“I’m not going to leave a message,” my sister Lauren said when she left a message Friday. I was standing in the corner of an ebullient restaurant where Ken and I were having dinner with friends. I had slipped away from the table when I saw texts from two of my three siblings to call them immediately. Ringing up my brother, I got the news: Aunt Jill, who I just spoke with the night before, had been found dead in her home.
Sometimes life levels us with such surprise it’s hard to catch our breath. Thursday night, Aunt Jill texted me that she could use some of my energy, an unusual request from her. I called on my drive home from giving a Holocaust presentation. We had a tender conversation about the cancer surgery she had only had a month earlier and how common it was to fall in a pit of depression when we’re on the other side of such rites of survival. We chatted about how the dark and cold of winter didn’t help, why dogs were the love of her life, how sad it was that her last dog had to be put down a few days earlier, and what it would take to get a new dog.
Her voice was warm, and she brightened up when we chatted about her getting canine companionship again. By the time we finished, I was in my living room, having put the call on speaker phone for Ken to hear. I promised to call her soon. “We love you so much,” I said at the end. “I love you so much too,” she answered. I hung up and immediately told myself I needed to stay in better touch with her, call every week or so although until recently we had gone months without talking.
But we had known each other for years, my whole life obviously, and at the start of that life, my parents and I even lived with her, just twelve at the time, and her parents/ my grandparents. My father’s little sister, she was always around in my growing-up years, further down the road to some semblance of adulthood. By the time I was a kindergartener, I thought she was the coolest of the cool — an elegant teenager with teased hair, smoothed down to a perfect 1965 flip. I watched her apply mascara and pink lipstick, wear increasingly shorter skirts as the 60s marched on, and rush out the door in white go go boots boots. But sometimes she and her friends took me with them to the diner to have chocolate malts, and I was thrilled from my toes to my ice-cream-head-freeze from sipping the malt too fast.
My aunt Jill had a hard and lonely life in many ways. Growing up in a family where dysfunction was an extreme sport, and growing up as the youngest and as a girl often ignored, she ended up following one of the few paths seemingly open to her and became a second-grade teacher. I don’t remember her ever saying there was anything about it she enjoyed, especially since she taught in a school in one of Brooklyn’s most despairing and dangerous neighborhoods. “How many of your students graduated from high school and went on to good lives?” Ken once asked her when we hung out in her apartment on Ave. X. She shook her head and answered, “None.” I wonder about her answer and whether she was too burnt out to do more than get through the day.
Jill didn’t marry although she suffered through some awful-for-her relationships, but she found many furry soulmates in dogs over the years. She had a gift for giving good lives to older, traumatized and hurting dogs that no one else wanted, even if they destroyed her furniture, peed on her rugs, and woke her up all night with their whines. She also adored travel and went on trips and cruises whenever she could with friends or travel groups.
Yet many conversations with her over the years didn’t convey what she really cared about or liked to do. I remember one Thanksgiving sitting with her and my late uncle Jerry (from my mother’s side of the family), and having this exchange:
“What are you doing lately?”
“Nothing,” she answered, then high-fived Jerry.
“Where have you gone?”
“Nowhere,” she answered, high-fiving Jerry again.
“Well then who have you been hanging out with me?”
“No one,” she said, high-giving Jerry and laughing with him.
Part of why she didn’t have much to say is because she often didn’t have much time to talk in between going outside for cigarettes, then e-cigarettes, then back to cigarettes. I used to occasionally lecture her about giving up smoking, not understanding that if she could have, she would have. But she was always up for companion complaining. Like her mother before her, she was also a champion kvetcher, and pity any of us who went out to restaurants with them and watch the parade of returned food offered, especially before she mellowed out.
Yet when she did sit a spell with me, what she mostly wanted to hear was how I was, how my work was, how the kids were, how Ken was. She was a very good aunt to my sibs and me, listening and sending cards and gifts, showing up at wedding and celebrations, reaching out on Facebook or email just to see how we were. My daughter Natalie said she was one of the people who often wrote encouraging comments on social media when Natalie was struggling.
Jill was supposed to join our extended family for a wedding party in Orlando, a year after we all convened there for my mother’s birthday, but cancer surgery kept her home. Yet in the past months, I ended up talking to her on the phone more, sometimes while pacing our house past our entryway where we keep some of the art she made in the last few years, then went to the trouble to frame and mail to us. In some ways, I was just starting to really get to know more of her, which is why I was so moved when she reached out Thursday night.
Now it’s seems I’m the last person she talked to, and of course, I had no idea it was the last time I would talk with her. It hurts that she’s gone, and beyond that, I can only hope that she’s found some kind of peace and sense of belonging in a place filled with dogs.