Aunt BJ is in trouble.
From the hallway, I almost don’t recognize her as I peer through the dim light, past the hum of equipment and maze of tubes connected to the woman asleep in the hospital bed of the ICU. I enter the room, slip my hand into hers. “Julia?” she whispers and flutters her eyes, mistaking me for a moment as her daughter-in-law. “No, it’s Susan.” A faint Mona Lisa smile. I go to kiss her cheek and am overcome by a lump in my throat; it escapes and re-emerges as fought-back tears. I was clearly not prepared for this and I feel bad for letting my emotion show. I am not here to bring her down. My aunt, who at age 79 and in the intensive care unit, doesn’t miss a thing.
In this awkward moment, I am rescued by the arrival of Mary, a young friend of Aunt BJ’s and who is instantly my friend, too. We make brief introductions. Of course, we’ve heard of each other; Aunt BJ makes a point of bragging about all of us at one time or another. I am the author, the interior designer who helped with her house and works on hotels. Mary is the niece of her friend Myra, and served our country as a colonel in the military and has a young son. At the moment, Mary is more like an angel who has come into the room to offer, in addition to love and encouragement, chapstick and hand lotion, a swab of moisture on a stick. I sit there on my stool, still in my latent state of shock, holding that hand like it’s all that is holding me to this earth. It is soft and without tubes, with elegantly painted nails. I try hard to find a brave face, to not look on the outside like I feel on the inside.
It’s very difficult for Aunt BJ to speak so Mary and I talk while Aunt BJ closes her eyes and interjects when she is able. I tell Mary that Aunt BJ is the epitome of a Steel Magnolia while Mary declares she is a lady. We are both correct. On my way home, however, I ponder what does it mean to be a lady? I only know there are painfully few out there, myself included.
I know Aunt BJ became a lady and rose above difficult circumstances despite many challenges. She was born down the road from my family on Goat Pasture Road, the daughter of my mother’s older sister Aunt Polly. I have always called her my aunt although she is actually my first cousin. These last years since my own mom passed away, she’s been as much a mother to my sister Janie and I. She grew up poor, like most of my family, but things were especially hard when she was young in the years surrounding World War 2. Until her father built their pretty little wood clad house, the one I remember Aunt Polly and Uncle Glenn living in down the road from my family, her family lived in a horrible little shack right across from my grandmother a little further down the road. Aunt BJ told me once that she was mortified her classmates would discover where she lived. She remembers trying out for the basketball team in high school and seeing the back of her legs for what seemed to be the first time; she was filthy, embarrassed that on the farm, she had not been taught how to properly clean herself.
I cannot help but think how powerful these types of circumstances are to shaping us into our adult selves. If you had only known my aunt as a grown woman, you would never imagine her as that little girl. Known for her refinement, elegance and beauty, long blonde hair pulled up in a classic chignon, her warm and gracious home, always a place of love and laughter, its crystal chandelier hanging like a brilliant sun over a huge dining table filled with family, every chance she could get- you would never imagine her ever as that dirty young girl. She married my Uncle Charlie when she was just 16 and together they created a wonderful life and family. She became a highly successful businesswoman, out of sheer guts and determination, I imagine, because there has never been a road map how to get out of poverty. Aunt Betty Jo is kind and generous and wise and I would be so happy to sit at her feet and have her tell me stories every day for the rest of my life.
“I have many more things to tell you,” she whispered as I said my goodbyes yesterday before leaving her hospital room and I agreed. We will talk again soon. My aunt is never one to break her word and I know if it is possible to beat this thing, she will be the one to do it. As I was tracing my way back to my car in the parking garage, I paused to glance out the window of the breezeway, through an appropriate deluge of rain and out over the city of Winston-Salem. One of the businesses below had posted huge letters on top of their roof facing the hospital spelling out “G-E-T W-E-L-L.” I surmise that should I return to this place, the letters may or may not be there, so personal did their message seem to express my wishes for my aunt that they could have been a mirage.
I know well enough that the best and hardest things in life are universal; it’s only in the details there is much difference. Life and death, the challenges of growing old, sickness, worries over our children and grand-children, the disappointment in ourselves and over the mistakes we’ve made and the doubts we feel when we wonder if we did the right thing. “Don’t be so hard on yourself. You just keep being Susan,” Aunt BJ had whispered to me before I left. I should have simply agreed with her, these were hard-earned breathes she was sharing with me but instead, I brushed it off, uncomfortable “I will, Aunt Betty Jo.” I said. “It’s the only thing I know how to be; I am me out of default.” I sensed a flash of her disapproval. I only hope we can have a talk about that later.