May We All Be Lucky Enough to Have a “Cool Aunt”

She and her husband were seven years older. They were hippies from the '70s. Spending summers with them helped me learn who I was.

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A few weeks ago, my aunt had difficulty breathing and was rushed away in an ambulance. The full account is hazy, but the broad strokes include fluid in her lungs, a known heart condition, loss of consciousness, an urgent airlift to a larger hospital.

She died a few days later. She was 64-years-old, and she was not given the opportunity to say goodbye. She’s survived by her husband of 40 years, two children, and one granddaughter.

Sixty-four isn’t young, but it isn’t terribly old, either. Though the circumstances were different, my father (my late aunt’s older brother) was just 65 when he died. He’d been sick for a while, and his condition had deteriorated in the preceding year. Still, he died unexpectedly, too — in the car, with my mother and brother-in-law, pulled over on the side of the road somewhere between North Carolina and Tennessee. My father loved cars, but not that much.

Perhaps, like replicants, my family members are hardwired to live no more than 65 years. That would put me on the wrong side of having two decades left on this planet. With my second son currently in utero, this is a shitty, sobering thought.

And yet, again in broad strokes, this is the proper order of things. Losing a parent is never easy, but it’s better than the alternative: losing a child. About 10 years ago, my wife’s family was torn apart when her mother was tragically killed. To this day, it’s not just my wife who carries a great sadness in her heart; her grandparents have little choice but to march forward into decades made lonelier by their daughter’s unfair absence.

I wasn’t a particularly precocious kid, but I’ve always been aware that accepting absence is part of growing up. You might imagine that, as the youngest of four children, I was always surrounded by family. That’s true enough for my earliest years. But, soon enough, my oldest sister and brother would move out; I was left behind with my loving-but-working parents and loving-but-college-age sister.

This wasn’t an issue during the school year when days are kept busy with friends, hobbies, and homework. Come summertime, my best pals escaped to sleepaway camps, leaving me alone to fill the long, lonely days.

Good thing, my grandparents had a house at the Jersey shore. For several summers, I moved in with them for most of July and August. It was an insecure pre-teenager’s dream: a clean-slate opportunity to make new friends, work a cool job on the boardwalk, and shake off the nerd-heritage that burdened me September through June.

I wasn’t the only family member who made the most of my grandparents’ hospitality. My late aunt was just seven years older than my oldest sister, which automatically made her my “cool aunt.” For starters, I called them by their first names, without the “aunt” and “uncle” honorifics. They were proper hippies who met in California in the ‘70s and drove across Central America in a VW van. When the time came to start a family, they moved into my grandparents’ house to save money.

By then, I was a newly minted teenager: old enough to be self-sufficient, but still young enough to like being with my family. For three summers, my aunt, cousin and I went to the beach just about every day. I learned to surf on my uncle’s board and, even now, their beloved black lab, Wendy, remains my Platonic ideal for the perfectly raised dog. As the song goes, those were the best days of my life.

Yet, the sudden absence of my aunt, then, hasn’t left me reeling in a fog of sentimental yearning. For whatever reason, I’m a profoundly un-nostalgic person. Instead, it’s given me pause to consider my own performance as an uncle (verdict: not bad) and remind me of the importance of extended family.

Like many suburban families, mine underwent a diaspora as each son and daughter came of age and hit the bricks. As a result, my immediate family is spread across a few time zones. Between travel costs and mismatched calendars, visiting any given sibling — even just once a year — is no simple matter. Most of my wife’s family lives in India.

Still, we’re more fortunate than a lot of people. Though I don’t see them as often as we’d like, my brother and sisters are still out there. We exchange birthday wishes and even the occasional catch-up call for no good reason. They can infuriate me for all the usual reasons (politics, religion, favorite TV shows), but I do love and appreciate them.

Then there are the kids — my nieces and nephews, now grown and starting their own families. It’s this generation who will serve as my sons’ cool family members. It’s they who will teach my boys to get away with things behind my back. It’s they who will tell unflattering stories about me and my wife — affectionately, I hope, and always with a smile.

And, eventually, it’s this generation who will simmer warmly in my boys’ childhood memories. All souls must eventually pass from this world. If we’re lucky, we endure a bit longer in the memories of those who come after.

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