When her fiancée drowned, she left town to spare his parents the pain her presence caused. Thirty-nine years later she returned and worked up the courage to revisit his mother.
Posts from January 2011
There are certain places in our lives that have a primal pull: They keep drawing us back, to refresh our faith in both humanity and ourselves.
For me, Aurora Manor, a special-care facility near Cleveland, is one such place. It was there that I found my Aunt Fern nearly 15 years after I and everyone else in my family had abandoned her, renewing my sense of compassion and caring.
I have written at length about Fern in my book UNFINISHED BUSINESS. She was the one relative who never seemed to judge me when I was a child, she just cheered me on. We shared secrets and dreams.
Fern would have become a concert pianist had she not been diagnosed a paranoid schizophrenic when she was 13 and spent so many years in and out of mental institutions.
In her twenties, when she was still petite and beautiful, she got married to a sweet-talking gambling man named Jerry who stuck with her even as her weight ballooned from all the medication she took and her demons festered.
For a while Jerry and Fern lived in Florida; later, they shared an apartment in Cleveland with my grandmother, and spent far too much of their days watching bad TV and smoking.
Fern's hallucinations and ability to take care of herself grew worse after Jerry died. There was an incident involving my grandmother and, in 1995, Fern ended up at Aurora Manor, unbeknownst to my father, who was her oldest brother, and to everyone else.
In April 2008 I set out to find Fern as the first item on my list of unfinished business. Looking back, I cannot imagine how much less rich my life would have been had I not made that commitment to see her again. Whenever I would wheel Fern into the courtyard for conversation and a smoke, or drive to a nearby supermarket to get her copies of the magazines she loved, or sit in the lobby showing her the latest photos of my children, or try to soothe the nightmares and fears that caused her so much pain, I felt without judgment and totally at her service, and restored.
On one visit, Fern told me how scared she was that she would die alone. "All I want is someone there holding my hand," she said. More than anything else, she wanted to be buried next to her Gerald. She claimed that he had bought two plots before he died -- "number 104A for him, and number 104B for me" at Mount Olive Cemetery.
I was surprised by that revelation. My Uncle Pudge, Fern's brother, had presumed that she would be happy being cremated when she died. No one at Aurora Manor had led me or him to think otherwise. So I drove to Mount Olive. And, sure enough, Jerry had bought two plots before he died -- one for himself and one for Fern. I walked out to see them -- and took photos with my cell phone for evidence. The words: "Beloved Husband" were inscribed on the gravestone above Jerry's name. When I showed the photos to Fern, she said "Thank you, Lee Richard" and hugged me.
I am writing this post because during the week before Christmas, Fern had a heart attack and died. Since UNFINISHED BUSINESS came out, many readers have written that they feel close to Fern, that she reminds them of one of their own relatives. I want you to know that Fern got her dying wish: she is resting in peace next to her Gerald.
My Uncle Pudge took the first plane from Denver to Cleveland to make the arrangements. It was an almost super-human feat considering that Pudge had recently been operated on for cancer, coronary disease and to replace a fractured hip. My brothers Randy and Roger were at the gravesite, as was my cousin Hedy and her husband Jim, and Sally, the wonderful nurse and human being who had taken such good care of Fern during those 14 years when no one visited her.
I was in New York during the funeral, snowed in by the biggest blizzard of the winter, but I was thinking about Fern all weekend. I had last visited her on November 4th, her 69th birthday. (My brother Ron got to see her a few weeks after I did, to her great delight.) I brought along my computer so that I could show her photos from Ben and Caroline's B'Nai Mitzvah. It had taken place during the summer and I could see how much Fern wished that she had been there. I promised that I would bring Ben and Caroline to Aurora Manor soon, maybe this spring, and 11-year-old Noah too. That won't happen, which makes me sad. But I'm happy that we got to be part of each other's lives again, that I helped her get her dying wish, that there's still a place for me to visit her.