THE LAST GOOD-BYE

by Irving Kenneth Zola

Your given name was Frances, but I don't remember many people using it. To everyone I knew, you were Fagie. You were my aunt, my mother's younger sister. But no such simple description captures what you mean to me. You were my friend, my confidante, my ally and soon I was going to lose you.

We were being warmed by the late afternoon sun as we sat on the deck. You looked worn out as you lay there in the chaise lounge. To a stranger you might have seemed sunburned, but I knew it was the side effects of the radiation treatment.

I had made you a gin and tonic and sat nearby with a chilled club soda in my hand. We were alone. Lee, my wife, and Paul, your husband, had taken the kids to the beach. Tomorrow you were leaving to go back to the Mainland.

Your breaking of the silence was typical. "Well, smart-ass, it looks as if you've done OK."

"You mean the house...yes it's quite..."

"No," you interrupted, "I mean your life."

"Well," I said, "I had lots of help...especially from you."

You let this pass and looked into your glass for a few moments. As you raised it to your lips, you added as if in a toast, "Well...it's been a long time."

"So it has," I answered, raising my glass in turn. And then I laughed, "Do you remember the time when..." And so we drifted in and out of memories all afternoon.

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Innocence Claimed

Your favorite childhood story had to do with how I always got away with murder. As my mother's younger sister and being only sixteen years my senior, you were my first and favorite babysitter. While I loved your attention I was not so generous when you bestowed it on others. And one day, in the throes of the "terrible twos", I showed it . Left alone in the living-room of your then boyfriend, Doobie, I completely destroyed his portable radio. When the loud crash brought you both in, you gasped, "What happened?" Undaunted, I said, "Doobie did it," pointing my finger directly at the culprit... your boyfriend.

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Sleepless Nights

The age of eight found me temporarily quartered in your apartment. It was June, and my family had just moved to Mattapan, a streetcar suburb of Boston. It was too late to transfer me to another school and, since we had no car, too far to commute daily. So everyone agreed that I should stay with you for the remaining few weeks of school. With Uncle Paul away in the World War II Seabees, we shared the same bed. I don't know what this did to my incipient sexual fantasies, but it did disturb my rest. Some people talk in their sleep; others snore; you back up. In fact, you were so vigorous that I found it necessary to wrap myself around the bedposts lest I fall off. But I never complained, for fear you'd exile me to another room or, worse yet, send me home. But one night it was no use. With a mighty heave you did it. And there I was on the floor, awake and tearful, trying to respond to your queries of why I was so restless a sleeper.

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Sidetracked on the Road to Manhood

As the first grandson to reach Jewish manhood, my Bar Mitzvah was an eagerly awaited and much fussed over event. You, while proud, were nevertheless determined to bring me down to earth. There I stood on the platform that cold January morning addressing the congregation in very solemn tones about taking my rightful place among Jewish men. Specifically, I was in the process of claiming that I was about to become "a brick in the wall of Judea." For emphasis, I looked down and spoke directly to my mother. You, sitting beside her, promptly crossed your eyes and stuck out your tongue. For your efforts you received a jab in the ribs. I, in turn, delivered the rest of my speech to the clock in the second balcony.

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No More Interuptions

After I had polio, the climb up four flights of stairs to my home seemed to take forever. So we devised a system of stops and rests. The first was at your place, reached after traversing the first two outside flights. And there I sat, coffeed, and chatted, till my strength returned. But long after this stopover was necessary, we continued the practice, much to the annoyance of my mother. Maybe she was jealous of our closeness. Whatever the reason, she would inevitably yell down the stairs, "Irving! Irving! Are you there? When are you coming up?"

One day she reached her limit and yelled down, "Irving! Irving! What's taking you so long? What are you doing down there?" You, too, must have reached your limit, for you answered back, "Screwing!" She never interrupted us again.

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Lessons Learned

It was clearly in the area of sex that you opened the most taboo areas. While my mother played the role of a classic hysteric, often claiming that she never understood a dirty joke or even the location of erotic zones, you were by contrast quite vivid and charmingly obscene. It was from you I learned about sexuality in general and women's sexuality in particular. And while the terms and framework might be Victorian -- as you referred to "the curse," "your monthly friend," and "men's needs" -- whatever else you did, you led me gently where others feared to tread.

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The Overacceptance of Irving

Though always my ally and defender, there were some ways in which your acceptance went too far. I know you remember my accident well. Polio at 16 was bad enough, but having to be confined for a year in a cast at the age of 20 was even worse. By now, though I was getting along pretty well on crutches, I made a private decision. Consulting with my orthopedist, we decided that I could get rid of the crutches and use just a cane if I was willing to wear a long leg brace. For months I practiced at school until I finally had it right....until I could walk without the crutches and with just the cane. On that Friday, I showed up at your doorstep, walked into your house and proudly stated, "Well, what do you think?"

"About what?" you asked.

"About how I look?" I answered.

"Oh!" you said stepping back so you could survey me more carefully. "You know how I am about not noticing things," and then added with obvious satisfaction...."You've cut your hair differently."

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We'll See Who's Not Good Enough!

And then there was the time when I took you aside to tell you that Lee and I had decided to marry several months earlier than planned and that her father seemed quite concerned. You asked but one question, "Is she pregnant?"

"No" I laughed with some embarrassment.

You went on, "It doesn't matter to me....I just wanted to know all the facts."

It turned out that "the fact" that upset you the most was my prospective father-in-law's concern about my adequacy as a husband...monetarily, emotionally and physically.

"Don't worry," you said, "I'll take care of him."

But even I was not prepared for the scene that followed. After a serious man to man chat at his hotel room, I brought my future father-in-law to meet my aunt.

As we came in the door, I looked at him. He was impeccably suited in a somber gray coat, a trimmed fur collar and a newly blocked hat upon his head. We rang the bell. And there you were, my Aunt Fagie, in an outfit that would have put Carol Burnett's charwoman to shame. With a towel wrapped around your head, you stood there poker-faced, wearing a moth-eaten terry cloth robe, tied over a set of rolled-up flannel pajamas, with mismatched socks flopping over your slippers, a broom in your hand and a lit cigarette dangling precariously from your lips.

Clearly taken aback, he stammered, "I'm sorry....I didn't know....if we're..."

"Oh, of course not, Felix," you said with a smile and extended your hand, "Please come in," and added in measured tones, "We were expecting you."

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

The sound of children's voices brought this time to a natural close. Our eyes were filled with tears - of joy, sadness, love and loss, all mixed together. With your hand in mine I tried to speak but the words remained in my head. I think of your leaving in quite selfish terms. Who will I call first to tell my good...or bad news? Who will I turn to when there is no place else to go? You are my closest friend, my kindest critic, my strongest support, my longest love. No one will ever replace you. Maybe no one should.

My throat ached from the held-back anguish. "I'll miss you" was all I could croak out.

"I know" was all you said in reply.

The next day, you and Uncle Paul left. You stood on the railing of the ferry and waved to all of us on the pier. I heard later that when we were out of view you collapsed. I never saw you again. You died a week later.

 

copyright Irving Kenneth Zola

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