The First One To Go

We were in the car, on the way to Grand Rapids, again.

It was time to settle my uncle’s estate.  My great Uncle “Bud” had passed away, very suddenly, the previous winter.  No one had been prepared for his death in any way; he seemed as healthy as any seventy odd year old man might be.   We had attended his funeral on a cold day in January, the drive taking six hours rather than the usual three.

His death left a cold, empty spot in the warm universe we experienced when we visited.  No one had realized how severe his wife’s progression into Alzheimer’s really was.  He had protected even the relatives that lived just a mile down the road from the worst of her behaviors, because she was his wife and he worshipped her.  He didn’t tell anyone how she had tried to eat the woolen blanket one day because she didn’t realize it wasn’t food.  He hadn’t mentioned to anyone the multiple times she had wandered out of the house while he was in the shower or still asleep.  He’d found her down the road at a neighbor’s, in their yard, watching the squirrels gather twigs and nuts.  He had not told anyone about how one day she sat at their wooden desk for hours, gouging into the soft wood with her fingernails until they were worn to the nub.   My aunts and uncles whispered that Bud should have “put Sophie in the home” long ago, but he just couldn’t do it.

This left all of the surviving relatives, us included, with the awful sensation that we had not just lost one beloved family member, but two.  Aunt Sophie was in another world, and it was all anyone could do to pull her just to the window of that world to interact with us.

When we got to Grand Rapids, I learned why we were having to spend another weekend talking about my uncle’s death.  My mother was executing my uncle’s estate, her being the only lawyer in the family.   Instead of our usual fun afternoons baking with my aunt or playing cards with my other aunt, they talked to my mother.

She sat down with the aunts and uncles and talked about things like “the will” and “probate”.  A fat checkbook appeared, like a three ring binder for school, with checks that had to be written out in duplicate so that there was an accurate record of where all of the money for the estate was spent.   She brought her big yellow legal pads and filled them with details about banks and safety deposit boxes and valuables.  The aunts and uncles gave her papers to bring back and forth to court in big manilla file folders.   They talked about selling the cute Cape Cod on Hall St. that I loved so much.   Where would I see cardinals and blue jays?  Who would buy the suet for the big tree out back that summoned them there?

It was warm on the day we went over to the house to take whatever furniture or valuables we wanted.   The house was even quieter than ever.  If the idea of my aunt and uncle no longer being here was a question in my head, this visit brought the idea into sharp, clear focus.  They never would yell at me that I was taking too long in the bathtub with the sliding doors.  They wouldn’t go across the street to borrow toys for the sandbox for me to play with.  They wouldn’t listen patiently as I told them about yet another Laura Ingalls Wilder story I’d just read.  They were gone.  All that was left were their possessions, which were being picked over by every relative who came through town.

I asked my mother if I could have my aunt’s chair, and her writing desk (yes, the one with the gouge that my aunt had carved into it).   They were bulky items, but my mother agreed we’d get them back home for me, somehow.   My mother took a small, color TV that my uncle had used in better days in their RV.    Someone else had already taken the larger one from the den.    We took sheets and blankets, we took kitchenware, we took all kinds of things.   The whole time, we felt a little like thieves, taking things that didn’t belong to us.   My aunt was still alive, but we were taking her things.  It felt wrong.

It took exactly one visit to the nursing home to realize how wrong we were.  My aunt had declined dramatically in the few months after my uncle’s death.  She was confined to a wheelchair.  She didn’t recognize any of us.  The only word she could say was my uncle’s name, over and over and over:  “Buddy, Buddy, Buddy, Buddy, Bud???”

In her haze of lost memories and consciousness, she knew.  She knew very little, but she knew he was gone.  And she was looking for him, around every corner,  in every corner, in the faces of all of the strangers she was now surrounded with, she was still looking for him.

So were we.


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