“I myself am made entirely of flaws stitched together with good intentions.”
February 28th is a challenging day for my family. It is the anniversary of my aunt’s death, also known as a yahrzeit in Jewish Culture. She passed away three years ago and my family struggles to figure out how to approach the day. In the beginning there were ceremonies and memorials, but now we all seem to remember in our own private chambers of grief. My aunt’s death was emotionally conflicting. I want to remember the joy she brought to my life, but I am also still angry for things that transpired in her last years of life. Mostly I think I’m angry that she’s gone.
I don’t remember when my aunt got diagnosed, it was sometime in the middle of high school. I knew ovarian cancer was serious, but at the time my family had survived four rounds with cancer, so the odds seemed like they were in our favor. I do remember, however, when my mother explicitly told us that the situation was declining and we needed to begin to expect “things.” It was spring of my junior year after school. We were sitting in the kitchen, my mother at the island with her hands folded. I was pacing on the linoleum, wondering if our family was medically cursed. I don’t remember what my mom said, but I remember reminding myself that I needed to be fine since my mothers sister was dying. I remember watching her nervously twist the rings on her fingers, just like I do.
That conversation was the turning point. Words like recovery and survival became less frequent. I kept asking my mother what her percent chance was. I figured if I could rationalize her illness maybe it wouldn’t hurt so much. I thought that my impending loss was less than the rest of my family. My cousin was losing a mother, my grandparents a child, my mother and aunt a sister – my relationship seemed tertiary.
It is with this attitude, that I went to a weekly meeting with my high school advisor. We used to go to Dunkin Donuts together every week. Over the course of the house we would have long winding conversations about everything and everything. He was my confidant, my advocate, and a source of (mostly) impartial wisdom. The details here are clear. It was a warm Massachusetts spring day, the kind where you are still wearing your jacket out of habit, but the sun has finally come through the clouds with spirit. We were walking down Academy Lane, on the way back to his office, standing in front of a white colonial house. I was telling him about my aunts illness and how I didn’t feel like I had the right to be sad, stressed, or taxed. I pointed out that there were people suffering around the world from more severe pain and within my own family there were people suffering greater pains. I was not allowed to be distraught.
My advisor paused and then said “you know Corie, there’s no strength in comparative suffering.” He went on to explain that there may be people starving in Africa, dying in conflict, or even those in my family with a more intimate connection to my aunt’s illness, but that did not invalidate my pain. He said that we only lead our own lives, so we can only know the suffering that we have personally felt. If something hurts, then that is an important emotion that should be acknowledged and processed. I started to understand that my emotional processing did not discredit or weaken the experiences of others – instead it humanized them. In communal pain I did not have the right to be a martyr or to make the situation all about myself. But at the same time I had an emotional obligation to be honest with myself about how my aunts potential death was affecting me.
In the years since, that phrase has become a part of my vernacular. Whether talking about genocide, human rights, or my own life – I find this take on pain and suffering incredibly insightful. It served me through the rest of my aunt’s illness and is now a fundamental part of my world view. It has made me more human. When I interact with people who have felt great emotional suffering I do not feel superior to the, I do not feel stronger, or more resilient. Instead I recognize that we are mutually flawed in our humanity.
My aunt died on the morning on February 28th, 2013. I was sitting in my introduction to comparative politics class when my phone started ringing relentlessly. I gathered my things and left. There had been a packed suitcase waiting in my room for three days. We knew. I sat in my dorm room and cried, then I wiped my eyes and prepared to be the person that I thought my family would need. I flew home and spent a week in her home. I mourned, but I was okay. In the two years interim, I had suffered at my aunts disease. I spent hours crying, hoping, and wishing for her recovery. I let myself feel pain and when the end actually began to approach I wrote my aunt a letter which my mother read at her bedside. I let her illness hurt, which better prepared me in the emotional long run.
I still miss my aunt. When I think of her my heart hurts with all the moments she’s missed in the past three years. I miss her laughter, the twinkle in her eye when she was teasing, her compassion, and her warmth. Mostly I just miss her being there. Im still angry, but that hasn’t eclipsed the pain. I think of that funeral adage “If love could have saved you, you would have lived.” Thanks to my advisors advice, I embrace this grief and recognize that my pain is no better or worse than anyone else. On February 28th I think about her and I think about how I am dealing with my own pains in life.
At one of my aunts memorial services, I read the lyrics to a Warren Zevon song, that said “You know I’m tied to you like the buttons on your blouse/ Keep me in your heart for a while.” I carry this with me. My aunts death is another wound in my side, a pain that was significant to me and has taught me greater strength. Loving her memory hurts and I don’t think thats going away anytime soon but thats okay.