Relationships are never easy, and it seems the older we get the more complicated they can become. Some days I have a hard time mentally juggling all the nuances of my personal associations. Who knows what? Who shouldn’t be involved in a certain situation? How much is too much information, and do I really trust this person to know what is going on in my private life? This only gets exacerbated when you are going through a divorce.
While I was in the throes of dissolving my marriage, my mother and father passed away within a year of each other. Thankfully I still had my aunt, my mother’s sister, to stand as parental proxy through my ordeal.
Auntie, as I called her, lived 150 miles away. She was very much a part of my life, even though we didn’t spend a lot of time in the same physical space. Like me, she had known my (now) ex-husband since he was a child, and as a couple we were regular participants in the events and mundane activities that made up her life. When my world became uprooted, so did hers.
Along the bumpy and pothole filled road of divorce, my aunt was my constant champion. She instinctively knew when to be empathetic with my fragile or hyper-sensitive emotions. She would interject valid observations, and she never once questioned my motives. She was truly like a mother to me. But she wasn’t in the house and on the scene on a day-to-day basis. Any negative energy that came her way came through the Internet or telephone, and once the computer was logged off or the phone call disconnected, there was relatively little evidence of the maelstrom brewing in my life.
After our divorce was finalized and the dust began to settle, I was able to be more empathetic and less judgmental of my ex-husband, but I didn’t include Auntie in the healing process. She heard only the bad and dramatic for several years: “Can you believe what he said…?” “How am I going to fix this problem…?” …and so forth. She never really heard or saw the quiet acceptance of situations. I didn’t call her up to report the baby steps on the path to reinventing a relationship that still exists, but in a completely different form. And this left her in something of a vacuum when it came to how to process her own emotions and concerns.
Little things began to upset her. She would get agitated when gift-giving holidays and birthdays rolled around, instinctively wanting to acknowledge them with a card or gift, but becoming confused as to what would be considered the right action. She gave birthday greetings for over 20 years – should she continue or not? Even though my loyalties had shifted, hers shifted only by default because we are related, not because she was on the receiving end of egregious behavior.
Moreover, having heard only the dramatic and outrageous for a sustained period, her mind did not adapt as quickly to a modified and less volatile reality, which ended up frustrating both of us. She had fed off my hostility for so long, and then didn’t understand my more passive and complacent attitude. I found myself getting annoyed that she would harbor resentment over something of which I had let go.
I think to some degree we, as adult children want to shelter our elderly relatives from the reality of the less pleasant experiences of our lives. There were days that I felt guilty for including Auntie in my drama, and yet in not doing so I was excluding her from something that was profoundly important. My not knowing how to include her in a safe way that respected her boundaries was akin to her not knowing if she should send a birthday card to my ex- husband.
If there were a re-do button, I think I would have managed the flow of information to her in a more controlled and sensitive way. So wrapped up in my own feelings, I didn’t really consider the impact this kind of disruption had on her so late in life. I sometimes feel that as her only living relative, I had an obligation to make her final years as peaceful and uneventful as possible, and sadly I did exactly the opposite. But as a friend of mine pointed out, maybe my drama sustained her in some way that she lived longer in a show of solidarity with me.
Auntie passed away on Christmas Day this past year after a brief illness. She was 92, and as feisty as ever until the day she died.