90. Mayday

90. Mayday

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Family Matters


There is a fine line between comedy and tragedy.

~Unknown Author

We were laughing uproariously, partly in relief that the ordeal was almost over, partly in shared solidarity after years of abuse. My aunt had died after a nine-year battle with cancer during which she had become increasingly estranged from the family and verbally abused most of us, berating us for imagined offenses and telling everyone how terrible we were.

No matter what we did, it was wrong. If we gave money to a charity, it was the wrong charity and she didn’t approve. If we bought her a gift, she stashed it in a closet. If we made an investment in a stock, we were being “foolish.” If we admired something in her home, she accused us of wanting to take it. She cancelled dates with us repeatedly and then told her friends that we never came to see her.

We kept trying. After all, family is family. Plus it was a surreal experience—a woman we had admired and loved had turned on us, and we were in shock. She was alone, never having married, and she still lived in her childhood home, surrounded by her late parents’ possessions. Her life had been empty compared to ours, and she had to face cancer, alone. So we called and visited, enduring the verbal slings and arrows in recent years.

Now we were speculating as to whether my father would show up for the burial. Dad loved his sister deep down, but they had never gotten along very well. He also hated waiting for anything or anyone, and now we were being forced to wait in a line of cars at the cemetery while the workers scurried to prepare the gravesite.

It had been a tough winter and conditions were icy and treacherous. It was hard to dig a hole, difficult to navigate the hilly terrain of the cemetery, and impossible to pass on the narrow lanes, hemmed in by snow banks.

The lead car (after the hearse) was a stretch limo that contained only one party, a pseudo-cousin who May had turned into an honorary son. He did errands for her, held her health care proxy, and without meaning to, had contributed to edging her blood relatives out of her life. He was actually a nice guy who seemed to care for May, but no one wanted to ride with him, since May always talked about him while pointing out our perceived deficiencies. Although he was the step-grandnephew of a second cousin by marriage, May had decided that he was her cousin, but not a cousin of anyone else in the family. She called him “my cousin Dave” and during her final years we discovered that she had even prohibited her doctors from telling anyone but Dave about her condition, putting us in the awkward position of begging him for information about her status during her many hospitalizations.

We had all assumed that Dave would be her heir if she didn’t leave her money to charity. She claimed to be a wealthy woman, but we didn’t know if it was true. She was not known for her accuracy—this was the woman who told us, when Barack Obama announced Joe Biden as his running mate, that Biden was Jewish, had cancer, was on weekly chemo and would not live out Obama’s term if elected. Obviously, she was describing herself, but such was the worldview of our aunt May.

Next after the stretch limo was our car, filled with me and my second wife (who May irrationally hated solely because she was not my first wife), my son and daughter, and my brother. For some reason, May loved my daughter, who could do no wrong, so she had been spared the constant criticism. Following us were my sister and her family, and behind them were my first wife and her husband.

My parents’ car was missing. My line-hating father had refused to participate in the thirty-minute procession from the funeral home to the cemetery so he had sped off ahead of us. Where was he? It was definitely possible that he had gone home. We laughed some more about how messed up this whole family situation was.

Then my parents’ car showed up, begrudgingly nosed into the back of our line, but still halfway onto the main road so that my father could make a quick getaway. I started circulating among the family members and discovered that the betting about whether my father would stay was going on in all three cars. Finally, my father strode up the hill and informed us that he had arrived twenty minutes before us, surveyed the incomplete preparations up the hill at the gravesite, and decided to leave. He had come back to tell us that, and then he returned to his car and backed onto the main road, leaving again. We were laughing hysterically over how crazy this was, hoping that Dave would not see us from the limo and witness our inappropriate hilarity.

Eventually, our procession of cars made its way up the hill but we were stopped and told that the gravesite was covered in snow and ice and we would have to conduct the burial service right where we were stopped. May’s casket was perched awkwardly over the slush on a set of flimsy legs by the side of the road, an inelegant ending for a once-beautiful, formerly charming, possibly wealthy woman from the Jewish country club set.

We stood by our cars while the Rent-A-Rabbi intoned Jewish funeral phrases. Being very reform Jews, we had no idea what was going on, but we stood there trying to look respectful and solemn while May’s casket teetered at the edge of the road. The Irish funeral home director was the only one who knew the words and could chant along with the rabbi.

My parents pulled up before it was over. My mother must have forced my father to turn around and come back. He reluctantly emerged from the car and stood there with us, still mad at his dead sister for not being ready for her burial on time. When the prayers were over, we picked up the slushy sand from under the tilting casket and dropped it on top, a poor substitute for the traditional ritual.

The service earlier that day at the funeral home had been interesting too. There were more medical professionals than family members, with at least a dozen doctors and “development” people from the two hospitals that May had favored. She had been a generous supporter of medical education and cancer research and they were obviously expecting more. We didn’t know what she was worth, but we assumed whatever was left after all the years of full-time health-care aides and charitable giving was going to the hospitals… and cousin Dave.

The next day the lawyer e-mailed us the will. May had not left the hospitals another cent. I guess she figured that once she was dead she no longer needed to pay for VIP service. But she took very good care of cousin Dave, and she left one member of our family, my eighteen-year-old daughter, the bulk of her estate—which turned out to be millions of dollars, giving new meaning to Shakespeare’s phrase, “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.”

Months later, my father and I still find ourselves reaching for the phone almost every day to call May. We do miss her. And we wish Joe Biden a speedy recovery.

~M. Addison Weiss

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