Three days ago, my mother called to tell me that my aunt has been diagnosed with ovarian cancer.
I asked how bad it was. My mother explained that it had been found late, and had metastasized. After the call ended, I did research on survival rates. The odds are not good.
My mom had asked if I was okay, and I jumbled through an answer that I can’t quite recall. What I know I said for sure is that while I was sad for my aunt, I wasn’t grieving. I remember my mom saying that she didn’t want me to have regrets.
When I was young, my aunt was the “fun” one. She gave me my first real makeup set for Christmas when I was thirteen. My mother tells me I loved going over to her house, and would cry whenever it was time to leave. When my parents separated, and my sister, mom and I moved, my aunt visited often, and would even drive up when my father wasn’t able to take us back home.
I am quite certain that my aunt’s behavior began to change after she divorced my uncle. She became bitter, and her biting remarks would appear more often. Sometimes she was cruel. I remember a fight that resulted because she criticized the way I was doing laundry. When she moved in with my stepfather, I often would avoid bringing friends over if I knew she was home, because she was often rude and unwelcoming.
The breaking point occurred during a dinner party at my mother’s house last year. In between that evening and the last time I had seen her, I had come out as a lesbian, began dating my current partner, and we had just moved in together less than six months before. Other family members and friends had been mostly supportive, and I thought this would be no different.
I didn’t ever think that my aunt would think it was okay to be rude to, or ignore my girlfriend during the entire evening. Later on, my mother would ask my aunt what had happened, and suggest that she apologize if she wished to continue having a relationship with me. My aunt vehemently denied everything, chalking her behavior up to “playful banter,” and insisting she wasn’t a homophobe, despite the fact that my mother had made a point of not mentioning that whatsoever.
Aside from the birthday and Christmas cards, and the rare text, I have not had any contact with my aunt since that night.
My stepfather’s mother died of breast cancer in the early 1980s. Cancer would come back for the eldest daughter, but failed to take her. That was around the time the youngest sister, my aunt, decided to take steps to prevent her from being next. I was nine.
I’m sad for my aunt, because she tried to avoid what I’m now certain is a genetic inevitability. I’m scared for my sister, who refuses to be tested because she is terrified of what it will find. I am compassionate towards my stepfather, my Dido and my oldest aunt, who now have to face the very real possibility of losing someone else.
But I’m not mourning. I cannot feel grief for someone who has gradually become a stranger to me. I am more than willing to admit that I have been far from the ideal daughter, sister, cousin, friend or niece. I have done and said things that have hurt other people, and I have learned from those mistakes.
But I refuse to make the mistake of pretending that I am grieving for a woman who has spent the last few years commenting that I never text or call, but failing to recognize that it works both ways. Despite what people who know me might say, I know that I am not being stubborn or hardheaded when I say that my aunt’s behavior was enough for me to realize that I have to begin making difficult choices when it comes to the people I care about treating me or my partner badly. I refuse to entertain the idea that this makes me a bad person.
I haven’t told my stepfather or anyone in my family what happened. I know that, in the event that cancer wins, I will be asked why I am not attending the funeral. While I am not one to speak ill of the dead, I believe there is a difference between that and the truth, and I owe it to my aunt and to my family to be honest. If she survives, I’ll tell them if they ask. After all, isn’t the truth supposed to set you free?