“I don't waste my time looking for the bad in people, Gregory,” my aunt said. “Look for the good.”
Earlier this summer, back on the weekend before the Fourth of July, I had the opportunity to take my children back to Connecticut to visit my mother and the other members of my family whom they rarely see. In fact, before this trip, they hadn’t seen their Grandmother Kayko since December 2010. For months they’d been anxiously anticipating the trip, which I, at the same time, was quietly dreading.
I wasn't dreading the trip because I don’t love my mother (or my aunts and uncles and cousins who all remain in or near my hometown in central Connecticut). I was dreading the realities I knew I'd have to face. I knew that my mother, 86, and her sister and brother-in-law — who live right next door — had all suffered serious health setbacks since our last visit in 2010: diabetes, dementia, prostate cancer and many of the other ailments that attend the realities of aging.
On our second night in town, my mother insisted we make the trek over to visit my aunt. I say trek because visiting my Aunt Pauline meant helping my mother navigate a flight of stairs, a curb and a driveway: No small feat for a woman who had beaten breast cancer not once, but twice; lost a section of her pancreas to surgery on a benign tumor; and was now managing type 2 diabetes, which often causes her a great deal of pain in her feet and legs. Should I live to be 86 and have one-tenth the fortitude of people like my mother and my aunt, I will certainly count myself as blessed.
Walking into the bedroom where my aunt was convalescing (as I understood it she'd grown so weak and frail she'd only been out of bed twice since they'd brought her home from the hospital the previous October) was like walking into a scene from a 19th century Russian novel: The low lighting, the stillness and the silence — interrupted only by the soft-spoken broken English of my aunt's home nurse, Maria, a Ukrainian immigrant who had once been a doctor in her homeland but now spent her days in America caring for the elderly in their homes. The only distinctly modern touch in the room seemed to be the chrome of the hospital bed my uncles and cousins had bought to make my aunt's time at home more convenient and bearable.
Witnessing the irreversible deterioration of any elderly loved one is disheartening. Witnessing Aunt Pauline's demise was especially disturbing to me because she was truly the matriarch of recovery in our family. We have a long standing joke in our family that all of the men are either practicing or recovering alcoholics and all of the women are either treated or untreated “Al-Anons.” Some 40+ years earlier, when my uncle's alcoholism had taken him to a bottom from which few thought he would ever recover (two bottles of gin a day in the basement of that very house), my aunt sought solace in Al-Anon. Within a year, my uncle was committed to a VA hospital in Connecticut and told he would die if he ever drank again. At least that's the way I heard it as a kid, and what I recall is that he emerged from that hospital sober and, thanks to God, found AA and a sponsor and never took a drink since. What's more, the nuclear family within our extended family of alcoholics that had been the most decimated and demoralized by this disease would emerge to be the model for the rest of us who sought recovery — all, in my mind, because my Aunt Pauline took the first step of seeking help for herself.
What I remember even more clearly from my childhood years is that once my aunt surrendered to the fact that she could do absolutely nothing to save her husband but everything to save herself and raise her three sons, I never again heard a negative word about other people, places or circumstances leave her lips. She was not only the matriarch of recovery in our family, she was the patron saint of unsullied optimism. A very strong but simple daughter of Polish immigrants, she was always cheerfully interjecting the most annoying of clichés into situations the rest of us took far too seriously: “Give him the benefit of the doubt,” “We're only human,” “Nobody's perfect,” “Forgive and forget,” and on and on and on.
I can still hear her voice and see her smile as a younger woman to this day. Even as a teenager, I often wondered how a woman who had been beaten down psychologically and emotionally for so many years could emerge from the ashes so full of optimism and enthusiasm for life. And it was all just because she went to a few meetings a week with like-minded people.
Later that evening, after we had all spent a half-hour or so with my aunt, Maria offered to take the children out to the living room to watch TV. Pauline had already turned to my son and asked him, “How old are you?” at least three times, and it was beginning to freak him out. Eventually my mother, too, decided to take a break and join the nurse and the kids in the front room.
Alone with my Aunt Pauline I wondered if she even understood who was sitting beside her in the room now. To my surprise, within moments of everyone leaving, she turned to me and said, “You look good, Gregory, and you have beautiful children.” So, she did know who I was.
Never one to accept a compliment very graciously, I launched into a monologue about the kids. I told her — as I'd told so many others — what a gem my daughter Gracie was, how I honestly wondered if she weren't simply an angel sent down to look after the rest of. I told her what a good heart my son Adam had but that he also had a rather mischievous spirit and that he kept me on my toes every moment he was awake. And then it happened: The seemingly weak and heavily sedated Aunt Pauline lying under the thin veil of a bed sheet held the palm of her left hand up to silence me and became as lucid and firm in her tone as a perfectly healthy 20-something. “I don't waste my time looking for the bad in people, Gregory. Look for the good.”
Within moments she lowered her arm to the bed, turned her head away from me, and, as if returning to a conversation in a far distant and possibly kinder place, said, “I like my room. I hope I never have to leave my room again until its time.”
It was in that moment I felt I understood why it had been so important for me to make this trip after more than a year away: To hear my Aunt Pauline affirm, one more time, that life is good — even as she lie dying in the room she loved so much. Her admonition was full of not only wisdom but also guidance. I'd been told many times in many ways by many people in my life to “look for the good” in others, but my aunt Pauline had just given me a reason that was more inspiring than any I'd ever received from mentors or read in books: To look for anything other than the good is an utter waste of time.