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  • Writer's pictureJessica Taylor Yates

Conversations at brunch: Did you hear about Jess's auntie? | Part 6

Things were slowly getting toxic, and not just in the workplace.

Jess and Vera

A new personal blog series exploring the highs and lows of the conversations you have at brunch.

This is Part 6 of a series. For a recap of previous blogs, click here.

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It was November, 2020, and I had been going through an exceptionally hard time. The wedding cancellation, the honeymoon cancellation, being made redundant from a job I loved, and my dad getting diagnosed with Stage Four liver cancer. This was all during the backdrop of Covid-19, with weeks becoming months of not seeing family or friends, going out, socialising or being able to be 'normal' in any real capacity.


While I had LAL, I didn't have a job to fill my time, and as someone with ongoing mental health issues, I had periods of being quite blue. I found it hard to get out of bed with no purpose, to have a shower, to make effort with my appearance, or to find joy in many things.


Around this time, I was offered a job as a copywriter of sorts. The team and manager seemed fun, the role seemed doable, everyone was currently working from home, and the pay was an pretty big increase on my last position. In the interview, they asked me things like who I was rooting for on The Bachelor, and if I liked dogs. It felt like a fun fit. And for a while, it really was.


Even though we weren't back in the office, the team made an effort of getting to know me, whether it was through online drinks and theme days, fun video chats, or, once restrictions relented, real-world meet-ups for drinks and great convos. I felt instantly 'in' with a group of similar-aged people in the team, and like I'd really found my footing. My manager was a young female #GirlBoss who I admired, who deviated between being a professional mentor and a fun friend to talk about the weekend, relationships, TV and life with. Plus, the perks!


Every week during lockdown, I kept getting packages from the company that got more and more extravagant, from chocolate sweets and board games, to a full Christmas dinner, complete with a whole turkey, ham, wine and desserts to feed an entire family. Not gonna lie, it was amazing.


By the next year, 2021, people were looking to slowly come back to work. At this time, there had not yet been a vaccine announced. My mother, as a liver transplant recipient, was considered high risk for Covid, while for my dad, who was currently undergoing chemotherapy, getting Covid was out of the question.


When I was hired, I had explained my situation, and that I would be needing to take my dad to various hospital and doctor appointments, that I would need to work from home for the pandemic period, but that I would always be able to make up the time, which had seemed fine.


I was hesitant about going into the office, as my parents said if I went in, they wouldn't see me. Many workplaces were either still working from home or hybrid, but this place seemed to really want people to come in.


One day, out of the blue, a senior manager video called me. I had a bit of internal panic - this had never happened.


The call was brisk. She wanted to know, point blank, why I hadn't yet been in. When I tried to explain, she looked confused.


"So... I mean... I'm just not really getting it. What does your dad's cancer and you taking him to appointments have to do with being in the office?"


I was pretty taken aback, and again said that there was just absolutely no way I could risk getting him sick, but that I was constantly available when needed. She was unimpressed.


There were some other little things I had also started to notice. Like the fact that there was no style guide, no strategy, no templates and no guides on how to create content, meaning I would frequently have to ask questions for information that wasn't written anywhere, but just in peoples' heads.


But, you know. Every company has processes which drive you f*cking crazy.


A call with a toxic nature


By March of 2021, I relented and knew I would have to come into the office, which wasn't as daunting considering I'd met everyone online, and even some out in the wild. However, my first day in was shortened when I received a frantic phone call from my cousin as soon as I walked through the office door.


My auntie Vera was in the hospital due to complications with a chronic condition. It wasn't looking good, and I needed to come to the hospital immediately to say goodbye.


I was distraught. How was this happening?! I had only one auntie in Australia, my dad's only sibling, and she was only in her mid 70s. Why her? Why now?


I must have started crying, because my #GirlBoss looked at me, concerned, and told me of course to go. I felt so awkward - here I was on my big launch day, and immediately I had to leave.


I met my family at the hospital, which was tense and sad and unnerving. There had been periods of will-she-won't-she, but we went just in case. We were grateful to the nurses who let us come into the ICU during Covid-19 to see her.


My auntie Vera.


Vera, who hosted all the Shabbats every Friday without fail.

Vera, with her beautiful long painted nails a different colour every week with the pattern on the ring finger - she did it first!

Vera, who would always greet me with a big smile and hug saying "Hello my little Jessica Rabbit!" even when I was 32 years old and married with a mortgage.

Vera, who rewarded us with fancy Ferrero Rochers when we were good (which was always).

Vera, who took me to see The Little Princess at The Classic and Billy Elliot at the theatre, to Surfers Paradise for holidays and The Little Hungarian for dinners.


Vera.


I didn't want to say goodbye. I didn't want another sick relative. I didn't want her to not be there for my wedding, for my children, for what my life was going to be.


We went in and she was lying on the bed, lucid but with flickers of still being there. We held hands as people told stories around her as she flitted between smiling and closing her eyes.

At one point, she looked at me. "Jessica Rabbit," she whispered and smiled, "Are you two actually married now?"

I wanted to laugh. You can take the Jewish lady out of her house...

"Yes, Vera," I lied, "We are properly married." She smiled and seemed to brief a sigh of relief, or maybe peace.


It was the last time I saw her.


Auntie Vera and Jess
Forever Jessica Rabbit.

I was completely distraught. It wasn't meant to be this way, not in 2021. She was the family matriarch who got us together, my dad's only sister, my cousins' mum, and their children's nana. It all felt too soon.


We were able to have a funeral in a lockdown window. Her children and grandchildren spoke of her life - born to Czechoslovakian immigrants escaping after the Holocaust, through a refugee camp in the Middle East and finally sailing to and settling in Melbourne, Australia.


Unbeknownst to her at the time, she found out later in life she had rheumatoid heart disease as a baby that stayed with her into adulthood, a chronic condition that mostly affects children in poverty-stricken areas (and particularly Indigenous people right here in Australia).


Everyone spoke of her nature to bring people together, her fabulous food, her love of being a grandparent as a person from a generation who never had any, and above all, how she identified as a proud Jewish woman.


Soon before long, as always, people went back to normal while our lives seemed to stand still. They go back to their lives, back to their kids, back to their jobs, and eventually, you have to, as well.


While I didn't want to - I was sad, I was grieving, and I was still gripping with my dad's ongoing battle and our intense fear of Covid - I headed back into the office.


I was fired a month later.



Thank you to my cousin Tania Burstin for her information about Vera and RHD. You can learn more about the work she and my family are doing to help eradicate RHD in Indigenous communities with The Snow Foundation (and how you can help) here.


Vera and her best friend passed weeks apart at the same hospital https://www.australianjewishnews.com/reunited-one-last-time/amp/


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