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 everyone else, including my father and Uncle Pudge, her two brothers.
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 find her. For nearly three years, Aurora Manor kept drawing me back to Cleveland from New York City, where I live. I tried to visit Fern two to three times a year and always on her birthday. Whenever I would wheel her 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 my best to soothe her fears and nightmares, I felt without judgment and totally at Fern's service, restored to that serene place within all of us where compassion dwells.
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 "my Gerald." She claimed that he had bought two plots at Mount Olive Cemetery before he died -- "number 104A for him, and number 104B for me." That surprised me: My Uncle Pudge had presumed that Fern would want to be cremated, and no one at Aurora Manor seemed 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. Because Jerry had been a veteran of the Korean War, the plots were in the section of the cemetery that faced a huge American flag. I took photos to confirm it all with my cell phone. When I showed them to Fern, she said "Thank you, Lee Richard" and tearfully embraced me.
I am writing this post because during the week before Christmas, Fern had a heart attack and died. Since UNFINISHED BUSINESS was published in May, many readers have written that they feel close to Fern, that she reminds them of one of their own relatives, Fern touched many hearts. Those readers will want to know that Fern got her wish and was buried on the day after Christmas next to her beloved 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 he had recently had lung cancer, hip and intestinal blockage surgery. 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 came to visit 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, as were my parents in Florida and my brother Ron in California. I had visited Fern a few weeks earlier -- on November 4, her 69th birthday. I had brought along my computer so that I could show her photos from the B'Nai Mitzvah of my 13-year-olds Ben and Caroline. 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 the twins and 11-year-old Noah to Aurora Manor to see her this summer. That won't happen, which makes me very sad. But I feel blessed that Fern and I had a chance 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.
Lee Kravitz is the author of UNFINISHED BUSINESS: One Man's Extraordinary Year of Trying to Do the Right Things. He blogs at PsychologyToday.com and www.MyUnfinishedBusiness.com.