When the most indispensable person in your life is also the most impossible
Ambivalence. Cognitive dissonance. Love-hate. These are just the tip of the emotional iceberg I slam into whenever I think about my Aunt Edith. She recently turned 102 but is going so strong physically that I’d make her the odds-on favorite to whip most women half her age in a cage match, and some men, too.
The overbearing, overprotective, older sister of my beloved mother, who died a few years ago at 94, Edith and my mom were incredibly close. During critical periods of my mother’s life, she and her big sister were joined like Siamese twins – from their pre-war childhoods on my grandfather’s farm in Connecticut, to their post-war entrepreneurial venture to open their own dress shop in California, and beyond.
Sometimes I was a grateful beneficiary of the relationship. But others I was an unfortunate case of collateral damage, an unintended consequence of their complex co-dependence. This became a source of tremendous torment at the end when I was working and living abroad with my wife and entrusted my mom’s care to my aunt. By then, I’d watched my once-vibrant mother, who’d overcome so much to rebuild her life after my father’s midlife suicide, become incapacitated by age and Alzheimer’s. At that point, her moving in with my then-also-widowed aunt, with a full-time, live-in aide, was the best feasible arrangement, and the only one my aunt would abide.
Having to Fight Someone You Feel You Owe
I’ve never experienced a conflict more wrenching than to be beholden to someone you also need to oppose – someone you need to fight to protect the best interests of your own mother. Ironically, it was my mother herself who always beseeched me to show my aunt the gratitude she deserved, and that for much of my life I could not dispute. In a way, my aunt had been like a second mom to me – someone inextricably linked to my own personal history, going back as far as my memory stretches, and maybe even further. In one story that’s so integral to our family lore that I feel I remember the event itself, rather than just hearing about it, my mom had gotten woozy on an ocean fishing trip and given me over to my aunt to change my diaper. Legend has it that I sprayed a golden geyser right up into her kisser, sending everyone on the boat into hysterics.
When the time came for me to begin my adult life in earnest and start a career, my aunt and her husband began their retirement in Florida and passed their precious Chelsea apartment on to me.
All throughout my childhood, my aunt would return the favor in kindness, showering me with gifts of every description: my first watch; toys; a bright, red English racing bike; all sorts of scarves and sweaters that she’d knit with professional craftsmanship, quality, and style; a transistor radio, with rudimentary ear pods, which rockabyed me to sleep in my preteen years. And then there were all those childhood adventures in New York. I can still feel my aunt’s hand clutching mine on the downtown subway train to Coney Island, where she introduced me to the famous aquarium, and to Nathan’s foot-long hot dogs; or uptown to the Bronx Zoo; to Radio City, where we watched the Rockettes perform. When the time came for me to begin my adult life in earnest and start a career, my aunt and her husband began their retirement in Florida and passed their precious Chelsea apartment on to me. I lived there for 15 years – longer than anyplace else before or since. Far more than a comfortable dwelling that I was as fortunate as a lottery winner to have landed, it became a feeling that I came to associate with my very sense of home, place, and identity, the launching point for my professional growth, my marriage, my development as a man.
The Dark Side
With my little boy’s eyes, I watched the kindly aunt who had bought me an ice cream cone with chocolate jimmies earlier in the day transform into the Incredible Hulk.
But dark recollections also lurk in the depths of my mind, vivid scenes of another side of my aunt. I witnessed the force of her wrath for the first time when I was a boy of about seven or eight. My mom needed a new raincoat, so she drove to New York with me in tow and my aunt took us to a shop in the garment district. When my mom asked a saleswoman where she could find her size, the response was neither friendly nor polite; she snapped something to the effect that the sizes were clearly marked on the racks, as anyone with half a brain could see. That might have passed with a frown or a tisk from another, more even-tempered patron, but not my aunt. With my little boy’s eyes, I watched the kindly aunt who had bought me an ice cream cone with chocolate jimmies earlier in the day transform into the Incredible Hulk. My Aunt Edith gave this saleswoman a dressing down the likes of which I’d remember for the rest of my life, but would not find myself on the receiving end of until I was old enough to claim an independence that sometimes conflicted with her wishes, or worse, struck her as unbefitting the treatment my mother deserved from her only son.
But our battles would come, and they’d be ugly. Indiscretions as benign as being late for her early-bird 5 o’clock dinners could set off firestorms of recrimination and downright nastiness toward my girlfriends for not having better sense. When flight delays from Switzerland caused my wife and me to arrive later than planned for a visit with her and my mom in Florida, my aunt snapped at my wife like a pit bull, scolding her that “You would never do such a thing if it were your own mother!”
The Straw That Broke the Camel’s Back
My aunt counter-attacked with a fiery tirade that destroyed any sense of gratitude I’d ever felt. She brought out in me a raging animal’s instinct that rivaled her own feral streak.
The ultimate clash came when, after several visits to my mom over a period of months when she was in decline, I realized that my aunt was forgetting to give my mother her twice-daily regimen of medicines for diabetes, dementia, glaucoma, and hypertension. Not a problem. I took advantage of the care facility’s Medication Management Program, which sent a service provider to administer the pills as directed. But this was too egregious and unnecessary a breach of my aunt’s total control and she forbade it. With that, it was on. The gauntlet was thrown down. My wife and I flew back across the Atlantic to Florida, where I would take the matter into my own hands. My aunt counter-attacked with a fiery tirade that destroyed any sense of gratitude I’d ever felt. She brought out in me a raging animal’s instinct that rivaled her own feral streak. Only one of us would prevail this time – my aunt had persuaded her younger brother and me to change our minds and give her another chance twice before. Now, the force of the boiling blood inside me was powerful enough to trigger acts that scared me contemplate. My aunt gave in.
Each morning thereafter, she grit her teeth as the doorbell rang and a woman holding an envelope of tablets and capsules dispensed them one by one to my gentle mother, as she struggled to swallow them with a sip of water, and my aunt looked on in disgust. Nevertheless, my mom’s deterioration continued until she died peacefully in her sleep. My bitterness toward my aunt, though, lingered.
My wife and I eventually returned to New York, living just across town from the apartment I had inherited from my aunt and her husband. A cousin arranged for my aunt to move to an assisted living facility up north, where she resides there to this day.
Not long ago, I decided to pay her a visit with my cousin and her father, my mom’s and aunt’s younger brother. I hadn’t seen my aunt in a couple of years but had had a civil phone conversation with her a year earlier. I’m not sure what I hoped would happen, whether we’d forgive and forget, remember happier times, or simply pretend that the nuclear confrontations of the past had never happened. But something inside me sought some kind of closure, or some sort of stimulus to just let go.
What happened was… what would I call it? The ultimate anticlimax?
As it turned out, my aunt had just been moved from the normal assisted-living section to a more restricted second-floor department for people requiring a higher level of oversight. When we arrived, my aunt was sitting with a group of residents singing along with popular songs from the 40s and 50s. As I watched her happily greet my cousin and uncle and start to converse with them, I soon realized that she didn’t recognize me; I could have been anyone. The torrent of memories inside my head – both good and bad – dissipated like a cloud, or smoke from a chimney. I felt… empty.
I’ve since scoured the internet looking for advice on dealing with difficult people, searching for tips on how to process the cauldron of anger and ambivalence that had lodged itself in my mind for so long. I found advice like, Take deep breaths; Proceed with kindness and compassion; Recognize the control drama the other person is using; Don’t take it personally; See the experience as an evolutionary opportunity; Ask yourself what you learned from this situation.
Well, I’ll tell you what I learned:
- Each one of us is a complex mixture of good and bad, some possessed more of one than the other, and some possessed of one or the other to great extremes.
- Some difficult people, like my Aunt Edith, are impossible to deal with, and impossible to avoid, and sometimes even essential to some aspect of your life. You can try breathing and compassion and empathy. But sometimes you just have to go to war and achieve your ends. You can let go later.
- Eventually, you will let go, because there’s no other choice. Maybe you’ll die, or maybe your difficult person will, or maybe she’ll simply forget you exist.
Or, as a good friend who knows this story, put it, “It looks like your Aunt Edith had the last laugh.” I guess she did at that. Unless I allow myself to get a chuckle out of it now that it’s behind me. I can do that.
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