I wrote this piece a few weeks before my dear aunt Fran lost her battle with cancer more than two years ago. Even after all this time, I find myself stopping to call her whenever my mother is driving me a bit crazy, or my kids are doing something I know she would love.
This week would have been her 76th birthday.
Though my mother named me Katherine, she has always had the habit of calling me by her older sister’s name, Francine.
This can get a little confusing, especially when all three of us are together.
“She’s not talking to you Aunt Fran, she’s talking to me. Mom, I’m Kathy. You know, your oldest child.”
“Very funny Fr… Kathy.”
Then we all start to laugh.
Today was the first time that I can recall that she did not confuse us,.even though the three of us were together all day.
I was enjoying being with the two of them. My mother had asked me to take a ride with them to check on Fran’s house and get a few of her summer clothes.
My very independent aunt has been living with my parents since she started her second round of chemotherapy six months ago.
Two months ago she was declared cancer free.
Last week we found out that the cancer is back — with a vengeance.
As we pulled up to Fran’s house, I saw her beautiful flowers in full bloom. Gardening is a passion all three of us share. I knew it was killing her that she couldn’t work in her flower beds.
It occurred to me that as long as I have known my aunt, this has been her house. This was where I learned to swim and eat with chopsticks as a girl. It was also a place of refuge when I was a teenager or when I was doing a play with her as young woman.
The free-spirited dancer who always looked so graceful struggled to just get out of my mother’s car. The chemo had erased the dark curly tresses from her scalp. Her body, once lithe and graceful, moved slowly and cautiously. She held on to the car, then shifted her weight to her cane as she slowly made it up the stairs to her home.
As my mom and Fran went through the mail and got what she needed, I sat on the couch, remembering the day the three of us picked it out about ten years earlier. I looked around at the Asian art and pictures of dancers on the wall.
From the time I was a young girl, I loved to come here. It always seemed much more exotic and interesting than the conventional decor of my parents’ house.
“Fran, three dresses? That is all you are going to take with you? Three dresses?” I could clearly hear my mother’s voice all the down from the hall.
“Yes. This is all I need.”
Both women looked at me with frustration about the other.
I laughed at how different they have always been. To my mom, the clothes she wears and her looks are a vital part of who she is. Whenever I say I have somewhere to go, her first question is almost always, what are you going to wear?
My aunt has always been more comfortable in t-shirts and flowing skirts that allow for easy movement. Fashion has never been important to her.
I always wanted to be more like Fran. She had always made her living as a dancer, director, choreographer, and teacher. What other people thought of her or her choices didn’t seem to matter to her.
I had long come to accept that, although I greatly admired my aunt, I was much more like my mother than I cared to admit. I longed for security and had left my acting career years ago in order to pay my bills. I worked in an office and then left my job to raise my kids. These were very different choices from Fran’s.
We took one more look around the house and left. But not before my mother made one more mention of the fact that three outfits were not nearly enough.
As we waited for my mother to get in the car, I said, “Aunt Fran, mom will be on her deathbed, and the only thing she will be worried about is what I will wear to her funeral and what jewelry will look best.”
We both started to laugh as my mom settled into the driver’s seat.
“Are you two making fun of me again?” she asked, laughing.
“Yes,” we replied in unison.
As we pulled out of the driveway, I wondered if I we would ever get to come back as the three of us. Everything was up in the air. Would she try chemo again? Would she decide she had had enough? Nothing was certain.
“Fran, before we go too far, get your water ready and drink some. You’ve only had one bottle, that’s not enough.” My aunt looked back at me and made a face.
“Kathy is my sister making a face at me?”
I was very struck that my mother very clearly called me by own name.
This piece was first published, June 2, 2013, under the title, Sunday in the Car with Fran. It has been edited from the original.