While discovering Auntie Jaquey, I simultaneously groped around in the dark for a few days until I found the boundaries Aunt Gene had set. Like finding little land mines, the things for which she refused help were planted to sabotage anyone assuming her caregiving role. Although she enjoyed the freedom our visit provided her, complete freedom eluded her because of the tether she’d woven around her ankle to safeguard her purpose.
We all seek a life of purpose. Some of us find it early on while others change their course like a helmsman adjusting a ship’s rudder. The later describes me. I steered head-on into Genevieve’s situation with the purpose of averting a maelstrom. Perhaps it was a fanciful notion, because a maelstrom, like sh#t, happens and we’re judged in how we handle ourselves when faced with it.
Genevieve was even keeled and lived her life with constant purpose. Hers was a life of quiet work, stubborn pride, sorrow, dutiful service, and the surrender that she chose as her path. This is not to suggest that she was in any way “regretful” in this role. On the contrary, Gene shined best as the eldest, steadfast and in control, a nurse to everyone. Time and again she kept a bedside vigil beside death’s angel. Genevieve fulfilled her calling and in doing so, shielded us from having to fill her shoes.
I suspect birth order was a key part of the dynamic between the three Mitchell sisters. Genevieve, the eldest, probably felt mandated to be the family caregiver. The three sisters were born into depression era, big city, St. Louis. Their mother worked as a domestic (masterfully stretching every penny that came into the household) and their father, a gardener (with untapped intellect and engineering skills) tenaciously supported them during economically, but moreover the socially difficult times of the 1940’s. I can imagine Genevieve learning early on about the importance of relieving the burden; carrying her load, helping mama, helping with the baby, with household tasks. Deeper than this learned behavior was Gene’s natural inclination to be the caretaker.
Neither my mother nor I ever witnessed my grandfather’s daily trials as he marched toward the grave. We did not have to nurse him full time or redefine the space he left once he passed. We just showed up for the final hospital vigil and then for the funeral. My mother contributed monetarily, which freed her from the caretaking role. This was the understanding she and her sister, Gene, had. I will never know if they deliberately devised this plan, but in retrospect, I think Liz got the better part of the deal.
In the 80’s my cousin, Daryl, became very sick. There never were any details. In spite of his curious friendships with males, he just stuck to the story that he’d become infected by a blood transfusion. I think Liz was asked not to come to the hospital. Being held at a distance suggested the sorrow of this disease was big enough for Gene and Jaque without inviting drama.
The funeral soon followed and we saw a cast of characters that made up Daryl’s adult life. I found I didn’t know the grown-up Daryl at all. I’d been sheltered from him. With the exception of the few times he gushed about a handsome fellow or coyly described his dance bar frolics; I didn’t know him truly. Didn’t know whether he had a steady partner, didn’t know how he struggled with his identity. When we were growing up I adored Daryl. He was five years my senior and the best “big brother” (actually cousin) ever. He was fun-loving, picture perfect, and invincible—as I romanticized him to be. Daryl was my favorite! Then somewhere when he was about 20-something I lost him while he ironically was finding himself. He showed-up briefly when I graduated from USF in 1984; partially because he wanted to wish me well, but mostly because he was making a wild-eyed pilgrimage to the gay mecca and my event just happened to coincide. Then, I’d lost him forever. Too many years have passed, but I’ve put it all together in my mind, on my own, and posthumously. Divine providence stepped in and fashioned it this way. In some respects it was hurtful to be held at arm’s length from what was going on with Daryl, but conversely I was spared from witnessing his painful departure. Nonetheless, Gene was there with Jaque and Dana keeping vigil to the end, and they were forever changed by it.
My Dad died next. It was quick and unexpected. This time the greatest changes occurred within my mother. Her sisters and my cousin, Dana, came to the funeral. They stayed at my place while the Robinsons, my father’s side of the family, stayed at my mother’s house. This was a good arrangement in that both families were vastly different. I think once again there was a divine force at work because the arrangement made better sense than tempting fate with the eccentricities of all the disparate parties involved.
Gene, Jaque, Dana, and I, were on our way to run an errand. The errand itself was not important; just what followed. You see, Dana, had been out since the wee hours of the morning somewhere in Oakland clubbing and visiting “friends.” I’d grumbled about his choice to spend his evening before a funeral this way–with “friends” in quotes. Nevertheless, he was indifferent as I handed him the keys to my car. I shrugged and snorted.
“We all grieve differently.”
He fixed on me with his big doe eyes, rolling them like a cabaret performer, and then sliding into my car with a fluidic move Bob Fosse would envy. I was completely dismissed as he backed out of the driveway, showing me my own car’s tail lights.
Regardless of his evening, the next morning he managed to dress himself spritely in blazing, lemon yellow pants that rivaled the sun. He also sported a, shiny, red, polyester “doo-rag,” tight around his head, making him look like a flaming matchstick. Ostentatious, as evidenced by his flamboyant fashion affront. He was completely out of place compared to the starched and conservative Robinsons, and keeping their interaction limited to the wake and funeral was prudent.
There was a veiled difference in Dana today. Dana, who spent hours primping before the great reveal was drawn and ashen. I attributed his pallor to prowling around Oakland and keeping the hours of a vampire. I whispered at him with the affectation of a poet, partly playful and partly nagging.
“Why so pale and wan, fond lover?”
Under normal circumstances this would be enough to cause a benign row. But today I got nothin’. Chirping crickets, metaphorically; cars passing in the distance and the ambient noise of outdoors, realistically.
Then Aunt Genevieve said quietly and matter-of-factly, “Dana has AIDS.”
…I stood there.
This pronouncement was like a forgotten pot boiling over—begging for immediate attention–its containment unachievable. In its immediacy, you turn down the fire and clean-up the mess.
I shouldn’t have been surprised to get this news as an afterthought. It reminded me again of how much I was an outlier and not privy to their news in real time. So, that bites, Genevieve thinking I was too “whatever” to cope, or deal with long-term illness or the personal sacrifice of caregiving…maybe she was right. Genevieve and Jaquey had seen Granddad, Daryl, and now Dana, to their end.
I was feeling the guilt of being removed from the burden that preceded Dana’s death and being totally ineffectual at helping with his funeral. Once again a cast of characters appeared to bid Dana good-bye and I found, as with Daryl, I didn’t know the grown-up Dana either.
Trying to respect my elders’ culture of “quiet” I was afraid to ask anything. I muted my urge to talk about feelings, relationships, AIDS, or absolutely anything that might cause painful, awkward discourse. Everything I held onto became the elephant in the room and the elephant grew larger year after year.
It’s known, trauma can adversely affect one’s health, so in retrospect it made sense when Aunt Jaquey got sick. Imagine surviving both your children, once healthy, then ravaged by AIDs, a disease that left them to slowly fade away like living corpses. Genevieve, the consummate caregiver, would now see her sister, Jaqueline, through breast cancer and deep into Alzheimer’s before relinquishing the reigns and going toward the light.
In a quiet moment, I stood staring blankly through Aunt Jaqueline’s sunny picture window. Tiny rabbits daintily popping about in the distance brought me back from my thoughts. One of the abandoned houses that lied lifelessly slumped in the lot across the street was no longer there. Its crumpled bricks had been hauled away and wild grasses sprouted in their place–life after death. Standing there focused on this was healing.
I know I was sheltered. I was able to have a successful career, marry, raise two very handsome, intelligent children and enjoy my small family; never dwelling on mortality. I’m thankful to Aunt Gene for being selfless and caring for us. Through osmosis I learned a lot from her. Some things I’ll emulate and some I’ll do differently—I’ll reject barriers in my relationships and the culture of “quiet” that leaves you in the dark. My purpose, I’ve discovered is to chronicle our history, recording every detail I can remember, before it’s gone or worse yet simply forgotten.