Photo by Christian Lue on Unsplash

It has been awhile since I have written but there has been a lot going on. My beloved Aunt in Ireland died, and I’ve been having some additional health problems.

When the last of my grandparents passed away many years ago, I didn’t fully comprehend what my father meant or how he was feeling when he said that it felt strange being an “orphan” now. He was grown up, well into his middle-age and I just didn’t understand. Now I do, and even more so. I wish I could have been more empathic at the time, but I was also grieving, having lost my sweet grandmother.

My dearest Dad passed away over 13 years ago, also of cancer. He has come to stay with us for a visit, but we didn’t know how far the cancer had progressed. The anguish of trying to ease his pain as his lungs filled with fluid, desperately searching for treatment alternatives (he suffered from Myasthenia Graves, an immunodeficiency that precluded any radiation, surgery, or traditional chemotherapy), then finally realizing that there were none is nothing I would ever wish on anyone. That realization, when I looked into his warm, loving hazel eyes, that I couldn’t help in any other way than to just be there was devastating. I won’t go into any further details, but it was an excruciating death and no matter how many pain meds they tried, how many “pushes” we begged them for, it was heart-breaking to only be able to hold his hand gently, tell him how much I loved him, rock him when I could, and watch helplessly as he slipped away.

Dad’s death meant that I, too, was now an “orphan”, but I didn’t process that for some time because it took a long time to deal with the pain of his loss. I also had two teenaged children who still needed my love and attention.

As I’ve said before, I come from an incredibly small family. My mother had one sister and she and my Uncle couldn’t have children; my father had one brother and he and my Aunt couldn’t have children. So, I never had any cousins, and only my brother (who is 8 years younger) and I were the grandchildren/god-children of the whole family. As a child, it was wonderful, being the center of everyone’s world, but a child never realizes what is ahead when that comforting nest of unconditional love begins to break apart.

Perhaps because I am female and always have been the nurturer, my aunts and uncles trusted that I would be there for them. I was there to take care of my sweet uncle as he faded away from Alzheimer’s, entrusted with my aunt’s care. She survived him by too many years, according to her, and when she died last year at almost 98 years old (the day after I was diagnosed), I knew she was finally at peace. I was constantly there, answering to her every little wish, and I know I did my best, but it was the end of an era. All of my childhood and family memories that she and I shared now were only etched in my mind and the many photo albums she left to me.

I couldn’t be there when (soon before Aunty’s death), my darling Uncle in Ireland passed unexpectedly. His health had been deteriorating for years, but his consistently indomitable spirit and positive attitude had kept him going. I think he kept himself going because of his timeless love for my Aunt there. They were the epitome of “two peas in a pod”, so symbiotic as if they were one, effortlessly fulfilling each other’s unspoken needs. He had been the pater familias, the soothsayer, a sage who I could always turn to for his wisdom. Far ahead of his time, he was truly a feminist who believed wholeheartedly in the power of womenkind…not in a paternalistic way, but in admiration of our unrecognized strength. He was a champion of women, the underdog, any creature that suffered injustice…volunteering at the animal shelters, the donkey rescue societies, anywhere where he could share the endless love he had in his heart. His loss was also a profound one and my sense of loss only deepened. After that, when I visited my Aunty in Ireland, my and her world there was so much smaller. She, too, was lost without him and I tried to fill that void with visits, phone-calls, gifts/flowers sent as much as possible but her spirit and zest for life were gone, her eyes and voice devoid of the vivacious person she had been.

My Aunty-in-Ireland had been a force of nature…a true testament to the power of educated women of her generation. She had been my Uncle’s nurse when he was first hospitalized as an 18-year-old with a degenerative condition that there wasn’t even a diagnosis for at the time. As a young nurse-intern at the time, she was captivated by his quick wit, his quirky humor, and the depth of his old soul. Their love story, like my other Aunt and Uncle’s, was a tale of everlasting devotion.

Aunty-in-Ireland had been a matron of a senior’s home when she retired early to spend more time with my Uncle, who had to retire early due to his health condition. She, too, was quirky, outspoken, opinionated (but in an educated way), and outgoing. In addition, she was hilariously funny and theatrical (acting in community plays), was well-read, and was an advocate for the underdog (she was on numerous community committees). She wrote short-stories in her retirement, as a founding member of the community writer’s club, her writing poetic and beautiful in its poignancy. Like my Uncle, she had always been my champion, my cheerleader, my greatest supporter and most realistic critic. Her sigh on the end of the phone-line when I would tell her of some new exploit was always my reminder that I was overdoing it. She was like the last levee in place before the waves crash in, my reality-check before I (again) overextended myself. Don’t get me wrong, she was ever-confident in me, in anything I set my mind to, but she had my health in mind, a true mother in every sense of the word. I never let her know of my condition because I didn’t want to worry her even more, as I wanted her to focus all her energies into dealing with her own constantly debilitating health issues.

No one told me of my Aunty-in-Ireland’s death until after the funeral. They hadn’t been able to get to her contact information for me due to COVID restrictions in her care home. She died on the Monday, was buried on the Thursday, and I got a polite email about it from one of her nephews on the Friday. I can’t even begin to address the devastation of her loss, without even knowing about it. I had tried to call her on the Sunday, but the care home said she was sleeping and I didn’t want to disturb her. The circumstances of her death, of her funeral, the unkindness of what I had thought was “family” there in not finding some way to let me know I can’t even begin to process. But what happened (or didn’t happen) afterwards only adds to the desolation.

A phone-call to my brother with no response to my voicemail, then a text to let him know resulted in a texted “I am sorry for your loss. At least we have each other and our spouses’ families.” A friend (who I had thought was a very close friend) texted me to say she was sending me a big hug. My husband received condolence texts from a few people in his family, but only one bothered to text me, which was very kind. I don’t keep up with many people, so few others knew, but when I emailed a long-time friend about that had happened, she was immediately there for me. She knew and understood because she’s my age. The others have no comprehension of what it means to have lost everyone, literally everyone in your family. But then again, I have been their “Aunty”, their soothsayer, their mentor, their cheerleader and the one to be there for them when they’ve needed me.

In the end, I am the last of them, on both sides of my family (other than my brother, who is younger). Honestly, how I feel right now is that I have almost no one except for my husband and one close friend who truly care. The others have no comprehension for what it feels like, or what is seems as any empathy at all. I have spent my life caring for others, never expecting anything in return, but somehow it all feels so hollow now.

Contact with others since then has avoided the subject entirely, as if it never happened. Everyone seems used to me “getting over it”, like I always have in the past, as they chatter on about their troubles and woes. The difference now is that (for now at least) my heart has hardened. As I tried to explain to my husband, I am the most angry at myself for caring so much about others who obviously don’t care much about me. It sounds selfish, but as I explained to my patients for years, selflessness gets you nowhere. Thinking about and caring for yourself is not selfish. I never followed my own words of wisdom. Maybe it will change, but for now, it feels terribly alone being “the last of my kind”. I am the only one left who has lived our shared memories, so like my family before me, they will die with me.

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KLP

As a now-retired psychologist, I was recently diagnosed with terminal cancer, and am currently undergoing chemotherapy to hopefully prolong my life.