I haven't blogged in a while because a family obligation has recently been requiring a lot of time and mental energy--but I'm taking a breath now, and I want to write about that obligation and one of my favorite relatives: my Aunt Jerri.
When my two sisters and I were little kids, a trip to Aunt Jerri's house in San Francisco was my favorite kind of vacation. There would always be an afternoon excursion to Chinatown, where we'd look in every tacky gift shop, comparing giant novelty souvenir pencils, silk coin purses, and paper fans. (Aunt Jerri was a truly inexhaustible window shopper.) There was her house full of unusual stuff to play with (as well as shelves and shelves overloaded with fascinating look-but-don't-touch knick-knackery)--Aunt Jerri had the entire collection of "Garfield" cartoon books, which the nine-year-old me thought were absolutely hilarious. And there were exotic foods we never got at home: olive loaf! aerosol cheese spread! artichokes!
And there was Aunt Jerri herself--a glamorous, fascinating woman. She was the height of sophistication in our family. (And I have consciously and unconsciously emulated her all my life--I know I inherited her interior-decorating sensibilities, among many other things.) She lived in San Francisco and worked in an office in one of the Embarcadero towers downtown. She has modern art--created by artists she actually knew--on her walls (some of it even features nudes!). She chain-smoked Benson & Hedges from their shiny gold packages; she always wore lipstick and interesting jewelry, and she had a colorful closet full of things no other woman I knew wore, like ponchos.
Aunt Jerri had no patience for nonsense, and she had a mercurial temper--frankly, she could be something of a grouch. But she had a quirky, fun sense of humor, too--my sisters and I quote her famous expletives still: "Snarkpoop!" we will say, as Aunt Jerri would, when confronted by a comically frustrating situation.
Jerri never married and has no children of her own, and she has always been very generous with and affectionate toward her nieces and nephews. She adores my mother, her "baby sister." Jerri was an analyst for Bank of America for most of her career--she's a math wiz, and she has been working on computers since they came into the workplace. She was very much into auto-racing when she was younger. Her likes include crossword puzzles, PBS mysteries, and salty snacks. Her dislikes inculde Republicans, junk mail, and green beans. She's fiercely independent and the stubbornest person I've ever met.
When you're a child, you don't know your adult relatives as people (and grownups don't tell you things). Now, of course, I have a better understanding of who Jerri was when she was 40 (my age now) and I was ten. And it makes me love and respect her even more. Jerri's childhood was tough--by all accounts, her parents, the people I knew as "Grandma and Grandpa," were harsh and cold. Jerri suffered a traumatic brain injury and nearly died in a car accident when she was in her late twenties. She wasn't necessarily a single woman by choice--I now know the stories of her significant loves before I was born. (She was pregnant once; her boyfriend fled the scene, but Jerri decided she'd be a single mother--this was in the mid-1960s, when this sort of thing was a real scandal. Very sadly, Jerri miscarried late in the pregnancy.) And Jerri is a longtime friend of gay people--she has stories of going to gay bars with her friends in the 1970s--tragically many of those friends died in the 1980s and 1990s. In the '90s, one of her best friends, Chris, lived with Jerri during his last years, when he was battling, and sometimes very ill with, AIDS. Jerri is incredibly generous like that. When I first moved to San Francisco, I lived in Jerri's guest bedroom and paid almost no rent for several months while I got on my feet.
The past dozen years or so of Jerri's life have been sort of sad, I think, though she would never say so. I imagine her as lonely--and maybe she hasn't been, but she has been often alone. She retired from her job, and then another close friend--perhaps her last close friend--died suddenly. I think of her as having no longtime friends left, though she has a friendly relationship with her hairdresser, DeeDee. Her favorite nephew (a.k.a. me) got caught up in his own life and didn't visit with her nearly as often as he should have. She stopped letting people into her house--and when she had to be briefly hospitalized several years ago, we discovered that her once immacualte and meticulously decorated home had become chaotic with hoarded clutter. She was drinking heavily during this period, and her health was not so great. After she came home from the hospital, I tried to visit more often. In 2006, my then-boyfriend, Jerri, and I made a roadtrip together to visit my mother (who lives near Lake Tahoe, California). Before we left, we told Jerri that she couldn't smoke in the car but that we'd pull over as often as she wanted. She agreed--and then, before we'd even gotten on the freeway, she opened the back window and lit a cigarette, sneakily. The boyfriend and I exchanged a look but didn't say anything--we just rolled down both our windows, too. Sometimes, there's just no debating with Aunt Jerri.
That was Jerri's last trip outside of the Bay Area. Just over two years ago, Jerri had a fairly severe stroke. In sort of typical fashion (and because she hates hospitals), Jerri didn't call an ambulance or let anyone know--I think she planned to just "ride it out." She stayed at home, partially paralyzed, for days, not complaining. We found out what had happened only because she canceled her weekly hair appointment, and DeeDee could tell there was a serious problem--and then drove to Jerri's house, basically pounded the door down, and called an ambulance.
Thank heaven for DeeDee.
When Jerri got out of the hospital, a new chapter in our relationship began. She could no longer drive, she had some mobility problems, and she had mild aphasia. She needed my help--I'm the only relative nearby, and there were lots of things Jerri couldn't do for herself anymore. So I started stopping by once or twice a week--every Sunday, I'd come by with some groceries and do some cooking (I'd make some lunch for us and some extra, for later in the week), and take care of other things around the house: changed lightbulbs, took out the trash, or cleaned the refrigerator. A doleful Greek housekeeper (whom Jerri developed a great affection for) also came by once a week to take care of other chores and laundry.
Aunt Jerri, for the most part, was irritated by my new intrusion into her life, I think. She realized that she needed help, and she often expressed her gratitude to me--but I know my meddling annoyed her. As I've said, she's an incredibly independent person and always has been. She's very accustomed to doing things for herself, and she has very specific ideas about how certain things should be done--things that I was always bumbling, to her continuing exasperation: putting things in the freezer (frozen dinners on the right!), putting the recycling in the bin (newspapers on the bottom!), paying her bills (don't waste the kitten-design address lables on the power company!), buying avocados (do not under any circumstances buy Mexican avocados). Also, in some ways, Aunt Jerri will always see me as a child--in her mind, I'm stuck at about 11 years old, I'd say. For a long time, when I would cook her lunch on Sundays, she'd hover in the background, keeping an eye on me, making sure I didn't burn the house down. On numerous occasions, I've had to remind her that I'm a grown (practically middle-aged) man, perfectly capable of putting out the trash or frying a pork chop all by myself.
I don't begrudge Aunt Jerri anything, even though she can be a real pill (as I've told her on more than one occasion). But I have often left her house feeling hurt and somewhat abused. Of course, we have had fun together, too--spending an afternoon watching an old movie on TV or just reading the newspaper together. Jerri was a huge Obama supporter in the last election, and our private celebration of his victory will always be a happy memory. I've learned a lot of new things about Jerri during this time--she has recounted stories from her and my mother's shared childhood that I'd never heard. She remains generous--I always leave her house with something she's given me: cat-food coupons, a newspaper story she saved for me, a photo she found of me as a child. And she kept her sense of humor--as I would leave her house (if I hadn't irritated her too much with my insistence that she eat something), she would call one of her trademark good-byes after me: "Be good, and if you can't be good, be careful!" or "Don't do anything I wouldn't do, which isn't much."
In May of this year, Aunt Jerri had all of her remaining teeth removed, and this was the beginning of a steady and rapid decline in her health. She couldn't get used to her new dentures, so she wasn't eating enough. She lost weight throughout the summer and grew increasingly weak. She probably had another small stroke or two in this period--sometime this summer, she stopped trying to speak to me, and communicated only by writing. Our relationship grew increasingly fractious: I was urging her to get medical help but she refused. I would try to make her eat, and she would throw a Kleenex box at me and yell at me to "Go away! Go away!" I didn't know what to do. Aunt Jerri has made it very clear that she does not want to go into a long-term care facility, and it seemed to everyone that she was intent on dying at home. Should I let her do that--let her starve herself to death if that's what she wanted to do? Or should I try to have her declared mentally incompetent and forced (kicking and screaming, as much as her weakend condition would allow) into the hospital? I didn't feel equipped to make either choice. I dithered.
The thing is, Jerri isn't mentally incompetent. She is still pretty much intact, mentally speaking. This sort of behavior wasn't dementia--it was consistent with her personality. Finally, at the beginning of September, Georgia (Jerri's housekeeper) and I forced her to go into the hospital. She had become so weak that she could no longer make it to the bathroom by herself. This humiliation seemed to make her see that medical help was the only option. She has been in the hospital since, and I am so relieved (though she hates it).
Unfortunately, she hasn't been doing well. She is very sick. She refused help for so long and became so weak that she can't get enough strength back to make solid improvements. She has asked that all possible measures be made to extend her life (that is, she wants "the opposite of a Do Not Resuscitate order"). But at the same time, she's refusing to allow certain procedures that might actually help her. I try to visit every day, though she doesn't want to see me. She writes me notes that say "No visitors" and "This sucks!" She hits the nurses who try to help her.
I know she's in pain. I imagine she's terrified at what's happening to her body. She's also very pissed off, obviously--and I can't blame her. This does suck. It really, really sucks. She gets very upset if I try to talk to her about how she's feeling, though I've tried to let her know that I am available to talk if she wants. So I just tell her I love her and ask her to let me know if she needs anything. I continue watering her plants and paying her bills and dusting once a week, and I talk to her doctors and relay information to my family. It doesn't feel like enough.
Being a loving, patient nephew has occasionally been a challenge during this month. I'm writing this down now in part to remind myself of who Aunt Jerri is--that she is more than a very sick and very cranky woman in a hospital bed. She is my favorite aunt. She has loved me since I was born. And I hope she gets better but don't think she will.
Causes Charles Purdy Supports
San Francisco Food Bank, Gay Men's Health Crisis, Project Open Hand, San Francisco SPCA, Smile Train, National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association...