My uncle is dying. Early last summer we found out that cancer had once again infiltrated our family. I called him when I heard the news, he was surprised – I hadn’t spoken to him over the phone in over 10 years – I had seen him in that time. He told me his diagnosis and he remained positive but I already knew what stage 3b lung cancer meant and I knew in my heart that he would not survive the onslaught he was about to go through. I wasn’t trying to be negative – it was just something that I knew; I did not share that news with anyone but my husband.
My uncle’s impending battle arrived on the heels of my mother’s 12 month battle to keep her partner and my grandmother and grandfather alive or at least comfortable. Joe, mom’s partner of 22 years passes in January 2009; my grandfather passed the following May. My grandmother, a tough old broad, is hanging in – though I can’t imagine what it must be like to watch her youngest slowly precede her in death. I have stayed mostly out of the fray of emotions during my uncle’s illness. I live too far away to “run up” to visit and several surgeries of my own have kept me never straying too far from my bed.
A prolonged illness and imminent death is not easy for most people. Unfortunately, for me it is also a trigger for depression, so I stay as removed from it as possible – especially when cancer is involved. My step-father died after losing his battle with lymphoma. My relationship with him is the stuff of many more posts – suffice it to say that his death laid the path to my eventual diagnosis of bipolar disorder.
Since that time, I have lost others – all the while maintaining my distance. Honestly, the closest I’ve been to death was 19 months ago when my beloved dog, Fox, had to be helped on his way to the otherside – he had bone and lung cancer. I sobbed, my husband sobbed, I sobbed harder – that pain was pure and uncomplicated by years of a less than perfect relationship. When Fox died, with my hands on his face and his eyes locked on mine, my heart stopped beating for a while as my pain and sadness flowed freely.
When a family member dies it’s never uncomplicated and that’s the part that sets off my triggers. In my head there is some weird struggle over who is more hurt by the loss – it’s embarrassing to even admit. Because I knew my uncle would not survive his illness, I tried to be there instead for my cousins, my mom and my grandmother. I send him cards to let him know that I’m thinking of him but I don’t call – I don’t want to be in the way. I pray that he crosses over quickly each time I’m given a report of his terrible pain. I search for things to say as I listen to my mother cry over the phone. I discuss travel arrangements for the funeral that is to come and I send facebook messages of love to family and friends – all the while keeping my distance.
My mother bridged the distance today with on brief comment and now I can’t sleep as I try to reel in the complicated years of relationships that revolve around my mother. She called me to tell of her weekend with my sister at my uncle’s house in Connecticut. She told of his physical pain, his wife’s physical and emotional pain and the sheer exhaustion of his oldest son who has taken leave to help out. I asked her if she had told her brother that it was okay to go – she said she had and started to cry. And then I asked her if she understood why I was not having the hard time that she was having – stupid, door opening question.
She said she knew that he and I weren’t that close. I reminded her that as the eldest niece, I’d actually known and loved him 15 years longer than his own kids.
Well, she knew that I had been angry with him. Yes, when I was in my late teens he admonished my mother (his big sister) for letting her kids be out of control- so; yes, I had been angry with him almost 30 years ago because he’d hurt her feelings. Oh, yeah there was that comment he made when he and I were both going through a divorce and he eluded to the fact that I was not a good mother – just like his soon to be ex-wife (and my favorite aunt) – that had been 16 years ago.
Mom went on to say a few other things and we finally just said goodbye.
What I wanted to remind her was that my beloved Uncle Bob is only 17 years older than me – hardly old enough to be my parent. That during the first year of my life, she and I lived with my grandparents while my uncle who was a senior in high school. I wanted to say that he is the only family member that I resemble, that he and Aunt Pat made me their first child’s godmother, that they were my sponsors at Confirmation and that I was the first of my generation to love him and that losing him will hurt me in ways that no one else will understand.
Of course as I write this I realize that my brain is twisting my thoughts, creating anger where there is only sorrow and a distinct need to not feel it. My Uncle Bob’s death will touch many people including four generations of our family. With any luck my twisty brain will stay home and only my heart will show up to comfort and be comforted when his time has come to pass.
Death of a loved one is hard for anyone to live with, but for someone who deals with bi-polar disorder, death is a whole different experience than it is to others. My uncle died this summer and I was so close to him and my aunt that I did not know how I would deal with the funeral. The day of the funeral, I was carrying my clothes down the stairs and somehow my feet got tangled and I tumbled all the way to the bottom. I spent the day of his funeral in E.R. Was this some kind of subconsious way of avoiding the terrible hurt of telling my beloved uncle good-bye? I think it was, I donn't think I could have handled it, there have been too many goodbyes in my life. Good luck and I will be thinking of you.