October 2, 2012

The Aunt in the Mirror.

photo by Jill Shropshire

I’m a happy yogini, indeed.

Several months ago, my brother and sister-in-law announced that they were pregnant with their first child; my brother is the most cautious person I know and he demanded that I keep the news to myself for a while in case their were any complications during the early stages of the pregnancy.

This proved to be very difficult for me.

I wanted a four-points bulletin on every form of social media, declaring that I, Sara Lovelace, was about to be one of the greatest, most beloved aunts in the history of Auntdom.

I wanted balloons and diaper cakes and an Auntie Mame marathon.

What I wanted most was to call up my Aunt Beth and tell her that I had joined her ranks: Beth, my idol and best friend. Beth, the hard-drinking, thorn-in-my side, that I loved all out of proportion.

I almost called her. Dialed her number, even. Then, I remembered.

You’d think it would be hard to forget the death of a loved one, especially given that I was there, in the Bronx hospice, for those last, torturous months.

In June of 2009, Beth fell on the street near her New York City apartment. She was rushed to the hospital, where doctors found a fierce, fast-growing tumor in her brain.

Four days later, I arrived from Virginia to find her in her hospital bed surrounded by a stack of newspapers and books; she had CNN cranked up so loud that I had to lean down and put my ear to her mouth to hear her first words to me.

“That John Edwards is such a sleazeball. He’s got that hideous used-car salesman hair. Talk about fucking gross.”

Some people prepare for death with last rites and the kind words of friends and family; Beth had no interest in anything but political news, movie reviews and how much this damn illness was going to cost her. She pored over the The New York Times Arts and Leisure section, circling the movies and book readings she thought I should attend while in New York.

When I tried to explain that I had more important things to do, she asked me what could be more important than watching Gloria Vanderbilt read from her new, soft-core porn novel…I could think of one thing.

“Everyone’s going to be there. I don’t know why you never want to go out and do anything. What are you? A shut-in?”

This prompted a huge fight, in which a package of ginger chews and a plastic cup of ginger ale fell to the floor. She said I’d been living in a small town for far too long—that I’d become boring. I told her that I’d throw away the stack of newspapers she’d been hoarding underneath her hospital blanket if she didn’t shut her mouth. When I pulled the blanket up and reached for her stash, she grabbed my wrist and shoved my hand away.

“God damnit, I’m not finished with those yet. Leave them alone.”

If you’ve grown up on Victorian novels and bad TV like me, you might imagine that holding vigil over a loved one’s deathbed is a solemn, mournful experience; you imagine Bible verses being read with hushed tones in a softly-lit room—a tearful cavalcade of old friends and family gathering in wait.

You don’t imagine the constant blare of CNN from a wall-mounted television or the twenty-four hour, headache-inducing blanket of fluorescent light covering everything with a green tint.

You never prepare for the dying person telling you to go fuck yourself because you threw away a stack of weeks old newspapers…at least I didn’t. I don’t know what I envisioned on that bus ride from Virginia to New York but it wasn’t that.

Beth was one of my closest friends.

She was my childhood idol and my adult travel partner. We went all over the world together—staying in shitty hotels and nursing ourselves through endless hangovers from bad bottles of champagne bought from street vendors.

She taught me about drag queens and literature and the importance of gift season at the Bergdorf’s make-up counters. She taught me that fur coats are dangerous garb if you find yourself on the Long Island Commuter train with a group of PETA members.

by Jill Shropshire

She encouraged bad behavior: running a restaurant check if you are given bad service, smoking, procuring a fake id so you can drink at the opera, foul-mouthed cursing sprees directed at those you dearly love.

She almost got us both arrested on a midnight train from St. Petersburg to Moscow because she couldn’t wait to use the bathroom; a taciturn guard told us that the bathrooms would not be available until the train left the station.

He told us, we thought, that we had quite a while to wait.

My aunt waited until he left the compartment. “That’s it,” she said. “Cover me.”

She poured what was left of her champagne out of a plastic cup and put it between her legs.

“I’m begging you not to do this,” I said. “I don’t like this. I don’t want anything to do with this.”

I had to hold up my coat to cover her because she was already squatting and unbuttoning her pants. The very second she relaxed into a nice, long pee, the train began moving. She screamed for me to hold the cup—I told her there was no way in hell I was going to do any such thing.

In the midst of all of this, the Russian guard had entered the compartment and was staring at us. Here was my aunt, buried under ten pounds of fur coat and eliminating like an animal in a First Class train car. I couldn’t translate what he said exactly but the word American was said clearly and with much-deserved scorn.

I thought of this moment years later in the hospice center, as a non-verbal, jaundiced Beth urinated on herself unknowingly; I’d become accustomed to this after a month. Instead of calling the nurse, I changed her padding and blankets and lay back down beside her on a little cot by her bed. I couldn’t have known in Russia that there was a way in hell that I’d take care of her bodily functions.

And it was, without the benefit of demons or any fancy CGI conjuring, the most frightening incarnation of hell I’d ever imagined.

You, dear yogis, can see why I have chosen to forget her death.

Why I still dial her phone number when I’m reading the new Scientology slam in Vanity Fair (juicy stuff, indeed). Why I plan Thanksgiving Day menus and wonder if a case of wine will be enough.

Beth’s life was well-lived and full of hilarious and infuriating moments; her death seemed anti-climactic and unfair—doesn’t a dramatic life deserve an equally dramatic death?

The unfairness of it was highlighted by the fact that Michael Jackson’s death occurred at the same time.

The funeral was on every television in the hospice center. Patients rolled out of their rooms in wheelchairs and gathered around the TV in the common room. Family members sipped coffee from styrafoam cups as Usher sang.

In spite of the fact that we were surrounded by the weight and dankness of death, it seemed that everyone in that hospice, including the dying people, needed to hear a few escapist eulogies from the likes of Brooke Shields and Queen Latifah.

I tried not to give in but ended up surrendering, anyway.

A box of tissues at my side, I held my aunt’s hand and imagined her criticizing Janet’s weight and Latoya’s wardrobe choice. Here it was—the drama I’d been craving. No mention of adult diapers or applesauce being sipped through straws. Just hot lights, Versace suits and a pop soundtrack.

As hard as I’ve tried to forget those months in the hospice center, I can’t—I find myself weeping at the most inopportune times—like in my morning spin class when the instructor plays Man in the Mirror.

I can’t become an aunt without grieving for the niece that I was.

To Beth: For all the havoc she wreaked on foreign continents; for all the drunken decelerations, for the good taste with just a dash of tacky…for her terrible right-wing politics and the good she gave to the world in spite of it.

For a life that shaped me and for the death that cracked me.

Cracks, Leonard Cohen says, are how the light gets in.

Welcome, little light. Namaste.



Editor: Bryonie Wise

Like elephant love on Facebook.

Read 1 Comment and Reply

Read 1 comment and reply

Top Contributors Latest

Sara Lovelace  |  Contribution: 6,500