My aunt C.J. died Friday. It was not unexpected, in that she’s been sick with a Physician’s Desk Reference worth of maladies on and off for years.

It still sucks.

C.J. was my dad’s sister. She was born a couple years after him, and a couple years before Mary Ann, my other aunt. C.J. spent most of her life as Carol, until about ten years ago, when she decided she wanted to be called C.J. I never have been able to figure out what the hell the J stood for.

But then again, one of the running jokes at the funeral was that C.J. absolutely refused to tell anyone what her initials stand for, preferring, as the rabbi put it, to let people know what she stood for.

She was an opinionated lady, sometimes to the point of obstinacy. You either loved her or she drove you up a wall; there was no in between. But if you stayed on her good side, her love knew absolutely no bounds.

She had moved into a…well, it’s hard to describe it. It’s not a nursing home, since there’s not really any medical staff on call. I believe it’s termed a Senior Independent Living Facility, basically for people who are still well enough to get around but old enough or in enough pain to not want to go that far to be able to interact with people.

She moved in a year ago, and the people there really seemed to like her. She was close or fairly close to four of her seven grandkids, and the main reason she wanted to be as mobile as possible.

She had gone into the hospital about two or three weeks ago to have back surgery to relieve the chronic pain she had for 25 or 30 years. She was in the hospital for about two or three days, then was sent to a rehab facility.

However, after a couple days in rehab, she started having trouble breathing, and eventually she ended up with a rather nasty form of pneumonia that refused to respond to treatment.

It’s unclear whether the surgery and the pneumonia were related, but the 2 doctors in her family (her brother and her son) both looked at the pre-surgery chest x-ray, and it was clear except for very mild emphysema from C.J.’s 20 years of chain-smoking.

She was pretty lucid until she had to be put on a ventilator, so she was able to tell her kids she could already feel how much less pain she had in her back, and how she’d have the surgery again in a second. I think that’s given them a lot of comfort.

As we went into the sanctuary of the temple for services, the rabbi strode up to the podium and just as she was about to open her mouth to begin the eulogy, the tremendous downpour outside produced its one and only very loud thunderclap.

I smiled a bit, because C.J. could be a bit of a drama queen, and she did like to ensure that everyone was paying attention.

It brought tears to my eyes when the rabbi said it was the sound of C.J. dancing on the clouds, finally free of pain and able to dance as much as she wanted.

The funeral was sad, but it was really nice to see how many people she touched. People had a lot of funny stories about her, her irrepressible spirit and her cackle of a laugh.

But it’s awful hard to shake the sadness you feel when you spend an hour staring at a box. I don’t know how in the world people deal with open caskets. I’d never be able to picture the person anyplace else.

I’m more than happy to remember C.J., smiling that huge smile of hers, in the hundreds of pictures my cousins taped to posterboard and brought to the reception (with a spread C.J. would have attacked with vigor) after the service.

You know in some of the pictures she’s in a great deal of pain, but you’d be damned if you could tell which ones.

It was good to see this side of my family, even though it was under such shitty circumstances. The family pretty much comes together for weddings, bar mitzvahs, and funerals, and all of my cousins are married, and none of the kids that might be bar mitzvahed are over the age of 6.

I saw my cousin Jeff’s kids for the first time in six years, and was stunned that his now 14-year old son Jesse is taller than me (Jesse’s mom is about my height, Jeff is significantly shorter), and is now taking some of the most advanced math I’ve ever heard of.

The strangest sight was C.J.’s ex-husband Johnny, who is 67, and his one year old identical twin girls. The kids are real sweet, and he seems over the moon about them.

Still, it was a bit strange to realize that a) Johnny’s oldest child is 41 years older than his two youngest and b) his oldest grandchild is 13 years older than these two little girls who are, technically, his aunts.

My dad was pretty amused by this, especially because he was often accused of being my grandfather, since he was the ripe old age of 45 when I was born. He couldn’t imagine what relation people thought Johnny was.

He did make one good joke to Jesse, though, saying, “Be nice to your aunts! They’ll send you ten bucks at Christmas!” Yeah, if they don’t try to eat it first. These were kids trying to eat their shoes at one point (both munching the right shoe, I noted).

I’ve also decided that my cousin Laurie and her family have the cutest dog in the universe. Shaggy is a husky/collie mix, with the face of a husky but the coat of a collie, and a little smaller than both dogs normally are. If I ever get a dog, I’m getting one just like it.

I hope to hell one of these years we’re going to have a family reunion that is not forced by a death in the family, although I don’t think anybody in the family has the time or the energy to organize it anytime soon. But who knows.

I had a few other adventures over the weekend, including sitting on the tarmac for hours (3) for the second time in a week while trying to actually get to Boston, and once again reaping the benefits of my dad’s need to be Ridiculously Early For Everything, getting to the airport today two and a half hours before my flight left.

Mostly, though, I just tried to get closure with C.J. It’s a lot easier to do that when I picture her, dancing up a storm and keeping a watchful eye on all seven of her grandkids. She was a hell of a lady, and I’m gonna miss her.

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