was married to my father’s youngest brother, whom he called Junior, so that we kids referred to him as Uncle Junior, just as we used to talk about Dad’s sister as Aunt Sister.

But Becky proved to be just the kind of kin I needed when I landed on her doorstep in tiny Ivor, Va., disoriented by rural America after a childhood in urban Japan, disillusioned with my religious heritage, and disinterested in continuing my formal education.

Uncle Junior offered me work therapy at the filling station and tire shop he managed for Becky’s Dad, who owned an oil distributorship, a couple of service stations, a furniture store, a plumbing business—a fair portion of what few commercial opportunities were available in a town of not much more than 300 souls. Work therapy was just what I needed. There’s nothing like repairing a flat tire on a mud-encrusted logging truck to bring one’s airy philosophizing back down to earth.

Meanwhile, Aunt Becky offered me talk therapy: a sympathetic ear and a genuine curiosity about the wider world. Only ten years older than me, she was as much an elder sister as an aunt and foster mother.

Being from a relatively prosperous family, she had been away to college, but she never seemed able to find a healthy compromise between her roots planted deep in the local soil and her longing to soar far beyond. She seemed to keep sacrificing one for the other. But maybe I’m just projecting my own sense of the same everlasting tensions.

With their encouragement, and financial support from a secret local benefactor, I went off to college, but dropped out in my sophomore year and had to join the Army. Becky and I eventually lost touch after she and my uncle divorced. By then, I had settled far away.

A few years ago, out of the blue, I got an email message from her. We were back in touch. I was able to pay her a visit when I went to D.C. for a meeting. Last Christmas, she sent us a Virginia ham. Last year, during my daughter’s spring break, I dragged her around to see a bunch of my Virginia uncles and aunts and cousins, and also to see the Quaker cemetery where her paternal great-grandparents, great-great grandparents, and other assorted kinfolk are buried. City kid Rachel (another Hebrew name!) thought it odd to be so attached to a patch of soil. It was a curious spring break for a Yalie. I suppose she should have been skiing in Switzerland.

It was during this year’s spring break that we first got word from a cousin by email that Aunt Becky was in Portsmouth Naval Hospital. Not just in hospital, but on life support. She had gone in because her legs were giving out on her. It turned out her kidneys were failing. And then everything seemed to give out at once. Dialysis and artificial blood hormones had to take over the work of her stalled kidneys. A respirator did the work of her emphysema-damaged lungs. An external filtering machine had to screen out a deadly organism in her blood. And heavy sedation was needed to prevent the panic attacks that made her blood pressure spike and plunge.

The doctors worked to stabilize her for weeks, but couldn’t seem to rescue one organ without endangering the others. Meanwhile, her three children made sure she always had a familiar face and voice at her bedside. At noon on 30 March 2005, she was disconnected from all the various means of artificial life support. Before sunset, she had slipped away forever.

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