I can count my relatives on the fingers of my two hands. When the holidays come around, we generally all sit around the same dining room table, no need for a leaf. Possibly, we pull out the TV trays and gather in the living room to eat and watch a movie. We are few, and the absence of any one of us is deeply felt.
Aunt Dee Dee is cooking, and my cousin is commenting that we were supposed to be eating over an hour ago. Grandma Colleen is doing a crossword puzzle, in ink, of course. Mom is trying to convince her only sister that carbon-flavored rolls are, in fact, her favorite kind. I can be found in the vicinity of the olive bowl, diligently forcing pitted, black olives onto all 10 of my fingers. My co-conspirator, Uncle Allen, stands guard to make sure I do not get caught spoiling my dinner.
We are a small family, a close family. We know each other inside and out, share stories frequently, miss each other when separated and look forward with anticipation to those times that we can all be together. We enjoy each other thoroughly. We hug, lean, hold hands and touch often.
In times of despair we stand gently behind each other to hold, in front of each other to protect, beside each other to comfort, and have learned that there is little that is more powerful than the love between us.
The reality that any one of us is facing a life-threatening disease is unimaginable, and hearing the words “inoperable cancer” and “Aunt Dee Dee” cross my mothers lips in the same sentence is a verity that I will not soon understand.
I cannot imagine my world, my family, myself without my aunt. She is too much a part of all that I have been, all that I am, all that I want to be.
In the same breath that I speak of the fear that she may not have long to live, I remind myself of the unusual strength of the women on my mother’s side of the family and how oddly this fear has affected us.
We have cared for, protected, taught and nurtured each other in the face of extreme tragedy. Together we have known divorce, rape, abuse, poverty, addiction, racism and single parenthood; yet we have survived with tenderness and passion. We believe in the strength that is found in each other.
But this is somehow different, this is spending the rest of our lives without our daughter, our sister, our mother, our aunt. This is not knowing what we are facing, what our chances are, how long we will have to battle.
We are afraid that we are not strong enough. We tell each other that we are, and hope to ourselves that we are right.
I see in the eyes of my grandmother, the woman who has softly scratched the length of my back more times than I can recall, a fear and a helplessness that I do not recognize.
I hear my aunt. She has within her the power to fade tears into smiles, fear into laughter, uncertainty into hope and faith; yet now her voice is reduced to a whisper and anxiety has hold of her appetite. She is more frail than she has ever been.
I can feel my mother’s arms around me holding me always, guiding me with the wisdom of one who loves with more truth than any I know. And her touch is for the first time not steady. Her tears fall into her own hands while no-one is near and I wish they would fall into mine, as they have in the past.
My cousin, who has never tolerated anything less than exactly what she wanted, is forced to accept the idea that this is out of her control, that her mother has cancer.
And I wonder, mostly to myself, how this could happen. I look to the past for a path over, around, under or away from this and there is none. I search myself for answers and for ways to make it easier, but I am left clinging to memories of us all together. Memories of my aunt cooking, my cousin teasing, my grandmother focused on her puzzle, my mother full of praise, my uncle keeping watch and me lost in a bowl of olives.