My Aunt Fran passed away 2 weeks ago. Her sister (my mother), niece (by marriage) and great niece were with her when she left us. Her heart had begun to fail a number of years ago, not surprising considering she was 83. When she was admitted to a rehab facility to regain her strength, after 5 days in hospital, I had the feeling one sometimes gets when observing a downward spiral such as she had been experiencing. The feeling that she might not return home.
Aunt Fran was a simple person. At some point in her young life she was diagnosed as having a below average intelligence, which set her on a course quite unlike that of most people. As this was before WW2, attitudes towards someone like Fran were, at best, tepid, at worst downright mean. Judged as someone incapable of living a "normal" life, Fran never married, never worked outside the home, never learned to drive, never traveled anywhere she wasn't brought along to.
I never asked her if she missed any of those things. I fall back on the excuse that I was 12 years old when she and my maternal grandmother moved in with us, was just adjusting to a new life in a new place (we had moved to a larger home for a number of reasons, one of which was to accommodate those additions to our now extended family), then soon came high school, young adulthood when I behaved like so many selfish, self absorbed young people. It is the same series of reasons I use to explain why I have much less memories of my aunt compared to my younger siblings, 3 of which grew up with her as a member of the family, always there. For them, Fran was as much an older sister as an aunt, someone who babysat them, played board games with them, went on vacation with them, even shared complaints about our parents with them.
But if am honest with myself, my limited memories of Fran, and my lack of really getting to know her, is part and parcel to my own personal perception of someone "like" her, someone on the fringes of society, someone considered non-productive, not interesting, not of consequence.
When my brothers and I began sharing snippets of memories the day Fran passed, I contributed only a few comments. While I did remember that she liked to assemble puzzles, did many paint by number paintings, liked McDoanald's fish filet sandwiches, Lipton noodle soup, and ovaltine, I didn't remember that she liked to garden, put her name on certain food in the fridge and pantry so no one else would eat them, was good at finding things when others couldn't, ordered baked ham at the one of the local diners the family visited while on vacation (again, I was missing for most of these trips due to my age, my desire to rather be with my friends, and then not living at home anymore), talked of TV and movie star boyfriends she never met, painted her nails and gossiped about the soaps. All the things that made her unique, but most of which I missed, or didn't try to discover.
There is a lot of talk about the "nanny" state, that Americans are getting too reliant on the government to take care of us, to protect us (from ourselves), to help us achieve personal happiness as if we can't figure it out on our own. I understand that danger, understand that there needs to be a balance between personal responsibility for one's own life, while also providing assistance when circumstances create obstacles that are difficult to overcome without assistance.
For Fran, her circumstance, and the time when she was born, made her completely dependent on others. Not necessarily because she was incapable, but because it was decided for her. Fortunately, my grandmother, then parents, then my mother by herself when my dad passed, provided the comforts of life for her, helped, a bit, by a monthly check and subsidized healthcare from the government.
Despite my lack of participation in knowing Fran, I at least recognized the sacrifices that were made, especially by my parents who most likely never considered taking care of her a sacrifice, as well as acknowledging that programs that are part of the nanny state, helped provide Fran with a modicum of monetary security. When I hear people bemoan the "takers", it is Fran I see, along with my mom who lived her life for others and now is able to continue to help her family and friends in large part due to the social security check and medical coverage she receives each month, and my sister who, while not like my aunt in terms of mental deficiency, has been more dependent on others, family as well as government, to live her life.
Fran deserved better from society, but lived a pleasant life due to the love of her family. She deserved a better nephew than I provided, but received much more love and attention from other nephews, nieces, and grand nieces than most people.
If it turns out that we are judged, not by our possessions, or career accomplishments, or popularity or influence, but by how we treated those we encountered who were born with less, or were limited by society or situation and thus achieved less, then I might be on the short end of that stick in regards to Fran, certainly not in the same league as my mother. Fortunately, I have some time to improve the score, some time to correct my penchant to render opinion on others without getting to know them, by looking past my own biases whether they be influenced by race, gender, intelligence, religion, political views, or any of the other reasons we tell ourselves for not liking, or not trying to understand those we encounter.
More broadly, I hear a lot of Americans who worry about how strong our country is, or isn't. We will spend over a quarter of a trillion, that is trillion, dollars this year on our defense budget, but it is only monies being spent on veterans, poor children, healthcare for the elderly and sick, and environmental safeguards that get debated, negotiated, or voted down by the fiscal hawks. We have the strongest military in the world, the most weapons of destruction, yet we still worry about how strong we are. Perhaps we are using the wrong measuring stick.
In general, Fran wasn't taken seriously enough by most, certainly not by society at large, to have taught us any lessons. For me, her life is a reminder that all lives have a purpose, even, perhaps especially, if that purpose can't be readily divined by the usual methods of evaluation. For America, Fran's life provides the possibility to realize that strength is all about treating the least among us with respect and dignity, and certainly not about who we can kill remotely, or how quickly we can assemble troops and weapons wherever we want.
Fran was a simple person. Well loved, if not always noticed. Heaven will be better now that she is there.