When I was a kid, I lived within two or three miles of my cousins (on my dad’s side), but we only saw each other once a year: at Christmas. Until I was 9 or 10, we went to my grandma Elsie’s house (my dad’s mom) every Christmas afternoon, where we’d eat dinner and open presents. When my grandma got older, we switched to the Cousin Party, which rotated between the three houses each year; we opened gifts and Santa came.
But that was mostly it: the time I spent with my cousins.
I grew up thinking that the reason for this was that Grandma Elsie loved my dad the least out of her three sons, and so by proxy she loved me and my sisters the least out of all of her grandkids. I don’t know if the memory I have of my mom saying that is a memory of me overhearing her say it to someone else, or if she said it to me directly, but it is one of the surest childhood memories I have.
So all through my childhood, I both revered and feared my cousins. I thought they were so glamorous and beautiful (I was a decade younger) and just cool, while I was the perennial uncool baby. (They gave me dolls as Christmas gifts for far too long.) Of course they must’ve had something I didn’t, because my grandma loved them more.
Today, I went to the hospital to visit my aunt, who was married to my dad’s brother (they’ve since divorced). She is dying from congestive heart failure and diverticulitis, and is going home to receive hospice care today. I had planned on going running, but Becky called and I decided not to run but to go there instead.
I am so glad I did.
When we got into the hospital room, I hugged my aunt. I also immediately started crying, because even though it was a different hospital it felt the same: the strangeness of the end of a life, which is still so raw to me.
Some of my other cousins also got there at the same time, but my aunt was holding my hand, and she told me a story about how she had written a card to me after my mom died (my mom was her sister-in-law), even addressed it and put a stamp on it and carried it around in her purse, but she kept forgetting to send it to me. Then she squeezed my hand and said “I want you to know that I always loved you, and I’m sorry we weren’t close when you got older. I wish we would’ve been closer.”
Then I pulled a chair up to her bed and sat silent for a few minutes, while Becky and my cousins chatted, because I was feeling overwhelmed.
My aunt didn’t have to say any of that. Maybe it was just the Dilaudid talking. But as I sat in the aftermath of her words, I felt something strange happening in my psyche:
A little bit of healing.
I thought about my mom, who I loved, but who had a very strong personality. And my grandma Elsie, who also had a strong personality. How much of the third-best grandchildren feeling was actually a result of both of their strong personalities? Their inability to put aside their differences so that the four of us could feel like we belonged and were loved?
No one is around anymore who can answer that question for me.
But my aunt saying she loved me and that she regretted us not being closer? That was like someone taking that little girl I used to be, wrapping her in something soft and warm, and whispering a soothing murmur: you matter, you matter.
I sat thinking and watching, feeling something sharp lose some of its edge, in a sort of reverie, until my aunt laughed. Some of her grandchildren had come in and brought her presents, and she laughed in exactly the same tone of delight she used to laugh in, when we were kids opening presents at Christmas, and for a few seconds I felt just like I did as that little Amy version of myself, young enough to love dolls and happy that my aunt love what I loved.
When we left, one of my cousins said, “you know, we might not be as close as we should be, but we are…we are something important and strong.”
And maybe for the first time in my life, I felt like that “we” included me, too. That I mattered just as much, that I had as much to offer as anyone else in the room, that maybe other people love me, too, that I don’t know about.
I’m so sorry this had to happen on the day that marked the beginning of my aunt’s death. Why couldn’t I have known this twenty years ago, why couldn’t we have all been closer and supported each other through babies and divorces and crises and weddings and joys and losses?
But today, right now: I feel different. I feel stronger and a little less bitter and brittle. I feel lighter: not as heavy, but also more full of light. Less damaged.