JoJo was seven years old when Aunt Jen went in for the first time.
She was riding with Mom and Dad in the truck, sitting in one of those seats that folds up into the wall if you’re not using it. Seat belt straps dangled down on either side. “My mother called me at work today,” Mom said. “Jennifer’s in the can.”
“What can?” JoJo asked, wondering if Aunt Jen had gotten a can of Pepsi, or maybe Dr. Pepper. Dr. Pepper was JoJo’s favorite.
“Jail,” said Mom. “Prison, actually.”
“What for?” JoJo asked. “For how long? Have you ever been in prison?”
“Lord, no,” Mom said. “My sister’s the addict, not me. Drugs, I imagine. Having drugs or selling drugs or stealing so she can get more drugs. It was bound to happen eventually. They said three years, but she might get out early on good behavior.”
“Three years! I’ll be ten when she gets out!” Tears touched JoJo’s eyes. Aunt Jen was always so sweet to her. Almost always, anyway, except for those times when she squeezed JoJo’s cheeks too hard or yelled at one of JoJo’s cousins so loud JoJo started crying. But then Jen would make a joke and wink at her, and it was like they had a secret just between the two of them. She pictured Aunt Jen in the prison like she’d seen on TV, cold and alone. It must be so scary in there. JoJo wasn’t going to do drugs when she got older. She didn’t ever want to go to jail, or prison, or any kind of can.
Over the next ten years, Jen was inside more often than she was home. JoJo would know she was locked up when her family showed up to visit Granny and all of Jen’s kids were there. After she got out, the kids would move back in with her, and she’d keep her act together. For awhile. She'd be clear-eyed and stable—get a job, stay clean, send the kids to school. But once things went downhill, they rolled away fast and she would end up locked up again. Crossing state lines, intent to distribute, possession. You name it, she was picked up for it.
After the third time, JoJo stopped wondering how Aunt Jen felt when she was in prison. She stopped feeling bad, stopped wishing she could help. She started seeing Aunt Jen in the addicts on television and in movies. These people were thieves and liars, self-centered and lacking self-control, and they took entire families down with them. One by one, JoJo watched as her cousins followed Jennifer into the vortex she’d created. They shared baggies and needles, schemed together to make a buck so they could afford their next hit. And, eventually, the kids started getting locked up, too.
JoJo, insulated from that world by distance and good fortune, washed her hands of Aunt Jen. Jen refused to quit doing drugs, even though quitting would have been so much easier than what Jen put herself and her family through. When Jen went back to jail for the fourth time (or was it the fifth?), when she lost custody of her kids, when she contracted Hepatitis C, JoJo shrugged. “It’s her own fault,” she said, same as Mom had said countless times. “If she wanted to change, she could.”
Over the years, word about Aunt Jen would trickle its way to JoJo the way family news does: She was clean, for real this time; She needed emergency gallbladder surgery; She had liver disease. But all JoJo could muster was numbness. Jen wasn’t a part of her life. It was like hearing that her kid’s teacher’s husband broke his foot. “Oh, that’s too bad,” she’d say, before the information dissipated into the atmosphere.
By the time JoJo became just Jo, she had seen more deeply into the world of addiction. She became friends with people who were addicted, taught children whose parents used, watched friends fall into holes they couldn’t get out of. She loved more than one addict. She lost more than one, too. Jo learned about the disease of addiction, about substance use disorder, and how important a person’s environment is to their ability to overcome their addiction. She advocated for people suffering with addiction, insisted others take a more holistic and empathetic look at the inner life of someone suffering from substance use disorder before passing judgment.
But when Jo learned her aunt had dementia, she couldn’t muster any of that nuance. Jen’s redeeming qualities and the inside jokes they used to share were so far in the rearview, Jo couldn’t get them back. And she didn’t want to. The vision of Jen she’d held since childhood had settled in and been reinforced through the years—from family and friends and television shows and the news, which rarely portrays addicts as humans going through human struggles and trying to survive day by day. Addict was a convenient way to dismiss the anger and resentment she’d felt toward Aunt Jen. Any information about her humanity threatened the truth Jo had held all her life.
And then Aunt Jen died.
Jo had only seen Jennifer in photos for at least a couple of decades, and though Jen had been clean for a lot of that time, to Jo, she was still an addict and nothing more.
With her passing, though, it was as if Jo could finally give herself permission to consider the fullness of Jen’s experience on this earth, rather than the one-dimensional caricature she’d created. Jen was a sister—Mom’s sister—and a daughter and a mother. Mom and Jen had grown up with an empty fridge and too-small clothes, with parents who were always trying to find their next drink or their next fix, and got violent when it didn’t materialize. “You must have been through a lot together,” Jo said to Mom, understanding for the first time why Mom clung to that relationship despite Aunt Jen’s persistent dysfunction.
“Yeah,” Mom said. “Her more than me, probably.” Of course. Jen was the oldest. She took the brunt of the abuse, stepped in between Mom and their father when things looked like they were going too far. Addiction was in her blood, in the air she breathed. She’d never learned healthy ways to deal with life’s setbacks. Of course she turned to substances when she didn’t know what else to do.
When the conversation with Mom was over and Jo put her phone down, the tears in her eyes startled her. What kind of relationship could she have had with Aunt Jen over the last thirty years if she’d stopped holding on to her story and allowed Jen to tell her own? If she’d allowed herself to see her aunt as a human—flawed though she may have been—rather than that one word.
She closed her eyes and finally allowed herself to see Aunt Jen’s face. Jen turned to her and smirked, her whole face wrinkling when she winked like it always had. She imagined the pain Jen must have lived with for all her life.
“I’m sorry,” Jo said.
And in her mind’s eye, Jen turned to her and smiled. “I’m human, just like you,” she said. And then she was gone.