Uncle Ed and Aunt Betty –my dad’s younger brother and older sister– were diagnosed with two different cancers on the same day in October of 1992. Ed’s diagnosis, lung cancer that had traveled to his brain and hip, was terrible but not really a surprise. He had always been wild and self-destructive. He lived rough. I knew him only by the twin packs of tights my grandma would wrap for me and sign his name to every Christmas.
But Betty …oh, Aunt Betty. She was the voice, the beating heart of the whole family. She was musical, soulful, and giggly. She nurtured everyone within her reach in that enveloping small-town-church-lady way that feels so good when it’s genuine, and in her it always was. At Thanksgiving or Christmas, we gathered at Grandma and Grandpa Skluzacek’s tiny shoebox house, which magically expanded to accommodate all 11 of us. While my cousins alternately teased and fawned over me, an exotic only child from the Cities, my aunt and dad lingered at the table, telling stories and poking fun at each other. Every few minutes, they burst into enormous, musical laughter –my aunt’s soprano high and quick, my dad’s tenor warm and rich. I have a sense memory of that laughter. It’s what I miss most about her –the way she was a sister to my dad. I might miss her for him even more than I miss her for me. I might.
Ed and Betty died three days apart the following spring. I remember little about Ed’s funeral except how old he looked in his casket. He looked more like Grandpa’s younger brother than Dad’s. I remember studying his face, looking for a connection and waiting for a hook in my chest to catch and register the loss. There was none; I didn’t know him and never had. Even as I stood shaking hands with the long, dreary line of mourners, I was thinking more of Betty. Ed’s funeral felt like a dress-rehearsal for hers.
Betty died singing, surrounded by her children and insisting they sing with her. Her funeral was a three-day grief marathon beginning in Albany, Minnesota at the Church of the Seven Sorrows, where she had been Music Director, and ending 118 miles away in her hometown of Lonsdale. The air was close, heavy with early-summer heat and the scent of candles. Grandma fainted and it was my job to distract Grandpa, dazed with grief, while Dad revived her.
Even as I stood shaking hands with the long, dreary line of mourners, I was thinking more of Betty. Ed’s funeral felt like a dress-rehearsal for hers.
Betty was buried next to her brother on the breezy hill outside of town where our people rest. That cemetery is one of the prettiest I know … somehow that makes burying people there a little easier. It’s a simple and intimate place, like the Heaven I imagine. The grave markers of all the Skluzaceks, Uhlirs, and other Czech families like ours remind me that our departure from the people we know and love is just as much a return to others we know and love. Eventually we will all be together –just not quite yet. Still, I wish they could be there with me in those last moments to say “Isn’t this beautiful? Aren’t we so lucky to have this, to have had each other?”
After the funeral, we gathered in the basement of Immaculate Conception church for ham sandwiches with yellow mustard, kolachkes, and experimental jello salads served with loving discretion by a team of powdery matrons. Even their pillowy arms were sympathetic, reaching out from sleeveless calico blouses to feed, to comfort, to attend.
My grandparents perched like fragile birds on the edge of one of the benches, picking up their sandwiches to take a bite, setting them down again as well-meaning friends and neighbors approached them.
“Lord have mercy. Just terrible. Vivian lost her girl when she was 40.”
” My sympathies, we are praying for you. Eat, eat.”
Eat. How? They had buried two of their three children in a single week. Cancer casts its shadow over every life in some way or another. It steals children, mothers, fathers, friends, lovers, anyone it wants. It has stolen from me seven times, tried for an eighth. People like to rail at God for these things, but cancer was invented by chaos, not God. Chaos multiplies the cells, breathes fear and resentment into exhausted families, whispers false hope, distracts. God is the eye of that storm, offering respite and comfort and a quiet space, if not a safe one.
Betty was a pure loss for our family — a mother, daughter, sister and aunt of the highest caliber.
I don’t pretend to know why some people get better while others succumb and are lost, but I have a hard time believing God plays favorites that way. Maybe God decides when and chaos decides how we die. I don’t know, but when people whose loved ones survive cancer or some other physical affliction put on beatific smiles and talk about how God healed their person, it sticks in my craw. Because why wouldn’t He heal mine? Maybe that kind of bitterness is chaos at work in me. I’ll have to give that some more thought.
I do know this: Ed, who lied to and used and betrayed everyone in his family, was not an easier loss than Betty, who adored and supported and nurtured. Betty was a pure loss for our family — a mother, daughter, sister and aunt of the highest caliber. Ed was a complex loss: his death meant he couldn’t wound and disappoint anyone anymore, but it also meant he could never become who he was meant to be, the one we all hoped he would be if given enough time. Ed was the death of a dream.
At Betty’s house after her first funeral, I saw Grandpa standing by the grandfather clock he had built for her, his first child, his only daughter. He set the clock to the hour of Betty’s death and stopped it there, his back and shoulders shaking as he cried. He might have been crying for Ed too. He might.
I think about Ed and Betty, together on their peaceful hill. He’s telling her his stories now, the ones he never got to tell when he was here. He’s finally within her reach. Grandma and Grandpa have arrived by now and someday my dad will, someday I will, departed by chaos from those we know and love, returning by God to those we know and love.