Just 48 hours ago I was settling in with a good book, feet up, dog curled at my knee, when the phone rang:
"I need you, babe. Right now." (It was my ex).
"Where are you?" I ask.
"I'm in Aunt Michele's apartment, and she's dead."
"OK. I'm on my way."
For many years I lived around much illness and death from AIDS. Some of my close friends and I would joke about what music to play at our memorials, what keepsake we wanted from each other's collection. For a while I was the "designated die-er" in my circle. We often think we know who is going next. We don't.
Christo's Aunt Michele lived in the same building he does, a few floors below. It was an unusual situation he had found for her: The once 22, now seven, cats were paying half the rent, their original people having left New York City after September 11. Some of the cats couldn't travel.
Michele had traveled. Born in Buffalo, N.Y., she later left an abusive husband in California and escaped with her five young children to Salt Lake City, where she proceeded to create a career and buy a house and get the kids all safely to adulthood. About 15 years ago, when she was 50, she realized that they weren't moving out, so she left them, kept paying the mortgage, and moved to New York City.
She lived in the YWCA for two years until Christo found her the cat-sitting job. By then she had clients as a personal assistant and was living a wonderful life: opera, theater, travel. In the five years she was my aunt-in-law, she visited Italy, Turkey, and Berlin, not to mention spots around the USA. She hosted a Thanksgiving dinner for "strays," and she had adventures: One day she decided to go swimming in the Hudson River, not realizing this was unusual in NYC. There were police helicopters and a bit of drama. She was an innocent in the best sense: optimistic, curious, and always ready to reinvent herself.
The weekend before her sudden death she went to the beach with her
teenage grandniece and grandnephew from Utah and took them to a midnight
showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and the night before she died
she had dinner with the kids, Christo, his current boyfriend, and another
dear friend. They laughed and ate and then walked home 20-plus blocks
along the Hudson River Park.
The next day she didn't show up
for work. C. found her that evening. He called me, and within an hour
eight of us had gathered. Before we called the police, in the best
Judy Garland-Mickey Rooney "let's put on a show" style, we created a
little ceremony to send Michele's spirit on her way: We had a Buddha
that C. and I brought back from Bali. Her grandnephew, being a Mormon,
had a picture of Jesus. We had crystals and a magic wand and, thanks to Google, Catholic and Jewish prayers. As the resident (although lapsed)
Jew, I read the kaddish, the prayer for the dead. As part of her
reinvention, Michele had taken the Jewish name of her deceased
stepfather. I always felt she wanted to be Jewish. A Mormon prayer
rounded out our pantheistic service. We each chose a card from a "spirit card" deck and reminisced about Michele and read our cards: forgiveness, insight, farsightedness, discipline, wonder. We were amazed, as they
summed up the gifts that Michele had given and continued to give to each
Michele stunned us by leaving without a hint of warning.
Bless her for reminding us that this life is fragile and not to be
taken for granted.
We do not know yet what was the physical
cause of her death.
I do look for the lessons and gifts
in everything that happens, however painful or challenging. My friends
B. and T. are renting a flat in Paris for a month this fall. They
have talked about it for years. Why now? Perhaps, because T.'s brother
is dying of brain cancer. T. finally realized, What am I waiting for?
are each of us "waiting for"? The art is to live as if this could be
my last year and as if I will live to 90. Live fully now and plan for a
possible future. Never count on anything ... anything is possible.
Michele was only five years older than I. AIDS didn't get me, but
life will. I continue to strive to live as fully and gustily as Aunt
Michele. And when it's my time, I'd like to pass on as gracefully.