We are all very aware of how precious and fleeting life can be. If you’ve ever experienced the death of someone close to you, you’ve learned this lesson all too well. My “death” stories are the usual: my grandparents, friends of my parents, a classmate when I was in high school. To date, the most horrific death I’ve faced was that of my best friend, who lost her battle with breast cancer in 2010. Her illness and subsequent death changed me in so many, many ways.
I remember twelve year old me looking at the open casket at my grandpa’s rosary, and knowing in that instant I would never put my own kids through something so barbaric. I’m now a spry 53 year old and I still believe the same. If you were to ask my kids what I want after I die, they will tell you (without pause or hesitation) that I don’t want a casket or a funeral of any kind. I want to be cremated (site, undetermined). I want there to be a party with good food, great wine, and lots of music (the good music, not the crap they are currently playing on the radio). My favorite guilty snacks will be there….Slim Jim’s, tater tots and cupcakes. These make me happy….and really, who doesn’t love a cupcake?
I’ve been so very blessed in my lifetime to have been surrounded by strong, independent, sometimes opinionated women. My parents each had a sister named Sandy and each one of the ladies has left their permanent mark on my heart.
In October 2017, we lost my dad’s sister Sandy to Alzheimer’s. There is nothing dignified about a death from that disease; nothing quick either. She suffered (as did her kids, grand kids and my dad) for an excruciating ten years before she finally succumbed to the disease. I never believed I’d be grateful for a death, but for that one, I was. My aunt – whom I lovingly referred to as ‘Dearest’ – was once a vivacious woman who lived a full, beautiful life. In her 50’s she taught exercise classes at her gym. She rode horses, spent time with her grand kids, and was always the open-minded confidant that I shared my teenage woes with. The memories of summers spent with her - exercising, eating salads, consuming entire boxes of Wheat Thins - will never be forgotten. The person that disease turned her into was not my aunt; the woman who always greeted me with a tight hug and a beautiful smile was.
The relationship I had with my ‘other’ Aunt Sandy (my mom’s sister) was much different, though not the least bit less in all the ways that counted. My aunt was a firecracker, an opinionated, unfiltered woman who loved just as intensely. She always called me “baby doll”, which I can still hear in my head. She spent the last five years fighting various health issues, but remained strong even at the end. I remember when she came to visit a few months after she had spent quite a lot of time in the hospital. She was unsteady on her feet, but stubborn as usual. We were finishing up dinner and clearing the table, and there she was….standing at the sink doing the dishes. When I offered to take over the chore and for her to sit down and relax, she spat, “I can do it!” That was my aunt….more determined than anyone I’ve ever met. We lost her in late January, after a surgery she just couldn’t ever recover from. Her kids are struggling, and her husband of 60 years is struggling too. My mom, who didn’t see her at the end and didn't want memories of her sister tainted by painful hospital visits, takes comfort in the memories they made together a few months before she passed.
I was blessed – so very, very blessed – to have had these two amazing women in my life. Yes, I wish they were both still here. I do not, under any circumstances, wish they were here in the capacity in which they left us; in pain, striped of dignity. I’m happy neither of them is suffering. I’m so grateful they each left behind a string of strong, independent daughters and nieces. I’m thankful for the part each played in my life.
We had one of those shocker deaths back in February, a totally unexpected death that we're still trying to understand, that came only weeks following the death of my aunt. A dear family friend and honorary mom/aunt to me, Joni was one of those people who never aged. We’d look back on pictures from 20 or even 30 years ago, and there she’d be….smiling or laughing that infectious smile. When I was young and her husband would be out of town, I’d “babysit” her. We’d tuck ourselves under the covers of her big bed and eat HUGE bowels of ice cream. We’d talk and laugh and just hang out, enjoying each other’s company. She was right by side, throwing me a shower when I got engaged and was one of the first people who we shared our exciting news with when I got pregnant with our kids. Joni was diagnosed with lung cancer last December, but even to the end she never seemed sick. The last time I saw her – a few weeks before her death – she was laughing with me (even though she was on oxygen). Her nails were still painted the bright red/orange/pink color she loved. She was just….my Joni. Even now, months later, I still expect the phone to ring and to hear her sweet voice on the other end.
This is by no means an end to my death stories, which is why I really try hard to be grateful for each and every day. I often remind myself to have patience when I’m with my folks and see age starting to take its toll. It’s why my phone is full of photos of everyday things….my son’s dogs, a beautiful cloud, silly photos my daughter sends me. It’s why I never go to sleep without telling my hubby that I love him and why our kids never end a phone call without saying it either.
Yes, life is precious. Love is rare and wonderful. Family….is everything. To my two amazing aunts – as well as the honorary one - I wish you this:
I hope – wherever you are – that wine is in abundance.
I thank you for being a part of my life in all the ways you were.
I hope you know how very much you were loved. And how very, very much you will be missed.