Aunt Sue remained in a coma for 20 years, one month and one day, dying of pneumonia on April 6, 1991. My husband Chuck gave me the news when I came home from work. I don’t remember crying, but I do remember feeling a little guilt and a plethora of “What ifs.”
The “What if” that still haunts me to this day is one where I am still living in San Jose and one day (sometime in 1983-84) say “Fuck it!” and get in my car and drive up the 680 to the facility in Martinez where Aunt Sue is. I want to see her. I need to see her. Curiosity and the craving of closure are battling it out in my psyche, and I refuse to take sides.
I want to sit by her bedside, hold her hand and tell her how much she meant to me, how she helped to shape me, how special I felt in her eyes, how she made a difference, how much I loved her — and still love her. I want to apologize for taking so long to come and see her. Maybe I would sing her a song — probably something more sentimental than Polk Salad Annie; perhaps Dream a Little Dream of Me (the Mamas and Papas version, since they were a favorite of hers — sorry, Doris Day), or an old classic.
The child in me fantasizes that she can feel my presence, hear my voice, and then slowly ease back into consciousness. She opens her eyes and a smile comes slowly across her face as she recognizes me. The fantasy always ends there, but the message is clear — she saved me as a child, and I have come back to return the favor.
If Aunt Sue were alive today, she would have been almost twice as old as she was when she slipped out of our lives back in 1971. So much life to be lived, experiences to have, trips to take, and grandchildren and great-grandchildren to love on and spoil. Not only did all who knew and loved her miss out by losing her so soon, future generations lost out, as well.
Somehow I imagine she would still be spry, warm, and very likely even hip, perhaps busting a move anytime a favorite song came on. Maybe she would have gone back to her original name of Iris (one of those “what’s old is new again” names). She would have been proud that I turned out pretty well, even taking after her in some ways — and even tickled that I still like polka dots.
There is a lot of speculation on my part that had my aunt been able to follow her dreams of being an artist, an actress, a poet, a writer, a talent agent or anything else she set her sights on, she would have never had to settle for a job in a factory where she couldn’t exercise any of the boundless creativity that brought her — and those who knew her — so much joy.
On a side note, she would have also not let any weight issues hinder her joie de vivre and self esteem — an area in which I have learned to navigate somewhat gracefully over time (thanks to ample amounts of therapy and learning to simply surrender; there lies a lot of strength in admitting your weaknesses, as I have come to realize).
It was simply a different time back when Aunt Sue took that job at a glass factory. She, like millions of others from her era, put survival above all else. The sad irony is that, in her case, that ideology wound up backfiring and snuffing out any possibilities of true happiness and full potential.
Aunt Sue would not want me to grieve for her — although I have, many times. She would instead want me to honor her by remembering her, perhaps writing about her, and most importantly, following my own heart.
Aunt Sue, striking a pose sometime in her late 20’s.
(Obviously having a hard time keeping a straight
face while attempting to look like a pin-up girl)