As my plane began its descent into the Fort Myers area, my panic attack started.
My heart raced; my thoughts, jumbled.
I'm not prone to anxiety attacks. In fact, the only other time I can recall experiencing this high stress feeling was when riding in the car with my teenage son on his permit getting in his driving hours before taking his license.
I was coming to Fort Myers on a whim.
A Russian driver named Sergie was picking me up at the airport and driving me to my Aunt Georgia's home in Naples, Florida. Part of what brought on the attack was realizing I hadn't taken the time ahead to determine if Fort Myers was twenty minutes from Naples or two hours.
I was going to get into a car with a man I didn't know with no idea where I was going.
The romance of the situation I felt when buying the plane tickets from the comfort of my home in Maine now felt like I was living a crazy spy movie, incredibly irresponsible but adventurous.
I was going, at the age of forty-six, to meet a woman I'd met once in my life at the age of fifteen whom I barely knew.
When my father died, I was 25. I believe Georgia sent me a sympathy card…and I thanked her.
That began a 20-year relationship by correspondence.
She began by sending me Christmas cards, and then hand written letters of her travels, photos of her life. I discovered she was a writer – she was clever and funny. She began emailing when she was 70. A face-to-face relationship is wonderful, but a written relationship can also be deeply intriguing and fulfilling – the picture you get of the person through their words may be different than who they are in person.
As we stood at my Aunt's door in her high rise condominium, Marbella, Sergie held my overnight bag and looked over at me out of the corner of his eye.
"You're nervous?" he half questioned, half declared in a very kind, soft voice in accented English.
"Yes," I said, turning to face him, just as my Aunt Georgia opened the door.
Thankfully, Sergie hadn't killed me on the ride over, but my anxiety hadn't totally dissipated.
There before me was my father in a woman's body.
She immediately hugged me and swept me into her beautiful home. Sergie brought my bag to the guest bedroom where I would spend my weekend; he gave me a reassuring smile; and exited, leaving the two of us alone together.
The warmth of my Aunt overwhelmed me. Her energy enveloped me within the first two minutes and it was a wonderful, uplifting, loving energy. She glided toward the kitchen where she had prepared a light lunch for me after my travel.
The romance was coming back.
This was something right out of an Agatha Christie novel. At the age of ninety, she was a woman from a distant era and a different class. On the bar, lay a beautiful tray awaiting my arrival. Before opening the fridge, she whirled to face me and asked, "Why did your father never bring you around us?"
Not the question I expected.
Not one, I’d even given thought to.
"I don't know," I replied honestly, but then I thought more deeply for a minute.
"Didn't your mother have a strained relationship with my father," I said in a way that was politically correct. I had been told she was "mean" to my father and tormented him mentally. Oh, now my aunt understood the decades of why my father shielded me from his own mother and family. Years of not understanding cleared in a moment.
It was to protect me, not to hurt me.
Her shoulders relaxed a little as she turned to pull a pretty white flowered luncheon plate for me from the refrigerator. On my little tray, she placed the small plate of cold shrimp on Boston lettuce, a hard boiled egg drizzled with a mayonnaise sauce, grapes with a half strawberry, and tiny soy rice cakes. She motioned for me to follow her with my tray.
Within minutes of my arrival, we both began learning so much that for nearly half a century had been misperceptions and wrong conclusions.
She felt sad I never got the chance to know her and her sister and brother and their many children, my cousins, because I never came to the camp on Sebago Lake when they all visited from Florida; I’d never Christmas-ed or Thanksgiving-ed or traveled with them; I never came to visit them in Florida.
“There was certainly no need to worry about me. I had a wonderful childhood,” I said quietly.
She was a little perplexed but her sparkling blue eyes encouraged me to tell more.
This was not what she expected.
“I had a wonderful family; my mother is a wonderful person. And I always had my father on the side. He was very good to me.”
“Of course he was,” she said. “That’s why he never left Maine. He never came to Florida with all of us. He would have never left you. When you were born, everything changed for him and he just loved you so much.”
I knew that.
I am a blessed child in that I knew my father loved me more than the moon itself.
And what I learned over that weekend was that how my father treated me was a direct result of his wonderful relationship with his sister, my Aunt Georgia. She was fun and sparkly; she was well-read and well-traveled, curious and intelligent; she was elegant and gracious.
My weekend with my Aunt Georgia was the weekend of a lifetime. It will forever be a highlight of my life. We were instinctively in sync, so easily matched. I got her; she got me.
I will never forget that winter afternoon when we were emailing back + forth and all of a sudden she said, “You must come. The sooner the better.”
At mid-life, I knew she was right. My gut said I needed to take a risk and go. I booked the ticket for 3 weeks out.