We were informed early this Sunday morning that my maternal aunt, Aunt J, had passed away.
On the one hand, this was not a surprise. We had known that this would be the outcome since last week, when the doctors let my cousin know that due to a combination of brain damage and pneumonia, this would be the case. On the other hand, this is first time in many years (almost 25) I have had to deal with the death of a close relative.
As I look back, I realized that Aunt J was in many ways my earliest memory of family beyond my own: my mother's brother was in the military and thus stationed away from the town we grew up until I was well into high school and most of my father's family lived away from us. My mother's parents lived in town and we saw them often. Aunt J then served as that "other family" that represented all those who were not nearby.
I think - in retrospect - she was a bit of a rebel that made her mistakes, paid for them, and moved on. She married young - twice - and after the second one decided she was done. She was my first memory (years later of course) of a family issue, as she became pregnant in her early 40's with my nephew while unmarried (Much less of an issue now of course, but in the mid-80's still something of significance. My grandfather took quite a while to adjust).
She lived in the Big City, about two hours away from the small town where we lived. I always remember going to visit her as an adventure, as inevitably we would go do other profoundly fun and amazing things that we would never be able to do in our little town: museums, animal parks, tourist attractions. The concept of living where she did - first an apartment, then a condo - seemed exotic to someone who only lived in a house.
She made a career for herself, starting as a hair dresser and ending as a representative for copier/document company (oddly enough, we actually intersected in our professional careers at one point). She had one son, whom she adored, and four nephews and a single niece which were adored as well, especially in place of children until she had her son. She kept a variety of cats and dogs over the years - all characters, as I recall.
She was, I think, someone who I would have called "glamorous" in my youth (and maybe even today). She cared about personal appearance in a way different than the rest of my family (her collection of make up was fascinating to me as a child). She dressed elegantly, even well into retirement (the wallet I currently carry in my pocket is of Italian leather, something she bought for me during one of her trips there). She like to travel, both abroad and in the US.
She was very attached to the house that she had grown up in (my grandparents') even though she has not really lived there since she left home after high school. After their passing, she spent a considerable amount of money restoring it and used it as a second home for her visits to her hometown; she also generously gave one of my cousins a place for him and his daughter to live when they needed it, a bit down on their luck.
Her one regret (I think) is that she never got to have grandchildren (my cousin has often dated, but never married). She got to have them vicariously through mine and my sister's and my cousin's children, so at least there was partially filling there.
She helped me out more than once, often in words but at least once in deed as well when, during my graduate work, I needed a place to stay during the holidays to keep my regular job. She happily let me stay in her house over the break (and take over her son's Sega as that was the year Sonic the Hedgehog came out).
Her passing was both the way some may want to go yet the way most do not expect: she was feeling well on a Monday, was feeling a bit out of it on Tuesday, had respiratory distress on Wednesday, and on Thursday was apparently quite ill and incoherent. On the ride to the hospital her heart stopped and they were able to restart it. They are ultimately unsure what caused the issues - was it swelling of the brain that created the other issues or The Plague that did - but the result was the same: she did not speak or respond again from that Thursday until her passing the following Saturday night. So it was in that sense relatively quick, but also very unexpected.
This is still early of course, and there will be a processing of the grief; her burial will be a cremation and ultimate burial at the family cemetery (so this will all be re-lived again). I grieve for cousin, who now has neither of his parents (his father passed some years ago). I grieve for my maternal Uncle, the oldest of his family and his generation now, who is faced with his youngest sister dying and his middle sister (my mother) in the throws of dementia.
And by association, I grieve for all who have had their holidays cut into because of the death - unexpected or not - of a loved one. The holidays burn a little less bright because of it.