As time went by, I would slowly learn new things about Aunt Sue before and after she slipped away from us and remained comatose for many years. I’ll have to admit I sort of removed myself from the situation; that old universe working its magic in protecting my heart, knowing that wallowing in grief and uncertainty could prove to be debilitating to this already insecure child.
Part of my defense mechanism at the time was thinking that age 46 was “old.” Aunt Sue had had what seemed like a pretty good life; it wasn’t like she had a lot of years ahead of her. At ten years older than she was then, I now know how terribly naive I was.
The first few weeks after Aunt Sue went into the coma, my mom was very supportive in helping Uncle John get started on legal proceedings. Yes, they had a case against Glass Containers, Inc. for negligence in a) not letting Aunt Sue go home when she complained of pain, and b) not calling an ambulance for my aunt after she collapsed, and instead, putting her in a taxi.
My mother also provided emotional support. One afternoon I overheard Mom’s end of a conversation with Uncle John, and all of a sudden it went from a business conversation to, “John…now, John…I know…,” then a catch in her voice before she could pull herself together. After the call she told me he had broken down in tears, he was so despondent. My aunt had been his life. Still only ten, I remember my own heart breaking for my uncle.
I don’t know all the details, but Uncle John did win the case against Glass Containers, Inc., which paid a lot of medical bills, and soon after, enabled him to drive around in a beautiful new minty green Cadillac (and why not? It wasn’t like he was wearing a fedora).
I would also learn about twelve years later (when my aunt was still alive, but comatose), that it had been either an allergic reaction to diet pills, or being given the wrong prescription by the pharmacist (also involved in above-mentioned lawsuit) that had contributed to her stroke. This came up in a tearful conversation with my mom the summer of 1982. I was visiting my family in Oregon (where they had moved a couple years before), and I confessed to Mom that I was struggling with Bulimia. With a pained expression, she referenced Aunt Sue, and how she, too, had struggled with her weight, which — along with smoking — was what would eventually send her into such a catastrophic state.
I was dumbstruck at the thought of my fun-loving, warm, witty aunt with the cute, curvaceous figure, having weight issues — like me. This “news” didn’t exactly cure me of my eating disorder, but it did send up a red flag.
Long before my mother died, she would fondly point out gestures of mine that reminded her of Aunt Sue. Things so simple as the way I held a teacup, the way I touched my chin when pondering something, the shape and expression of my eyes, especially when laughing — even a picture of me in in a black hat and sunglasses, in Paris with the Eiffel Tower in the background — would momentarily transport my mother, and bittersweetly remind. Part of me thought it was wishful thinking on Mom’s part in that she missed her sister so, and the similarities helped heal and warm her heart; but the bigger part of me knows that genetics can be powerful and multi-faceted — and yes, undeniable, at times.
Knowing that Aunt Sue would more than likely never regain consciousness, Uncle John eventually settled down with a nice lady and moved to Tucson. They never married, but she was with him for the rest of his life.
The Glass Containers, Inc. “magnet” always seemed to loom more ominously after the incident; a sordid reminder not only of the aunt who never left it as her normal self again, but as the type of place I could never be. This impressionable descendent of factory workers and truck drivers — family who all despised their jobs, but knew no other way — knew she had to elude all of that by knowing what she wanted, by going to college, venturing out into the world and succeeding as best she could.
To be continued.