When I was a kid, the family would go to Aunt Drayde’s house for crab feasts. Newspaper spread across the table and the red-orange crabs like living sculptures. Sometimes we would go with her and Auntie A. to buy the crabs, bring them back, and I’d be in the kitchen watching her cook them. I remember one of the crabs, blue on the kitchen floor, and being afraid to pick it up. Crab pots. Beer. Old Bay. Foaming. Boiling. The aroma.
A beaded curtain between the kitchen and dining room. A mesmerizing oil rain lamp. The grownups would play Pinochle and we kids would run around trying to stay out of trouble.
Sleepovers with my cousin driving her crazy because we were roughhousing all the time. She’d say, “You can’t be together and you can’t be apart.”
When I moved back to the east coast from the Bay Area, I moved back into my mom’s house. For months I was doing the 1 hour 40 minute commute from Baltimore to Alexandria, broke as a joke. My Pathfinder was having all kinds of mechanical issues and my mom let me use her car. Each time my car broke down, Aunt Drayde would take it to the mechanic. She would pay for it, too, most of the time and wouldn’t let me pay her back.
She was the legal eagle of the family. If you had business to deal with she would help you out. Help you get your p’s and q’s in order. Go to court with you. She was always on high alert for people trying to get over on you.
I finally found a job in Northern Virginia and eventually moved down to Alexandria. Aunt Drayde drove down to check out the new apartment with me. She told the apartment manager that she was my mother and while we walked through the bare apartment she asked all the questions and pointed out the problems that I wouldn’t have.
My dog, Leika, stayed in Baltimore with the family during the week and I would pick her up on the weekends. Aunt Drayde looked out for Leika, taking her to the vet, letting me know as soon as anything was wrong, and fed her too much people-food. (I know you, family. I know you were all spoiling Leika with people food.) I think Leika lived as long as she did because she was loved and cared for so well and attentively.
Back in February I asked Aunt Drayde if she wanted to do anything special for her birthday. She thought about it and couldn’t think of anything. I think a good bag of potato chips and something good on TV was about it. Her family took her out, of course, but she was usually content to stay home.
She’d complain about nothing being on TV, but most of the time when I visited she was watching the Big Bang Theory, of all things, which is hilariously incongruent. She was more into judge shows — so many VHS tapes of Judge Judy — and maybe a Tyler Perry movie every now and then.
I think stubbornness may be genetic. It sure does seem to run in our family. I wish she could have stopped smoking. Long ago, of course. And I wish that as she aged her world would have gotten larger instead of smaller. I wish that for myself, too. And for you.
The other week I visited her in hospice. I had been to a hospice once before when my father was in the final days of his life. That was hard. Unmooring, even though he seemed peaceful at the end. Naively, I thought I was prepared.
I was not prepared. The end of life has a lot of stages and it’s complex and not linear like you’d think it would be. People don’t just slowly fade from life to death. I had never seen someone awake and alert going through those complex phases. The mind is active, racing, overlaying the present and the past. What was, what is, what is to be. Sometimes it’s a harsh burn, sometimes it’s a glow, sometimes dimming, sometimes it’s like flickering between here and there.
At one point I stepped out into the hallway. I saw one of the nurses and stopped her to ask a question. Like, how do you get her to keep her oxygen thing in. The nurse asked me if I was okay.
I said, “This is new.”
That day I also saw a friend of her family who goes to their church come in and treat her with more respect, kindness, dignity, humanity and love….
Like I said to a friend recently, given that we all have to go, we should all be so fortunate to have our loved ones be there along the way and walk us right up to the gates.
Her family, her mother, her son, daughter in law, grandkids, siblings, nieces and nephews, and family friends were all there along the way offering support, and annoying her by constantly asking her if she needed anything (that wasn’t a cigarette).
Godspeed, Aunt Drayde. Travel well.