My family has an abundance of ghost stories.
Aunts and uncles, grandparents and friends that must have – at one point – existed, but I never had the opportunity to meet. Not all of the stories involve horror and excitement; some are really quite humorous or touching. And some involve ghosts that are not even yet dead.
One such ghost is my crazy Aunt Marilyn. I must have met her at one point in the distant past – I even have vague memories of her daughters, Shiloh and Tirza (I warned you she was crazy). Stories about Marilyn involve the time she screamed at my father and uncle in the middle of a hospital in the presence of my young cousin Hunter, replete with threats that they would burn in hell. Her stories are about her loading trucks full of family heirlooms before relatives were even cold in their graves. Or they involve her chasing my father around the house with a butcher knife, or ripping his college papers to shreds, or any number of selfish, evil things.
I used to be fascinated by this devil woman. Any Nelson family gathering is almost sure to include such a tale, and my family knows how to spin its yarns. How I longed to meet the infamous crazy Aunt Marilyn, to see if she was half so bad in person as the stories made her out to be.
For a long while, I was annoyed that the possibility seemed remote; she was living in Colorado, having followed her spiritual leader (she belonged to a group of Messianic Jews) to this remote spot of nowhere to await the end of the world. I was annoyed, not angry. It wasn’t anyone’s fault. I certainly wasn’t forbidden from ever seeing her. My father’s hatred of his living elder sister had really cooled to scoffing indifference over this many years. She would rear her strange, possibly ugly head from time to time – always when I happened not to be in town or was otherwise occupied. As unfortunate as it was, there was just very little chance the two of us would ever meet: somehow aunt and somehow niece.
A few things happened in the intervening years to cool my curiosity towards Marilyn considerably. For one thing, I made contact with a living ghost from the opposite side of the family, my Uncle Steve. For a while, things seemed to be going very well: we all talked nicely, my parents were very supportive, we were exchanging Christmas gifts – all well, all good. We’d even planned a visit for last summer. But my mother’s brother is bipolar, an ex-drug addict and alcoholic – well, a selfish mess. And the selfish mess reasserted itself without provocation, and I learned a valuable lesson.
We don’t see certain family members for a reason.
Steve used to read this blog. I have no idea if he still does. I don’t suppose I really care. I understood my mother’s feelings better after that, and I certainly lost interest in seeing Marilyn. Once burned, twice shy. There were other strange, “you’re not my family” relatives to run into in any case; Uncle Gary’s daughters from a previous marriage that simply don’t figure in to any kind of view of my family I’ve ever taken. They’ve hugged me on the spot, and I’ve stood frozen thinking, “I have no clue who you are, why are you touching me?” My mother has an armada of cousins I’m only dimly cognizant of. So what was Marilyn? Just another thread in the family tapestry of “Dear God, there’s some in every family, aren’t there?”
Well, then I got a text from my father on Friday. I think it’s significant this was a text, as any other ACTUAL family member would have warranted a phone call: Marilyn’s breast cancer had reemerged for quite some time, but now it was a losing battle. The text was that she had two weeks to live.
I did feel bad. I DO feel bad. I don’t know if it’s because Marilyn’s my aunt (in fact, I highly doubt that’s why), so much as compassion for any living person who is faced with that. A woman who just renewed her vows to an equally mad husband. A woman with five children, none of whom speak to her, which is of course tragic but I imagine that’s also her own fault. What do you do with only two weeks to live? Where do you even start?
But here is the real question. What do I do? I don’t mean if I had two weeks to live, I mean – what do I do.
I think I’m a rather kind, compassionate person, if I do say so myself. I’m under no obligation to write to a woman I’ve – for all practical purposes – never met. I suppose I could call, but that would be too weird. With such a time limit, sending a card is not something I can afford to put off, and I do think I should send a card, for I feel I would be disappointed with myself afterwards if I did not.
And what sort of card do you send for that occasion? Does Hallmark even make an “I’m sorry you’re dying,” card?
I once had to find a card for a coworker who miscarried her baby. That was hard mainly because I didn’t know her religious preferences, and most cards carried the little cross in the corner indicating their theme. And that’s another excellent point – should I buy two cards and paste them together? One Christian, one Jewish?
In the chance that I ever send such a card to Marilyn, consider this my rough draft.
I’m the daughter of your brother Kurt. I am deeply sorry about the painful time you are going through, and I hope you experience peace in the coming days.
May you have no regrets about-”
Wait, no, no. No, that’s not right. If she has no regrets after all the crap she’s done, then I’m not sure she’s the sort of person I want to be sending a card.
You can see my problem.
What do you write to a family ghost who is about to become, well….a family ghost?