My spunky Aunt Claire died a few weeks ago and the now my familial landscape lacks color and is choked in beige and sepia tones. This dreadful summer is finally over and in a way, the summers of my youth perished right along with Claire.
What the hell happened?
At 75-years old and on a Thursday afternoon, Aunt Claire begrudgingly went to the emergency room to seek relief for a lingering flu. By the following Tuesday, Claire had turned 76 and was released with a cancer diagnosis and months to love. In a few short days her life expectancy became days. Thirteen chaotic days later, Claire peacefully passed away while I sat close by wondering if this was all really happening.
It was and it did.
Claire’s last two gasps were as dignified and strong as she was and her death provided me with a brief calm that I hadn’t felt in the 12 previous days, but that calm did not last. Now that I’m on the other side of it, I can finally see a little, but my sleep and thoughts are jagged and I’m confused by the speed of death.
Throughout Aunt Claire’s brief sickness, she shared, “When your time is up, it’s up.” And I suppose she felt her time was up, but I would have preferred a little more. “You can’t leave with all the family’s dirty secrets,” I’d joke with her, but she never divulged one word. She told me that she didn’t have time for that and I wondered what she meant. What was she doing with her borrowed time?
I don’t have a lot of family. We’re not one of those Irish Catholic families who have gangs of kids, we’re one of those Irish Catholic families who brought The Troubles from Ireland into our own living rooms, lobbing verbal car bombs at one another every few months and typically at the worst times. Like deaths. Or weddings. Christmases and Thanksgivings, too.
But Claire was my godmother and that was a special bond that she and I took seriously. We never quarreled and did not judge each other’s flood of eccentricities. Aunt Claire wasn’t much of a housekeeper and neither am I. She liked a strong drink, or three, and even had a pesky DUI from decades ago that she didn’t try to hide with shame. People screw up and she wasn’t one to judge. Sharp and intelligent, Aunt Claire didn’t look for worth in a day job. Nope, she worked retail and restaurant jobs to pay the bills and left her free time to reading, cooking, walking, and eating. She lived until she quickly and quietly died.
Claire could not have children so perhaps the connection was more profound than a typical niece and aunt. Don’t get it twisted, we weren’t sharing hugs, cuddles, or kisses. In fact, I don’t know that we ever hugged once, but that’s not our way. We showed our adoration for each other through a shared and voracious appetite for reading, an appreciation for fine clothes at a bargain price, a taste for vodka, and a hatred for phonies.
Claire was no phony. At 76, she marched to the beat of her own mariachi band. She wasn’t big on rules, loved the beach, beverages at the Elk’s, and watching soaps. She went to Mexico every winter and when she returned in 2021, she let everyone know that she’d read 42 books while she was there. And I’d bet you she could even remember the plots and authors.
I grew up with my Aunt Claire almost every summer until I was 10ish. She lived in a family summer home into which I was always welcome. She made me feel wanted even when she would kid that my cousins and I were giving her an Excedrin headache.
Claire and I would swim in the ocean together and most mornings, I’d squint through the cracks in her bedroom door hoping to catch a glimpse of her nude. Yes, she slept in the nude and I was transfixed by the shape of her womanly curves. I’d stand there, holding my breath, and try to get a look.
Kind and proud to the end, when she was battling that flu that was now so obviously cancer, I’d offer to visit her, and she would stop the conversation right there. “I’m not giving this to anyone,” she’d bark. I don’t have a lot of family, so I haven’t had a lot of deaths. My dad died and every death since his leads me down the rabbit hole of bummerville. It’s not about missing them, it’s about all the things I wish I knew but never asked.
One of my death tasks was to completely remove everything from my aunt’s refrigerator because, well, she’s dead and nobody lives there now. I cleaned out the refrigerator and kept what was good and threw away anything expired. There’s a small pint of Brickley’s peach ice cream and I’m savoring a spoonful every night. I don’t know what I am going to do when my spoon scrapes the bottom of that container.
Rest in peace, Aunt Claire and thanks for the memories.