“It is not length of life, but depth of life.” Ralph Waldo Emerson
As I hung up the phone, my thought was, “I will never see her alive again.” It wasn’t a revengeful or hateful thought, it was reality. The purpose of my phone call was to restore balance in the hopes that we might salvage dignity between the two of us. Unfortunately, her answer and reaction to my phone call was less than affectionate and I sensed her disapproval by her tone, words and dismissive attitude as she hung up the phone before I had a chance to finish what I was saying.
Unfortunately, she was family and most closest to my mother, her sister. Years before this I can remember my mother quoting her sister’s words that she uttered to my mother during a difficult time, “just because you’re my sister doesn’t mean I have to love you or like you.” I don’t remember why those words were spoken, but I remember my mother feeling exasperated. I was a young girl and I remember my mother feeling somewhat beaten emotionally by my aunt as my mother felt that she couldn’t make her feelings known and it was best to just avoid the conflict and go along with whatever her sister said or wanted. Unfortunately, this was the sentiment of everyone around my aunt, no one dared to say anything or go against her way, because if you did, the cross you had to bear was great.
The sad thing was that my aunt had a side to her that could be angelic. In her stoic and stubborn way she could come into your life and give you everything she had. This confused me as a young girl because my emotions would be chaotic around her as I never knew when the other side was going to show, so I had a hard time being myself as I never trusted my aunt’s intentions. This confusion didn’t help the situation as I came across indifferent and aloof.
As life moved forward, I frequently witnessed this struggle between my aunt and my mother. My mother would often talk to me about some of the struggles and my answer was always the same. I told my mother to express her feelings to her sister. My mother’s answer consistently was, “you don’t understand, it’s not worth it.” Many times I wanted to pick up the phone in my mother’s defense, but I knew this would be against my mother’s wishes, so I resisted the urge to do so.
There came a time when something happened that was so shattering to my mother, I conscientiously had no choice but to phone my aunt to discuss the situation. As I stated my concerns and asked her to clarify the accusations she made about another family member, I immediately understood why very few in our family had tread those waters before. The venom unleashed was like a snake bite; quick and paralytic, so much so it stopped my breath. I did not retreat, I continued to take my stand and my aunt ended the conversation abruptly and slammed the phone down.
The next thing I knew she was ringing our doorbell. As she walked through our doorway, she was very, very angry. It didn’t end well as she verbally attacked my mother and I demanded that she leave our home. To my disappointment, my mother was upset with me. My mother was furious and even though she agreed with what I said, she felt that the storm on the horizon was not worth the victory of the battle.
The reaction was swift, my mother was cut from my aunt’s life. I felt fine about that fact, as I thought we needed the break. However, my mother was not happy and was very traumatized by the whole event. The silence from my aunt went on for an eternity and eventually my mother had to grovel back into my aunt’s life. I decided that no matter what happened, I would remain on the sideline as clearly this was my mother’s wishes. Several years after this incident, unknown to me, I would become my mother’s keeper as our family was thrown into the deep and nasty claws of Alzheimer’s.
Slowly and surely Alzheimer’s ate at my mother until it became apparent my mother was a shadow of the woman she had once been. The brain stealing disease was robbing my mother of her life and it became clear that I had to move her from her apartment. In the years leading up to this moment, I hadn’t really seen my aunt all that much. During the time that I dealt with my mother and the Alzheimer’s was extremely difficult and stressful. When I look back, I’ve come to understand that I went into survival mode to get through one of the most difficult periods of my life. I had two young children and my husband and I both worked full time.
During the early stages of my mother’s Alzheimer’s I knew something was wrong and I would spend a lot of time driving back and forth between my mother’s apartment and my home. As the symptoms worsened, I had a hard time getting doctors to diagnose my mother properly. Like many Alzheimer’s patients the more symptoms she showed the more stubborn she became. She refused to leave her apartment to come live with me and she refused any other suggestion of moving from her apartment.
Eventually, events and circumstances led to her being forced to move, and she chose to move across the country to live with my brother. During the relocation and preparing her apartment for the real estate market, I heard that my aunt had been visiting my mother. However, she usually visited during the day when I was at work, so I never saw her.
As we moved closer to my mother’s moving date, my mother became very stressed and agitated. At the height of this stress I received a call from my aunt. Once again, I found myself forced into defending my mother’s well being. The conversation lasted all of three minutes, but it is a conversation that I will never forget and it was the start of a journey down a slippery slope to the end of that relationship.
The night my aunt hung up on me, was a phone call that I had hoped would lead to some kind of resolution between the two of us; a negotiation of peace. John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance” resonates in my head as I write this. Peace or a peace of mind was the goal but the conversation ended far from peacefully. Given our history, it wasn’t all that surprising. As I hung up the phone, I knew I would never talk to her again. At the time I examined my conscience and I don’t think “a clear conscience” is the correct term here, I think I just swept it all under the rug, the dirty grime hidden until I could deal with it another time at some point down the road. The grime remained hidden under that rug for 11 years.
Several weeks ago, that dirt and grime was removed from under the rug, where it had been hidden conveniently all those years before. My brother texted to let me know that my aunt had passed away. Unknown to me, she had been fighting cancer for the last several years and like so many, she lost her battle. The grime that had been under the rug for so long, came back up so quickly and before long I realized that the act of burying the emotions had been convenient, very convenient for me to not take the time to cleanse myself of the dirt and grime that had built up under the surface.
Unfortunately, her death brought all of those feelings back and plenty of anger as well. I was asked by everyone if I would attend the funeral. I wanted to, I wanted to pay my respects but the more I struggled with that thought the more I realized that I couldn’t bring all of that dirt and grime, now released from under the rug, to the funeral.
Regret is ironic, I once read that a successful life means no regrets. I’m not so sure that is correct. I think mistakes and regrets are a part of life and how we deal with those mistakes and regrets can only make us stronger. I do regret and my regret is that I didn’t listen to my mother. She was right, I didn’t understand, it just wasn’t worth it. The emotions between my aunt and I ran deep and even in death, she made it clear to me that those emotions still ran high.
I honestly, don’t think she ever forgave me and my regret is not so much that I acted out or stood up to her, my regret is that by saying it out loud, I brought it right to the surface and my aunt was no longer able to hide behind her armour and like any good warrior, she came out fighting. My mother knew that and she knew she didn’t have the strength to fight.
To pull the rug from under one is bound to bring to the surface the dirt and grime that has been hiding for so long. Leave them with dignity is what my mother would have said, and this is something my mother always did. She always took the high road, even when she knew that she was right. The greater good and the best outcome was more important to my mother and all these years later, I think she was right.
Our lives can’t be defined by regret as a life of regret is equivalent to living in a wasteland with no end in sight. Our future can be defined by the changes we make because of mistakes and regrets. In the future I will lay down my sword and resist the temptation of going to war. My mother would be happy, as she found my way very stressful and often wondered out loud why I made things so difficult for myself.
As I continue to walk the journey we call life, I’ve decided to take the path that has smooth rocks rather than the path with jagged rocks. As for my Aunt, she was an adversary and she knew how to go to war and wouldn’t stop until she won. The truth is neither one of us won, there was only loss and it was loss of time. Surely there will be battles to fight, but the only purpose of those battles for now on will be to prevent the war.