Who was Nancy Butchli?
No matter the strain on our relationship, or the distance between us, hearing my mom cry is heartbreaking for me. There is something about seeing or hearing your mom weep, that can break down even the highest of walls between you (even if only for that moment). This week my mom’s sister, Nancy, died. I found, momentarily, that I was able to forget everything between my mom and I, and just feel complete sadness that I could not be there to hug my mom while she wept.
When I saw that my mom had called four times in a row, I knew something was wrong. My mom told me that my aunt (only 62 years old) was going into hospice and was given about 72 hours to live.
She was trying to hold back tears as she told me, and asked me if I was ok. I wasn’t sure. But, my reasons for being unsure were complicated. This was not a clear cut devastating loss for me. My relationship to my aunt Nancy and my mother’s relationship to her are beyond complicated.
I still cannot ascertain what actually happened. My aunt lived in the Midwest, about two hours from where my mom lives and from where I was raised. My mom was able to see her before she died; in fact, she was there as Nancy died. Yet, my mom is not highly reliable when it comes to giving details, especially in emotional situations. So, all I know is allegedly my aunt went in for a fairly simple procedure, and it went wrong in some way, leading her to have her body fill up/retain 40 lbs of fluid. I am in no way a doctor, but there seems to be a lot missing from this story.
Being far away, I wasn’t able to go to the hospital, so I am unsure if I will ever know what happened. Much like many areas of my life, if I want to know the answers, I will have to treat it like an investigation. I will have to track down paperwork and find the answers to these basic questions. For my mom, things like this are unnecessary details, I, on the other hand find it rather relevant to understand a family member’s cause of death.
My aunt used to be a regular part of my life. I was raised by my mom and my other aunt. My aunt Nancy, living two hours away, visited frequently when I was young. She was at every birthday, every holiday, and every event she could get off work to attend. She had a Scottish terrier, Duffy, whom I loved dearly, daunting overbite and all. I remember falling on the floor sobbing as a child, when she called to tell me duffy died. Our lives were deeply connected. I would stay with Nancy for long weekends frequently when my mom was in graduate school. Then, when I was about eleven, my mom and my two aunts made accusations against their father that changed our family dynamic forever. There were those that believed the accusations, and those that didn’t. The one group did not speak to the other. Even though Nancy was in the group that my mom and other aunt were, Nancy soon became emotionally unraveled and my mom and aunt decided that she wasn’t good for me to be around, and so, like the other people in my family, one moment she was there, and the next she was gone- I never had a say.
By the time I was an adult, it had been so long since I saw my aunt Nancy, I didn’t even know where she lived, or if she would want to talk to me. She didn’t feel like my aunt anymore. I felt a loss where she once had been, but I had learned to live my life without her in it. My mom would tell me occasionally that Nancy would call her looking for money. My mom would “pray about it” and then “discern” if she should help Nancy. I think she usually did. I recall one time, after I was in college my mom telling me Nancy had been involved with loan sharks and my mom and her husband had to essentially save Nancy from that situation. I had been raised to believe that Nancy would be an emotional drain on my life, and that she was surrounded by shady people. I am not even certain if that is true- in my family it is hard to say which version of “true” is true.
So, until last year, Nancy remained someone who showed up in the occasional family photo or conversation. She reached out to my other aunt last fall. My husband, daughter and I happened to be living in the Midwest at the time with my other aunt, so we were there for Nancy’s call. I agreed to meet Nancy and we all went to dinner- it was actually very lovely.
Nancy and I started talking on the phone. She held these pieces of my childhood that I didn’t have access to. She would tell Adam and I stories about me as a child, and you could hear her face light up in her voice.
“You were the highlight of my life,” she told me during one phone call. Nancy had never had children, and she went on to tell me she thought of me as her own. My relationship with my mother was already strained at the time, and to hear someone call me the highlight of their life felt incredible. It also felt sad. I felt sad for myself that I had missed out on this woman. I felt sad for her that someone she hadn’t seen in 15 years was the highlight of her life.
I thought that I was gaining an aunt, but that didn’t last very long. Nancy started talking to me about how bad of a mother my mom had been to me when I was young. She told me how much better of a mom I was to my daughter. At the time, I couldn’t hear where she was coming from. It was that thing where you are allowed to say something bad about your parent but no one else is ( even if it is true). What is that?
So, living by my mom and my other aunt at the time, I discussed this with them. The story I got, was that Nancy had tried to “take” me when I was young. As the story goes, my mom wasn’t sure she wanted to keep me, and wasn’t sure she could raise me. She had me with a man she didn’t love, and she wasn’t sure what to do. Essentially, she believed at that time that her life was over. Her parent’s told her she would have to marry my father. It was explained to me that Nancy was already very emotionally unhealthy at this time and that she said my mom should have the baby and then she would raise it. Frankly, I am not sure what transpired. But, the conversation, at the time, was enough to make me weary of Nancy. The next couple times she called I was always busy, and soon she didn’t call anymore.
That was the last I talked to her until this week. How do you call someone from across the country to say goodbye to them? Especially someone you are estranged from? Do you make small talk? Say, “I’m so sorry you are dying?” I am really not sure. I knew I wanted to talk to her-I had so much to say, so much to ask, but didn’t know how. I spent a half hour talking to her about our lives in New England and Aimee’s new preschool. I told her I loved her and she said she loved me too. She didn’t even sound ill in the beginning of the conversation, she was able to laugh and sound joyful, but as the conversation closed she was gasping for breath. I told her I would talk to her the next day when my mom and other aunt visited her.
She said goodbye. She said it in such a way that I knew she wouldn’t be talking to me the next day.
The next day my mom called sobbing from her bedside, saying it wouldn’t be much longer. After getting off the phone with me Nancy declined so rapidly that she wasn’t able to talk, she was barely conscious. My mom held the phone up to her ear as I said one more “I love you.” Nancy gasped for air and garbled. It was hard to hear, and I felt for my mom. “she looks really bad honey.”
I am an only child, and I can’t possibly understand what it was like for my mom to look at her big sister in that condition. I can’t imagine the sadness and the confusion.
My mom said as soon as she saw how bad Nancy was, she knew I must have talked to her the night before. “she was waiting for you honey.” It felt strange for me. Someone was waiting to say goodbye to me to die. I have heard stories like this where people will wait to say certain goodbyes, but I had never been the person they waited for.
My mom and aunt met with a couple who was also there as Nancy died. Apparently the woman, Patty had been Nancy’s friend for 30 years. She had never met my mom and aunt, and they had never met her. How was that possible? As the four of them talked, they realized that none of them knew Nancy. No one really new Nancy. She was so private that no one was certain of her wishes.
I was frustrated because I am far away. I am typically very good in tragedy situations- I get things done and look for the next thing to do. I fall apart after the “to-do” lists, but I get things done. My mom and aunt on the other hand, not so much. They had to be told that someone would have to close her accounts and cancel her social security. When the doctor asked my mom how many death certificates she needed, my mom asked “why?”
The only thing we all knew is that most of what Nancy had ( which isn’t much) she wanted me to have. I find myself wanting these things, not because I want the possessions, but maybe because they could give me an idea of who Nancy was. I asked my mom to send all the paperwork they find in her house to me, especially if there are journals. I want a chance to understand Nancy. Perhaps I will be able to find answers to questions I was too scared to ask.
My mom said that the gentleman from the hospital kept calling Nancy a “transient” and an “indigent. “ My mom said she knew that was accurate, but that it was a hard word to hear, especially about your sister.
I had to look up the word “indigent,” I didn’t know what it meant. I wish I hadn’t looked it up.
My mom, aunt, and these two other friends, decided that Nancy wouldn’t have wanted a funeral. They further decided that she wouldn’t have wanted an announcement. I want to believe their motivations are to honor her wishes to the best of their ability, but I can’t help but notice that that is the cheapest option.
And so, just like that, Nancy is gone. All that remains of evidence of her are the few possessions she had, and the handful of people she left behind, who all have realized, the really didn’t know her.
What sadness: to leave this world having never been fully known by another person. Her dog, Moses, most likely knew her better than anyone else. She wanted me to have him, but since I live across the country, one of her friends is taking Moses. Apparently she pushes him around in a baby carriage and he likes it. I love dogs, but would never push one around in a carriage. So, Moses will probably be most happy with that friend. But, part of me wanted to fly to the Midwest just to get that dog, to have that part of Nancy. Ironically, our doctor just wrote us a letter to our landlord saying she advised that we get a dog to help lower our stress level and increase our mental health. That letter went out the day before my mom called about Nancy.
I write this blog to you today to say that Nancy Butchli lived. She loved, and was loved. I get that we are all transient beings in that we all eventually die- but no one has to have their death be so unremarkable.
Nancy’s death has reminded me to be cognizant of those people who die every day without recognition. It has also made me grateful for the love I am surrounded by, and for the opportunity I have to make my mark on the world- to leave things behind that surpass my lifetime.