I was ten years old when my parents got divorced. They sat me and my brother and sister around the kitchen table to tell us that the separation hadn’t worked. I was more devastated than the other two even though I had seen it coming. They had been yelling at each other for years, arguments my brother and I would try to hide from by sitting at the foot of my bed in the dark.
Within a year my mother was remarried, and my father remarried not long after her. My family had suddenly exploded and I had a new step-father and step-mother, two step-sisters and three step-brothers. Remarkably everyone remained friendly, and I have so much respect for my parents who made the transition as easy for us as possible. They could have held grudges and continued yelling and used everything in our lives as pawns against each other, but they didn’t. That was perhaps the most lasting example they ever set for me, to forgive and move forward.
I continued to live with my mother and step-father and we experienced a bit of an adjustment period, one that could arguably be continuing today. My step-father was a different kind of disciplinarian than my father. He didn’t like to give warnings, he would just throw away anything we hadn’t put back in its proper place. He didn’t like us to put our feet on the coffee table or to put an almost empty carton of milk back into the refrigerator, two incredibly hard habits to break.
There’s also the infamous razor-swapping incident when I stole his razor (his version) to shave my legs. I didn’t steal his razor (my version), I merely borrowed the razor-shaving device, switched out the blades, shaved my legs, switched the blades again, and then put it back without bothering him. Except for that one time I forgot to put it back. When he realized that I was in cahoots with his razor you would have thought that someone had shot him in the chest at close range. I never saw him so devastated except when Clinton was elected to office and that one time I ate all his bologna.
In addition to the two daughters he brought into the family (they lived with their mother in Nashville), he also gave me a new aunt and a new grandmother. They were a curious pair, two very devoted Mormons who lived together in Salt Lake City, the aunt a gentle flower in comparison to the drill sergeant of her mother. They accepted me and my siblings as their own and always sent us gifts for our birthdays and for Christmas. And the presents, oh dear. We could never wait to see what they had sent us because it would always be OUTRAGEOUS either in color or texture or meaning. Sweaters four sizes too big, t-shirts silk-screened with cartoon characters we had never heard of, clear plastic boxes, and invariably a set of McDonald’s gift certificates. If we ever asked my mother to take us out for fast food she’d always tell us to wait until Christmas, and that was the only time that excuse ever made sense.
A few months ago my aunt was diagnosed with cancer. Her mother had just taken a nasty fall and was placed into an assisted-living facility, and so for the first time in her life she was living alone. She had taught second grade for over 30 years and had remained a faithful Mormon her entire life. She did nothing but perpetuate good on this Earth, and three days ago she died. Leta and I saw her in the hospital about a week ago, and I’m still coming to terms with what I saw there, the condition of her ailing body and the wonderful person it was hiding. Never before have I been this close to death.
My step-father has been dealing with every minute detail of her illness for the past few months and he has handled himself like the man I know and love, giving everything he’s got and not asking for a damn thing in return. He and I have our differences, but he’s the best man my mother could have married. He attended my volleyball games in high school, gave me rides when I needed them, made me the most marvelous gifts in his woodshop, and has loved my family as if we are his own flesh and blood. He took care of his sister until her last breath, tidying up the rest of her life so that when she died everything would be in order. Her death, I truly believe, has brought all of us so much closer together. That kind of love goes beyond politics and religion, beyond razors and bologna, and he is one of the greatest men I’ve ever known.
At the same time, her death has stirred up so much inside me. I still don’t know what I’m feeling or what I’m supposed to feel or why I sometimes feel really angry. I can’t get the image of her gaunt face out of my head or where my mind went in the moments right after I saw her. I don’t know what I believe in terms of religion, and I’m comfortable with that. I’m okay not knowing. But I’m not okay with the thought that she isn’t where she thought she would be when she died. I want her truth to be true for her. I want her to be made whole and living with the God that guided her through her life. She was just too good of a human being for her to be cheated of that.
So when we go to the viewing tonight and the funeral tomorrow I’m going to believe for her, even if just for a day. I don’t know how else to honor a woman who gave her life to that religion, to scores of children, to her mother, to the belief that she was working toward something much bigger. Today, for my aunt, I’m going to believe in her God.