“He shouldn’t be smoking cigarettes,” I grumbled. I couldn’t see her face, just the auburn curls scrunched against her crown, but the pause in conversation hung between us like a strained chord. “I don’t need your opinion right now,” she said without looking behind her. “Can’t you just get him cigarettes and not comment on it?” I pursed my lips and pulled a Virginia Slims carton from one of the stacks and handed it, begrudgingly, to her.
We found my uncle in the terminal and waited for a very long time for our flight to begin boarding. My aunt was considered handicapped and was wheeled down the jetbridge with one of the first groups to board. She was excited because she was bumped up to first class from business class without having to pay extra for it. I wondered how it would feel to be in a wheelchair at 58 years old—considered that the people around us probably thought she had just broken a foot, a temporary thing, and not that she was in a wheelchair because she had almost no feeling in her feet or legs. My Aunt Darlene was in a wheelchair, en route to Cairo, Egypt, and I wondered how this was even possible.
My aunt and uncle in Cairo
I had agreed to join my aunt on a visit to Cairo someday, as soon as she had announced to my family that she was marrying my Uncle Tamer. She had met Tamer in a chat room for Arabic cultural enthusiasts sometime after her divorce from her first husband. This eventually led to long talks on the phone and emails until it was eventually agreed that she would fly to Egypt and they would marry in a small ceremony. He was only five years older than me and exactly half my aunt’s age. When he was finally legally cleared to live in the United States, he moved into my aunt’s house and tried to achieve gainful employment as best as he could. Supposedly, he was a successful graphic artist in Egypt, but that type of work wasn’t as revered in the United States. We acknowledged that this is the case, but he also used this excuse to evade less-desirable jobs. Instead, he preferred to hole himself up in his “art studio” in the attic, smoking marijuana and playing video games. He smoked pot in the house with the knowledge that my aunt couldn’t tolerate any kind of smoke because of her condition, a fact that infuriated me and my family, not to mention the fact that he was unemployed, and my aunt was essentially paying for his habit.
My inclusion in this trip slowly evolved throughout the years into something that did not resemble its initial existence. My aunt and I had been on good terms when she had first proposed the trip. Egypt was one of those places you dream about visiting but likely never will. The idea that I would have an all-expense paid trip to Egypt with my best friend elated me beyond belief. They had been back to visit a few times, but I was always in school or studying abroad. We decided that the July after my 22nd birthday, I would join them and meet Tamer’s family. I held out a secret hope that meeting Tamer’s family would instill greater trust in Tamer’s intentions with my aunt.
However, in the year leading up to the trip my aunt confessed that it would likely no longer be all-expense paid. In the months preceding this comment, she and my mother had gotten into a financial argument, and I asked her point blank if this was retaliation, knowing that my mother would have to pay for me to go to Egypt if my aunt could not. She admitted coolly that it was.
The flight was long, but there wasn’t a layover. I visited my aunt a few times in first class, marveling at the different amenities and assortment of good food available on the menu. We chatted a little about what I would see in Cairo, she asked how Tamer was doing, we giggled at something. My aunt’s body looked like a giant blue water bottle, warm and sloshing in her window seat. At age 58, my aunt was approximately 300 lbs. She had diabetes, high cholesterol and couldn’t hear out of her right ear from a virus she contracted at some point. She was also missing a kidney that was removed when they discovered a small tumor during a routine CAT scan a few years before. On top of all this—and what eventually led to her demise—she was suffering from congestive heart failure, a condition that occurs when the heart is unable to provide sufficient pump action to maintain blood flow to meet the needs of the body. Her diabetes has caused her to lose the feeling in her legs and feet. Her hearing loss in her right ear caused her to be unbalanced when she walked. The 200 extra pounds she carried for the past 20 years had destroyed her body in some very vindictive and powerful ways.
My aunt was more than just my mother’s sister to me. I called her a second mom, not only because she spoke to my sister and me almost every day, but also because my father was generally absent from my life, both physically and emotionally. Although he lived in the same house as I, he never came on our annual beach trips to Ocean City or joined us on our many weekends visiting my grandmother and aunt in Baltimore. My aunt never had children so this designation was even easier to follow.
I always remember my aunt being there with increasing frequency as I grew up. She lived in Baltimore with her husband when I was younger and then moved to my grandmother’s house, also in Baltimore, to take care of my grandmother when I was eleven. She moved to Annapolis when I was fifteen, after my grandmother passed away and her marriage dissolved. The elementary school where she was a media specialist was right down the street. The closeness of our relationship increased exponentially after she moved to Annapolis. Like most teenage girls, I was wrestling with my relationship with my mother, and my aunt served as a proper escape and solace from that. We met for lunch, just me and her, once my sister went away to college. I called her on the phone to console me when I fought with my dad. I confided in her about boys and friends; I openly labeled her as my best friend.
My aunt always came to my sports games, even when I sat on the bench the whole game, always bearing a gift or treats and making an effort to meet my friends. Without my aunt to motivate my mom—someone who didn’t understand the importance of just being there—she would never would have come on her own.
My aunt was a self-described hippy—a lover of all things Beatles and Beach Boys, an ardent wearer of peace signs, and an admirer of rainbow tie-dye. She believed in smiley faces and possessed a deep love for animals of all kinds, especially dogs and horses. What always struck me as so unique, however, was the fact that she never did drugs or drank alcohol, not in her youth and never in her adult life. I admired her for this abstention and saw it as a strength and respect for herself that I might never possess. What would ultimately destroy her, it turns out, was a far less savage and conspicuous killer.
I went to college close to home, so my aunt and mom continued to see me often, the kind of visit that I didn’t dread like most students. She would bake me cookies to leave in the common room, understanding that this would buy me points from my hall mates. I continued to talk to her often, but it became increasingly more difficult with all the socializing and class and lacrosse practice. She noticed this change but took it in stride. She would mention how she didn’t talk to me as much, but I thought she understood that I couldn’t always be there for her when I could barely be there for myself with all the activities I was involved in, and that I shouldn’t feel guilty for that.
One day, during my senior year in college, my aunt’s car was T-boned at an intersection, and she was taken by ambulance to a hospital where she was diagnosed with minor whiplash. But while she waited to be released, a nurse came rushing into her room panicked, and then shocked to see my aunt sitting up peacefully, casually scrolling through her iPhone. The nurse rechecked her vital signs and then rushed away again, returning with a doctor. They informed my aunt that her heart rate was so high that they thought she was having a heart attack. A few days later it was confirmed that she was suffering from congestive heart failure. The fact that she felt no symptoms is still a mystery, though a testament to how poorly she probably generally felt but just accepted.
My mom called me the afternoon my aunt had her accident but assured that my aunt was fine. I decided that I was going to drive to the hospital that night, unsure where I was going to stay or what I was going to do as I had class the next morning. I called my mom as I was leaving. She seemed concerned as it was already dark outside and told me my aunt was fine; she was sleeping mostly and on a lot of drugs, and that I should just call her the next day. This was the first time my mom had really put her foot down about anything in my life, and I took note. I returned to my room with the confidence that my mother knew what was best.
I tried using the number my mom had given me to contact my aunt, but it seemed it was a bad number. My aunt called me a few days later and I was excited to hear her voice. I had been getting sporadic announcements of my aunt’s health from my mother and sister, words that didn’t really mean much to me. I knew the term “failure” was a bad thing that suggested urgency to me but they assured me it was treatable, though not curable and that she could live for many years. But my aunt was not happy to speak to me. Her tone was low and angry, and I wondered if she was merely tired. For the first time in my life she scolded me and accused me of not caring, that she expected me to show up that night when I heard she had been in an accident and stay with her. I protested that my mother said not to, at which she responded, “Since when do you listen to your mother?” I didn’t know it then, but a chiasm had opened up that I would struggle with for the next five years, a confusing tug-of-war between my mother’s words and my aunt’s, like the bewildered child of divorced parents.
* * *
I always remember my aunt being obese. She had relatively small legs and arms and although she carried a small double-chin, it was nowhere near how large it could have been considering her weight. Almost all of her weight was concentrated in her belly, this balloon that sat on her abdomen in a way that looked like it could hurt her back from carrying it around.
She simply loved food. She loved cooking it and reading about it and talking about it. But I don’t think she ever grasped how dangerous it could be, something that was ingrained on the psyches of my generation and further drilled into me by the fact I was an athlete.
* * *
Me with the obligatory tourist pose.
When our plane landed in Cairo and we were allowed to leave, we stumbled blearily down the tarmac and were greeted with the hustle of people with carts carrying mountains of suitcases. Once we found our luggage, we met at the exit of the airport where Tamer’s friend Hamid was to pick us up and serve as our driver for our stay. I squinted, even behind the protection of my sunglasses, as the Egyptian sun reflected off the pure white and gold-topped buildings around the airport. I marveled at the brightness of everything and the dry heat that engulfed me before I got into the car.
We stayed in a flat in East Cairo, just me and my aunt and my uncle, but my uncle’s parents and sisters and their husbands would come over every day.
Each day, my uncle would take me on an excursion to a different tourist attraction without my aunt, the length of the trip taking no more than a few hours before we returned to the apartment. I felt guilty, but I didn’t know how to voice this, and wasn’t sure if she really cared. The trips were short, though. When we weren’t out visiting a museum or mosque, we were lying around the apartment reading or talking or watching TV.
On the fifth day in Egypt, we went to the pyramids. My aunt accompanied us partway, but we dropped her off at a shopping mall. She had seen the pyramids on previous trips, and I later discovered that she also would not have been able to fit, nor lift herself into the carriage that takes you to the pyramids because of her size and because of the steps. I continued on with Tamer and Hamid to the site, waving goodbye to my aunt from the window of the dented Ford Focus.
There was a lot of traffic getting back to the mall to pick up my aunt. When she got into the car I could tell she was angry. I didn’t know the source of it, but I assumed it was a marital spat, one I was not part of and therefore should stay out of.
When we got into the elevator I smiled and let out a small sigh while leaning my head back against the elevator wall. My aunt then swiveled her heads towards me and rolled her eyes. I thought for a moment that it was a shared eye roll, like “I can’t believe he just did that,” or “I’m so frustrated, but I’ll tell you about it later.” I didn’t respond. We got off on our floor and I went to my room to put my stuff down. A few minutes later, I heard yelling from my aunt’s room and stopped to hear at whom it was directed.
I came out into the hallway, and she continued yelling, satisfied when I came into her view. She was too tired to even get up and come to my room. “You complain about everything!” she screamed, slamming her hands down on either side of her. She was sitting on the edge of the bed, in the middle, and the bed sagged deeply from her weight. “What are you talking about?” I responded, calm and evenly. I took note of the physical advantage I had over her, a body standing in an open space, the calmness of my voice suggesting something more level and grounded. “You’re always tired or hungry or thirsty and I can’t take it anymore!” she screamed again, slamming her hands down even harder on the mattress, her gold rings glinting in the fluorescent overhead light. My mind reeled back to my time so far in Cairo—a mere four days—and the times when I may have expressed my tiredness or hunger. Then she got up and moved past me to her room, waddling against her cane. She sat down on her bed with her back to me and began folding socks that spilled from a basket. “What are you talking about?” I repeated slowly. “You sighed, there in the elevator. Like you were tired or something, like you didn’t have a good time.” I considered this for a moment, but recalled how it was preceded by a smile. “It was a sigh of contentment,” I said. But she was unfazed. “I am so disappointed in you,” she said. She looked up directly into my eyes to give her words more weight. “You’ve changed.”
I thought of all the situations and instances we had encountered in the past four years. There were so many interactions fraught with tension and, at some points, extreme anguish that it could not be put into a narrative. My conscience flooded with the injustice of it all and the desire to defend myself for not being perfect. Was I expected to be perfect? What would it take to make her happy? Was it even possible?
* * *
When I returned to America, I spoke to my sister a couple days after the jet-lag had worn off, and my body was back to normal. I reflected a little about my experiences during the trip, but left out the problems my aunt and I had. But she already knew. “What happened with you and Aunt Darlene?” Before I began, I felt a wave of exhaustion with the complexity of it all. I tried to tell her the whole tale beginning with my feeble sigh in the elevator and ending with our outburst, but I knew I left out some parts and then wondered if it really mattered. She told me that Aunt Darlene had told her that she was so mad at me because towards the end of my trip I wore clothes that “showed off too much cleavage.” My aunt had only made passing remarks about this while I was there. (I mostly wore t-shirts during my trip, but towards the end of the trip, those clothes filthy from sweat and the laundry service I was told would be available was not, so I ended up having to wear a few V-neck shirts.) According to my sister, because of my apparent extreme disrespect, my aunt had declared that she could “never forgive me.” I exhaled-snorted at the ridiculousness of this statement. My aunt had reverted to being a child.
My relationship with my aunt was very strained after Cairo. I sometimes went out to lunch with her and my mom, and she would casually mention that she could have maybe handled our arguments differently, but she would say this without looking at me, like it didn’t matter much—a gesture that only further wounded me.
Sixth months after returning from Egypt, my aunt was walking to the entrance of her elementary school when she tripped on the curb separating the parking lot from the sidewalk and fell—a fall from which she would never get up. She was sent by ambulance to the hospital, where she was admitted. Her body quickly began a domino effect of failures: because she was on a blood thinner for her weakened heart, the wound she sustained on her leg from the fall swelled to massive proportions; her kidney then began to fail because they couldn’t filter her blood properly and because her heart was working so hard to keep everything working properly, it ultimately failed her, too. I visited her one time while she was in the hospital. I sat in a chair in the corner of the room, not knowing what to do or how to act. My first instinct was to sit near her and rub her back or hold her hand, but her body was so fragile. Her hair was matted to the back of her head and she had dark purple bruises all over her arms and legs from various shots and IVs.
I thought how uncomfortable she must feel, so unbalanced and confused, but most of all, scared. In my inability to know how to console her and what I should do, I felt pathetic and embarrassed in her presence. I thought of how far we had fallen, and how I was terrified of her. I was now just a fixture in the room.
I sent her a get-well card in the mail the Monday before she died. It had a cute cartoon bunny on the front that said, “Get Well Soon!” The card felt like an insult–It was a card for someone with a mild case of the flu or a broken foot. I was convinced that she wouldn’t “get well” and if that were to happen, it would certainly not be “soon.” I wrote something short and generic, its dearth a testament to how far away she was from me. She called me that Wednesday night, but I was in the living room of my apartment watching a show with my roommates. I called her back when I returned to my room an hour later, but she didn’t answer, and I assumed she fell asleep.
The next morning, I received a call from my mom telling me that my aunt had died a few hours before. Her voice was slow and sad, weighted with the responsibility of making arrangements while wrestling with her grief and waiting for the courage to call.
* * *
Someone once suggested that because of her weakened heart, which weakened everything else in her body, she wasn’t getting enough oxygen to her brain, which might be affecting her behavior. But I don’t know if that is true; I think grief has a way of exposing our worst selves. I believe her feelings lied dormant and were perhaps slightly repressed, but when she was diagnosed and her life expectancy was significantly shortened, she just let it all go. Every grievance she had, she exposed out in the open; every fault she noted about me and my family was fair game. She lost her ability to see the bright side and therefore lost her ability to see the brightness in anything or in anybody.
So this is not about grief post-death. This is about grief leading up to death. In my aunt’s case, this is about grieving the loss of one’s self and the grief of losing who she was and the relationship that we had. Sometimes, I think she purposefully made it easier for me to see her go, whether she meant to or not. I like to believe that she let me down slowly, though cruelly, so that I would be forced in that time to seek other relationships, relationships that would buoy me when she died.
I always thought that, after someone died, you would be required to only think of that person reverently, simply because they died and you lived—and even if they harmed you in life, they could no longer harm you in death. You could quietly accept their behavior then, feel sorry for them for missing out on the rest of this gift called life. But, to this day, I am still so angry. If my mind wanders to the argument we had in Egypt or the many times after her diagnosis, I feel a blind rage well up in me. I guess these moments are a testament to how much you cared about someone and how much they meant to you—the pain you feel is equally related to the love you felt.
I am still coming to terms with the ramifications of my aunt’s depression, but I also think about how unique our situation was that caused her seeming rejection of me to be so painful. She was at once my mother and best friend and aunt and father, and nobody can ever possess all of these things in someone’s heart without there being some sort of great conflict. Conversely, I could not be her daughter and niece and best friend in one entity either, and I’m not sure if she ever understood this truth as I am discovering it now. But, with each passing day, I still feel that I was so lucky. She understood then what I may only be understanding now as an adult—that my childhood would have been very sad without her. She was the embodiment of fun and excitement, but mostly love—and she was making up for it where my father and mother lacked it, which was a huge role to take on. It seemed her overwhelming generosity was just a way of filling all of those shoes for us, a task that was probably exhausting for her at times. Neither of us could have predicted what would happen but every day I try to remember her as she was before her diagnosis, something I like to believe that she wants me to do.