Monday, November 7, 2011

For my Aunt

It’s been a solitary weekend. Although I’ve been introduced to a veritable posse of expats here in Lira, they were all out of town this weekend, headed to Kampala for meetings, Zimbabwe for trainings or Kenya for breaks. There are a couple locals I could call, but frankly, I’m suspicious of their motives; one girl, the friend of a friend’s friend, asked for my number at a dance club at the end of the evening, even though we had not even been introduced, and the other asked if she could call me while tallying up my purchases at the grocery store where she works. Some tell me Ugandan girls are just shy, and won’t start up conversations with white girls they don’t know, and their asking for my number is just an indirect way of proposing friendship. But I don’t feel like putting myself in an unfamiliar situation right now, don’t want to be expected to take a trio of Ugandan fillies out for beers (as inevitably happens) and talk about clothes, and hair, and men.

My heart isn’t here.

My aunt is in the hospital. She’s normally the first one to read my blog entries when I post them, responding each time almost at once, with unflagging praise. Now she’s hooked up to a breathing machine, in an induced coma, fighting an abdominal infection following an extended cancer-removal surgery.

When I last saw her in LA, three months ago, neither of us knew that she was sick. We wandered through the Venice Canals, ogling ducks and display case homes. She insisted on buying me a few tops to augment my utilitarian post-Congo wardrobe. As usual, we nibbled on vegetable slices and fruit and hummus and a little cheese, and sipped wine with her neighbors at a nightly “cocktail hour” in their apartment complex’s courtyard. I kept her company as she fed and cleaned up after the sickly cat of a neighbor who was on an extended trip to Europe. One morning the cat showed signs of kidney failure, and my aunt, the most devoted cat lover I have ever known, tried her best to stay calm as she made arrangements for him to be put down.

In short, her life as I knew it was carrying on as usual.

She was diagnosed in September, shortly before I left for Uganda. Her surgery, in mid-October, went as well as could be hoped for, I was told, although the cancer was more extensive than the doctors had previously thought. I even spoke with her as she lay in the hospital, recovering. She sounded like herself, upbeat, levelheaded and even a bit image-conscious despite the sedatives. “My legs are so bloated,” she told me. “They’ve been pumping all these fluids into me.”

And then my father emailed a few days later. My aunt had returned to the hospital with debilitating pain in her abdomen. Apparently she had acquired an infection during the surgery, and in her already-weakened body it had gone systemic. She was in critical condition, and on life support. My dad was flying out to see her. 

When my 93 year-old grandmother was dying in Massachusetts two years ago, my aunt spent the better part of two months by her side, trying to ease her mother’s considerable physical pain, along with the anxiety and uncharacteristic moodiness brought about by a series of opiate-based painkillers, and her frustration with her sudden helplessness. It seems unbelievable that my aunt now needs someone to offer the same support to her.

And here I am in a rainy town in northern Uganda, carrying on with the day-to-day but acutely aware of the cruelty of distance, with five more weeks to go before my evaluation is complete and I return to the US. According to my father, my aunt’s condition, though still very serious, is slowly improving. He says there’s a good chance she’ll fight off this infection, and although there will be plenty more challenges ahead, we should have a moment to breathe and regroup.

And so, to you, my lovely aunt, I send this message from across the world. I love you. Keep fighting. Come home. Read this.

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