Saturday Diary / Aunt Dottie's gone and it just isn't fair

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Life is not fair.

As reporters, we probably understand this more than some.

We cover bad, sometimes horrible things that happen to good people, and good things that happen to bad people. I've written my share of these stories over 23 years in journalism, but when these circumstances hit you personally, you are no better prepared to deal with it.

Aunt Dottie, my mother's best friend and second only to my mother and father in my upbringing, was a bright light to every person she ever met. She died Tuesday, about 20 minutes before I started writing this column.

I'd known that Aunt Dottie -- who was not a blood relative but a "friend aunt," as my 7-year-old puts it -- was dying for at least a week, after it became clear she was losing her battle against lung cancer, and I struggled with what it meant. It still hurts worse than anything in my life other than suddenly losing my dad, Denny Hamill, 19 years ago. He was just 54 and I was just 28.

Aunt Dottie, born on Pearl Harbor Day in 1941, was 71 and I'm now 46, and I don't have any better answers for bad things happening to good people than I did when my dad died four days before he was set to undergo the angioplasty that would have saved him.

Aunt Dottie was ubiquitous in her church, St. James Catholic Church in Sewickley, teaching children there in CCD and in Quaker Valley schools, where she volunteered. She made friends with every bus driver who took her to work Downtown from her home in Glen Osborne, every checkout clerk at every store where she was a regular, every waiter who ever served her more than once and anyone she met walking down the street.

"How ARE you?" she would ask a clerk by name at Safran's grocery store, truly wanting to know because Aunt Dottie listened better than anyone I've known.

A Greenfield native and graduate of Seton Hill College, she taught in Catholic schools before she met and married her late husband, Tom Barnett. After Uncle Tom died at just 40 from Hodgkin's lymphoma in 1979, Aunt Dottie, who never remarried -- "I found the one apple-of-my-eye and there won't be another," she declared -- took a job working in accounts at the Pittsburgh Symphony and sometimes ran the Symphony store Downtown. She knew every employee from the house manager to the volunteers -- so much so that when I was a teenager, she had the influence to get me backstage at Heinz Hall when one of my idols, Wynton Marsalis, came to town so I could meet him for five minutes, just me and the world's best trumpeter and my aunt talking jazz.

Everyone who met Dottie might wonder where this energetic renaissance woman -- she could discuss city politics, tell you the name of any leaf or debate the merits of classical music -- developed such a positive outlook on life. She said it was her parents, to whom she owed so much.

Her father, John, died in 1976. And just over a month ago, Aunt Dottie's mom died. She was 93 and had moved in with Dottie 26 years ago. And before that, Aunt Dottie had cared for more than a decade for her mother-in-law, even after Uncle Tom had died.

All those 40 or so years of caring for the mothers in her life -- "Tom and I always promised each other we'd make sure our parents lived in dignity," she told me -- took their toll on Dottie, or so we all thought.

She started looking thinner last fall, and everyone asked how she was doing. What was happening? "Oh, I'm just too busy," she would say, or, "Mom has just been bad."

That seemed to explain it. It was the stress of watching her mother die slowly in front of her. Maybe when her mother goes, I thought, Aunt Dottie will be able to worry about herself for the first time in 40 years. I'll be able to take her on vacation to the beach with my family (she'd refused these last seven years because of her mother). She'll get to care for her garden and pond and enjoy herself again.

By all rights, Aunt Dottie, who had done so much for others, had that coming.

But life is not fair.

Within two days of her mother's death, it seemed to stop the flow of adrenalin that had kept Aunt Dottie on her feet. By the time of her mother's funeral, she was in a wheelchair. She was so stubborn that we had to steal her away after the funeral to the hospital.

Predictably, she resisted, literally holding onto the mantel in my mother's home, complaining that she had bills to pay. But she went, and the cough and shortness of breath that we hoped was stress-induced bronchitis or the flu turned out to be our worst fear.

Years ago, after quitting smoking, Aunt Dottie had started again. She told me last month that she knew something was wrong a year ago and had canceled at least four appointments with her doctor -- every time because of some crisis with her mother. "Maybe I was lying to myself and to all of you," she said, knowing it wasn't maybe.

And then, in six short weeks, she was gone. And it was not fair.

"Keep fighting," I told her the last time we could talk, trying to look for any shred of hope before the pain of the cancer caused her caregivers to up the morphine, sending her into deep sleeps.

"I will," she said, holding my hand. "I love you, Seanster."

"I love you, too, Aunt Dottie."

Those were the last words she ever heard me say. It was Valentine's Day. And that is the only fair thing in this that I can see right now.


Sean D. Hamill is a staff writer for the Post-Gazette (, 412-263-2579).


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