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Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Sarah (Saaa-raaaah) Ooo-oooo.

Ignore the images, which aren't exactly appropriate to this post.

My great-aunt, Sarah Butler, died yesterday. Death is an unpleasant side-effect of living.

I don't have much to say about her death. It was abrupt, I think, in that she was only recently diagnosed with liver cancer, went through a short bought of treatment, was told Thursday that the treatment was useless, and was dead by Tuesday. Not a pleasant way to go, of course, but I've seen other members of my family linger for years in a state between life and death, so there are worse ways to go. Not all of us are fortunate enough to simply get hit by a bus and be done with the whole process of dying.

Humans die in a lot of very inventive ways. Some are stuck for decades, like Sunny von Bulow, preserved like a painting in a museum; others go out like Aeschylus, with an eagle dropping a turtle on our heads. It's unpleasant, these many methods of death, but we're all full of guts, and those guts are prone to twisting, rotting, splashing, squishing or spilling.

Sarah. She lived most of her life in Greenhill, AL, was married to the same man (my uncle Jackie) for over 50 years, and died in her own home. She pronounced her name 'Say-rah,' by the way. Everyone else did, too.

Here's an interesting family story: Sarah was my grandmother's half-sister. Not a full sister. None of my grandmother's (Margaret-Ann, d. 1995) siblings were full-out siblings. I didn't know this growing up, but my great-grandmother was married to another man for a while, and gave birth to my grandmother, and then caught my great-grandfather in bed with her sister (or sister-in-law, I forget). My great-grandmother divorced my great-grandfather, who moved to (or fled to) Memphis, and died a very rich man. He left Margaret-Ann (my grandmother) a lot of money, which she refused to take.

Or something. I forget how the story goes, and I forget the truth. But my grandmother had three siblings when she died, all of whom turned out to be half-siblings: Jimmy, Shirley, and Sarah. All four of them acted as if they were full-on siblings, however, and since family is a wonderful thing full of tangled history and complex emotion, I don't think it's fair to split hairs and try to downplay the bonds between the four of them. Margaret-Ann certainly didn't think of Jimmy, Shirley and Sarah as half-anything, which is why she refused the inheritance her father left her. Her biological father, I mean. She felt loyal to her half-family because she'd spent her life with them and they felt loyal to her.

My dad, Steven Dale Mitchell, no longer speaks to one of his full-on siblings. He has two sisters, Pam and Karen. Dad does not talk to Pam anymore, and I don't either, and Alex doesn't, and we have our reasons, and that's how it works. Family: emotionally tangled and historically complex. Sometimes we ignore how tenuous the connections are and sometimes we feel the need to set up barriers. Sometimes we Magaret-Ann, and sometimes we Steven Dale.

Anyway, back to Sarah, who recently died, and who loved me, and whom I loved. For years, even before I was born, she and her husband threw a helluva July 4th party--they'd cook chicken stew in a massive, Bugs-Bunny-boiling cauldron, and invite every relative and friend over, and set up plastic lawn chairs, and open their (first small, later bigger) home to all who dropped by. Speaking of the home, Sarah and Jackie, for as long as I can remember, lived in the same house, but added on to it, and expanded it, and continued hosting July 4ths and Christmas Eves for anyone who'd show up.

The July 4th affairs were pretty random--my family has tradition in not having tradition. There'd be a boat-oar to stir the stew, there'd be talk and mingling, there'd be 3-liter Cokes and covered dishes and plastic cups and plastic chairs, but no set order to how these things came together. Sometimes fireworks. Males would drink many beers, females would maybe have one beer, and Jackie would use the wooden oar to stir the stew. There'd be a family scandal to discuss, or not; there'd be kids running around doing dangerously amusing things, or not. There'd be private conversations in one room or another, and activity in the back yard. My grandfather would sometimes play country music with his band, or else country music would play from a radio. Or not.

Each time I went to Sarah's house, the Rock would be mentioned, though. The Rock was the one constant, the one tradition. The Rock was a, uh, rock I'd found once, and presented to Aunt Sarah as a gift. I know--whatever, right? It's a rock. Big deal. Millions of the things all over the ground.

Sarah kept the Rock, though, for thirty-x years, and as far as I know it was still in her possession when she died yesterday. In my relationship with Aunt Sarah, that Rock was a touchstone to remind each of us of the time when I thought, in my childish brain, that it was special, and that I loved her enough to give this special Rock to her. Also, to be honest, it was and is a really nice example of Rock.

Saturday, having been told by my dad that Sarah wasn't doing too well, I called. I'd always meant to call, of course--since I moved so far away, things slip through the cracks, and you forget this or that thing, and gamble on what will stay around for a while that you can eventually get around to doing, and what needs immediate attention. I'd always gambled that Sarah would be around a while, so never visited her when returning home. Never called her. I will be going home in May for Alex's graduation, I told myself--surely she'll make it to May, and then I can visit with her. Phones are so impersonal.

Anyway, so, Dad called me Thursday to let me know that Sarah wasn't likely to make it til May, so I called her, and was given to Michelle, her daughter. Here's my favorite memory of Michelle: when I was maybe 5 or 6, and she was a bit older, she offered to build me a pool. It was summer. She was armed with a garden hose. I was hot, and I liked to swim. Michelle sprayed the ground with the hose, then stuck a big toe into the soft mud, making a small hole which filled with water. "There," she said. "There's your pool." Then she sprayed me, and I laughed.

I was handed to Michelle. Hadn't spoken to her in years, even though I spent a great deal of my childhood with her.

"I'd hand the phone to Mama," she told me, "but I don't think she'd hear you."

We talked for a bit. Michelle said she understood why I'd never visited on my brief returns home and I refrained from saying that there'd been no real excuse, that I should've made the time. She was putting ice cubes to her mother's lips, and I knew what that meant. She told me that her father, Jackie, was doing as well as one could expect of a man losing his wife of 53 years, and that she'd let me talk to him but Bridgette--her sister--had taken him out of the house for a little while. And she took down my number, and I said goodbye. I said goodbye to Michelle, not to Sarah.

I won't be able to attend the funeral. I should go, but I can't, because death is not only inevitable but inconvenient--if I go home now, I won't be able to afford the trip back for Alex's graduation.

I'll miss Sarah. She was a great great-aunt. But the Rock remains, I assume.

And I hope I get hit on the head by a turtle.

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