Wednesday, April 22, 2009

A Death in the Family

Last week my cousin called to say that his father had just passed away. He called me because my parents were out of the country and pretty hard to reach. My uncle had pancreatic cancer, an agressive cancer with very low survival rates. As a measure of the relationship between my family and my uncle, my mother did not know her brother had cancer. So while I feel sad that he died young, I feel not so much sad for myself as for my cousins and my uncle's partner.

According to Jewish custom, burial follows death in quick succession. I am sure that this was very useful at a time when rotting bodies were a real health risk to the living. In our present world - one in which families live thousands of miles apart and are often not in close touch with one another - hearing about a death three days before the funeral can make it hard for people to gather for the event. As my parents are away, before we could even consider attendance I had to work on getting the news to my mother.  I felt weird about interrupting her vacation with the news, given that (even if I had been able to reach her immediately, which was not the case) she was unlikely to be able to get back in time for the memorial service. Then again, I thought it would be wrong to just not mention it until she got back. This felt like the kind of news she should know about, unpleasant though it may be.

This past weekend my sister and I were talking about the fact that we do not know our uncle's children and in fact have only met them a handful of times. I told Karen that I would hate for this to be the case for our children, and once again expressed my hope that she and her husband would eventually settle in Portland. Karen agreed that it would be nice, but then added that there was one difference between our limited relationship with our cousins and our own future children's likely connection: "we like each other."

We do, and I can not really imagine having a sibling who was not my close friend. My uncle has not been close to his family for decades. I don't really understand all the details, but the core issues seemed to be more about my uncle and grandfather than about sibling issues. My grandfather died twenty years ago. My mom had hopes that after my grandmother passed away several years ago that she and my uncle might reconcile a bit. Or maybe not reconcile, but gain some closeness. That had not happened, but when someone is alive there is always that hope. My mother's response to the news of her brother's death was sadness and shock, tinged by the additional disappointment that she would not be able to work things out with him. I feel terrible for her for this loss that I can not quite fathom, and feel even worse that she did not enjoy even a measure of the relationship I have with my sister.


  1. I just blog-hopped over here to find this (and I hope this doesn't come across as flippant) sobering, beautiful post. I've always felt sadness and curiosity about my grandmother's brother, whom she lost touch with early in adulthood and whom none of us knew. Though my siblings still see some volatility, it's nice both to realize how much relationship we have and to get a nudge to deliberately be family to each other. Thanks for sharing (and sorry for the novel).

  2. Oh my gosh - I'm so sorry to hear that. My paternal grandmother is one of eight or nine siblings - none of whom she speaks to, so my brother and I, and our 5 other cousins on this side of the family have never met this huge brood of family of ours. Reading your post made me want to gently ask my grammy about these people...I'm sorry for your loss, and moreover for your moms.

  3. Sorry for your loss Nora.
    Maybe your mom can attend the "Unveiling"?

  4. Sounds complicated.

    I'm glad you have your sister. Sisters who are also friends are the best.

  5. I'm sorry - and for the unresolved family drama.

    An hour or so before the party we had for my mother, a woman called and asked if someone else could come - someone from whom my mother had been estranged for like 20 years. I said yes, of course, and she was so gracious and right to come. So even if my mother never made that peace, I feel like we did it for her.

  6. I'm sorry to hear about your loss. Sadly, these sorts of family relationships are too common. There is never an easy answer or solution.