Tuesday, April 27, 2004
quote du jour:
"Working hard overcomes a who lot of other obstacles. You can have unbelievable intelligence, you can have connections, you can have opportunities fall out of the sky. But in the end, hard work is the true, enduring characteristic of successful people." -- Marsha Evans

I need to talk about my great aunt.

She's my great aunt -- we call her Aunt Sis -- in more than one way. She's great in the genealogical sense because she was my grandmother's sister. But she's also great in the literal sense as well.

My aunt might just be the single most intelligent and accomplished person I know. She came from a poor rural setting in The South, but attended Peabody College, Columbia University and The University of Colorado -- going on to earn her doctorate and making a positive impact on countless lives both directly and indirectly.

She was employed for many decades at a popular public university in Michigan where she was a professor, assistant director of the counseling center and faculty representative to the NCAA. She was the first woman in their conference -- and, perhaps, the nation -- to ever be named as faculty representative. She later became the first female vice president of the NCAA. In 2000, I flew north to escort her to her induction in the school's athletic hall of fame. Her picture now sits among those of more famous coaches & athletes. Of course, that's her public side.

To me, personally, she is a great supporter. Since my Mom's mother died in 1994, she has been a second grandmother to me. She has shown her support for all of my endeavors -- going to college, being a journalist and becoming a firefighter. She's also a fan of practically anything I've ever written. Not only has she supported me with kind words and enthusiasm, which are paramount, but she's been known to throw a few bucks towards a poor college kid (who has now become a poor civil servant). In all seriousness, it was her financial aid to my family that allowed my mom to raise two boys on a teacher's salary. God only knows how we would have made it without my Aunt Sis.

Well, my Aunt Sis is dying.

After beating cancer twice in her life, she became ill last year. They did some surgery in September and found bits of cancer throughout her abdomen. As it turns out, the breast cancer she had last battled masticized. They removed both of her ovaries and cleaned some cancer from the outside of her colon, but those were just the large areas. The rest of the cancer was too much and two spread out to remove. The doctor compared it sand strewn throughout her abdomen.

My aunt -- ever the fighter in her 80-plus years -- first attempted some type of hormone therapy and followed it up with kemotherapy. The latter, however, proved worse than the cancer. After being so sick and weak from the treatment, she has decided to go off kemo. Although we don't know how long she will be with us, her death is now certain.

* * * * *

My family... Well, we're not big communicators. We don't have group hugs. We don't share our emotions a lot without a good reason. Hell, I guess that's why I publish a journal. My readers often know more about what's going on in my brain than my family. So, I'm not really sure how this is going to play out with everyone else. More importantly, I'm not sure how it's playing out with me. I don't know where I stand right now.

When my grandmother became ill in May 1993, I was the only optimist in the entire family. When others were hoping that she would leave the hospital, I was the only one promising that it would happen. I can even remember being scolded for my optimism. But, in the end, I was right. My grandmother was able to go home several times before she died nearly a year later.

I now joke with my mom that her friends all tried to kill her off when she herself got sick last spring. When the doctor first thought it was cancer, all thoughts were negative... except for mine. Sure, my mom talked about beating cancer. But I questioned the idea that she even had it. In the end, she had some mystery illness that she's recovered from. No cancer.

In both cases, I was out there in left field all by myself. But I'm not crazy. I was guided by an inner feeling of optimism. Something told me that things were going to be better than what others expected. With my Aunt Sis, I don't have that feeling. Not only do I not know how to react knowing that my aunt's death is approaching... I don't know how to react without that feeling that things are going to be okay. This time, something tells me that things won't be okay.

* * * * *

In my work as a journalist and firefighter, I've seen people who have died or who have been killed. In nearly every case from my work, the death was tragic. Either a life was cut entirely too short or it ended in a terrible way. Sometimes, it was both. That's not the story with my aunt.

I can only hope to have half of the life my aunt has lived. She has seen much success in her time. She is well-educated. She has traveled. She has made a tremendous number of friends. She has remained sane & active at an age I can only hope to reach in any mental or physical state. Knowing these things gives me comfort.

Sometimes I worry about not living life as fully as I should. I worry, to borrow George Bernard Shaw's words, that I won't be "thoroughly used up" when my time here is done. My aunt's is a life well lived. No matter how much we want a loved one to stay with us, the knowledge that their life makes this Earth a better place eases the sorrow one might think would be appropriate now.

* * * * *

Jessie & I have scheduled a trip to Michigan in May. Sunday night, the two of us talked briefly of how important it will be. It is quite possible, after all, that it will be our last visit to see my Aunt Sis. That's a heavy thought.

I refuse to turn this into any sort of death trip. If you only focus on the end of a story, the middle loses meaning. Regardless of how dark this entry has sounded, she is still alive. I want our visit to reflect that thought. But I also want to be able to savor every minute of it... to soak it all up.

It will be good to see her in person. Right now, I feel very blind about all of this. I'm relying on phone calls and word of mouth. I need to see and feel things out on my own with her right there in front of me. Then, I think, I'll better know what I'm feeling and how I'm going to react as the rest of this year comes to pass.

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