Today I went to my great aunt’s viewing in New Jersey. My father’s side. Her name was Loretta Hujber, formerly Schwing. She was 88.
My Memom passed away last year between Christmas and New Year’s. She was one of nine, three of whom she survived, and four of whom passed away within this last year.
Take a moment with that: one year ago, there were six sisters living, and now there are only two. Within eleven months. In a way, it’s poetic. Nine siblings, all octo- and nonagenarians, all finding the end of this chapter of their journey together, going through together, and, most beautifully, allowing us, the family, to grieve and celebrate their lives together.
My dad told me about Aunt Loretta’s passing on Monday and immediately requested that I attend her viewing and funeral on his behalf, which was a no-brainer for me. Absolutely. Of course I would. But the request broke my heart a little bit. I don’t really think about how isolating it must be for my parents to be on the west coast. Most of both of their families are accessible only by plane, and all I could think about was that all of the Schwing-extended family (my grandmother’s family) were in New Jersey and able to reach out to each other in moments of grief and despair, able to hold each other, cry with each other, laugh and celebrate life with each other, and I didn’t know who, if anybody, was available for my Da. I felt his request as a plea, really, a soft, but perfectly clear plea from somewhere deep within him – somebody reaching out, asking for a hug, and if he could only get that hug that he needed through me somehow, of course I would do it.
It was especially when my both my mom and Da e-mailed me separately to tell me that they changed their minds and don’t think this was a reasonable request, given the distance to travel (hour and a half drive from Manhattan to Trenton), and that it was smack in the middle of the week, and I had work, and responsibilities at home, weather wasn’t terrific, etc. etc – that I knew I had to go even more. It was in those e-mails that they realized what they were asking was selfish in a way. Something for them that didn’t benefit me in the slightest. Something my Da needed, but, after closer inspection, realized I may be putting other things in my on hold to do. I realized upon their realization that I really did need to do this. And to be completely honest, it wasn’t completely selfless, do don’t go thinking I’m some unsung Family Hero of any sort. I did need to do this. I wanted to remind everybody that I am here. I’m close. I’m accessible and available, and though I was ripped from New Jersey (willingly, for the record) at the age of 12, I’m back and I’m a part of this family, dammit!
The second reason I really felt like I needed to go was the reason I gave my mom in my e-mail response — I didn’t properly mourn Memom. My grief creeps up on me pretty often, surprising me at work, in the middle of a movie, or when I’m out with friends. I’ll feel the prickly heat behind my eyes suddenly, and I’ll have to hastily excuse myself to the bathroom before embarrassing tears stream down my face. A song will come on and I’ll burst into sobs, or a moment during my day will pull the corners of my mouth down ever so slightly.
I like to think those are the moments when she visits me – in whichever ethereal way your belief system allows you to imagine – and since I didn’t give myself the time to work through the grief, I’m just taken by surprise by the feelings.
Anyway, I thought the long drive to Trenton and the time with her sister might give me a proper setting to begin the process.
The drive was easy. It was raining, which added some great ambiance, but it was rather straight-forward and not a lot of traffic. I got to the funeral home about 15 minutes before the prayer service started. I walked in and spotted my uncle right off the bat, and said hello, and found myself trapped in the polite-family-banter with him, so I wanted to break away from that because that is not my safe place. To experience this with Aunt Loretta the way I felt I needed to, I had to get away from polite smiles and talks about my career. I had to break free, get alone, and have a conversation with her.
After saying hello to her three daughters, I was able to sit down and begin our conversation.
“Hello,” I started. “I’m Sam – Samantha. I’m Pat’s daughter. He was Doris’ son. I don’t know why I’m telling you that – of course you know that. Or you don’t, but it really is irrelevant either way, isn’t it?”
She didn’t respond.
“Well, what should I say to start?” I looked at her face, relaxed, made-up, pretty. Her red cardigan, her delicate hands (well, as delicate as a Schwing’s hands could be, in any degree…) folded over her ribcage. “You look quite beautiful,” I continued. “I’m sorry you’ve died. Although, I’m glad you were able to follow your sisters so closely, and that your daughters are all able to be here with you, and their family with them. I’m here for me, for Memom – you know her as Doris – and for my dad, Pat. I said that. Sitting here with you now, I’m actually not quite sure what I expected, or what I want to say. I guess I’ll start with the truth, because that always seems to work well in the books: I miss my grandmother. I missed her before she died, really. I missed her when I lived across the country from her. I missed her when I lived just across the river from her. I felt guilty for not renting a car and going to spend time with her on the weekends. I was envious of the relationship my cousins had with her, wished that I had that relationship and knew that she would have loved to have that relationship, if only I had spent the time to go and see her. I thought about her all the time, and I still think about her all the time. I see her in everything. And, frankly, I know she would have thought I was an absolute hoot, because, let’s be honest, I’m fantastic.
“I wish I gave her the opportunity to get to know me as the Lady-Woman I am now, and I wish I had to the opportunity to spend more time getting to know her first hand, and not just through the many stories everybody told. I know she was a firecracker, sarcastic, and witty, fiercely intelligent and opinionated. Strong-willed and not one to mess with. Sounds like everything I aspire to be. Anyway, Aunt Loretta, I hear that about most of the Schwing women. I’m sorry I didn’t have the opportunity to get to know you better, either. I’m sorry that I moved away when I was 12 years old and wasn’t able to really be a part of this family, and all I want is to be a part of this family again. I want to be invited and involved, even if it’s for these sad occasions. I want to be here, be accessible, be available. I want to stop being so isolated and independent and learn how to work within a family unit again.
“Because, the truth is, I miss my mom and dad. I miss them now, but I also miss them in the future. I know that, in a few decades, it will be Andrew, Patrick, Erin, and me standing up there in a line, accepting hugs and kisses on the cheeks, listening to stories, and, well, that scares the shit out of me – Sorry, Aunt Loretta. Language – and I saw my dad at his mother’s funeral. I felt what he was feeling. I knew how hard it was for him, knowing he had spent the last 13 years in a state across the country from her, only able to see her, maybe, once a year. I saw what that did to him. I saw how it affected him, and I don’t want that for me. I don’t want to be so far away from my parents. I want to be there, available, accessible. I want to be able to see them all the time, spend every Thanksgiving and Christmas together, because I know better. I know that the thing people regret the most if not spending enough time with the people they love, and I don’t know anything that’s more important than that. They tell me my dreams and my career is more important, but I think all of that will come. Basically, I’m scared, and I can’t figure out what I’m exactly scared of, and until I figure that out, Aunt Loretta, I don’t know how to proceed.
“All I know, really, is that I’m lucky enough to have two parents whom I love more than anything in the world, and who both love me equally – though they’d argue more – and I don’t want to waste that on anything. I’m lucky, and I’m one of few, in that regard — especially since I know it. So, what do you say? Well, nothing, do you, because .. well, you know. … Say hi to Memom for me, will ya? And Pop Pop, because they’ll probably be together, bike riding and catching dragonflies. Have a good trip, Aunt Loretta. We’re all here together.”
I went to sit down a few rows back, with cousin Kathy a couple chairs from me to the right, reciting prayer responses with the rest of the congregation, and I sat there, staring at the microphone fastened to the ceiling – probably normally used to amp the choir, but, in this case, it was pointing directly at Aunt Loretta’s casket, and I almost expected her to stand up and give a speech – contemplating everything I was hearing, trying to get in touch with all the different energies in the room, making eye contact wherever I could, and enjoying the room filled with family because, well, even a Family of strangers is still Family, is it not? And there’s a bond, like a golden thread tying us all together, and when you’re with Family, you’re home.
Goodbye, Aunt Loretta.
I love you.
December 2, 2014
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