Five weeks ago, a beloved aunt, my mother’s sole remaining sibling, died. Her body had grown weary from a weak heart and late stage Parkinson’s disease. She suffered a stroke and passed from a coma to a more peaceful place. Then this morning, I received news that one of her daughters, my cousin Deb and once close friend, died from liver failure. A mother, a grandmother, she was just my age – way too young to die. But long ago, she chose a path that led to this point. I want to cry, to reach back in time and pull her down a different passageway even though I know that would have been futile. She was much too stubborn and rebellious.
So instead, I turn to writing. Now one does not normally link the loss of a close childhood friend and relative to the theme of this blog (prosperity). But when months ago, I heard that Deb had been rushed to the University of Michigan Medical Center and was on life support, I was overwhelmed with memories, happy ones of our younger days. I was worried for her, of course, and scared that we might loose her. But I kept thinking of all the silly things we did as kids. She pulled through that crisis, but only for a short time. But the flood of memories and stories are still with me today. And so I write.
I heard that during my aunt’s funeral service, the minister chose to focus on her suffering in recent years. Why didn’t he focus on the wonderful wife, mother, grandmother, great grandmother, and friend she was? The warmth that she exuded made everyone smile. She readily welcomed anyone who knocked on her door (or most likely just walked in because that was the way their home was). And there was always food to share. Good food and great bakery. I felt horrible that I couldn’t attend the funeral, but I think the minister’s words may have made me angry. Hers was a life to be celebrated. My sermon would have been very different.
Theirs was a home of love. Lots of it. And a home filled with lots of kids and commotion, giggles and squabbles. Eight children and a very big dog in a small house is going to result in chaotic moments! But this was always a favorite destination of mine – this little green house. This is where the extended family gathered on Christmas Day for dinner, where grandma stayed when the snow was too deep at her farm and she could no longer snowshoe to the outhouse. This is where my cousins and I listened to the Archies, looked through catalogs to pick out our first bras (long before we needed them), and shared secrets about boys and career dreams. Deb wanted to become a neurosurgeon. I had only figured out that I wanted to be some sort of doctor and go to
In summer, we often hung out at grandma’s farm where we wandered through the abandoned hay fields that now grew “wildflowers’ and lots of grasshoppers. The flowers were destined for a bouquet for grandma’s crowded table next to the bowl of sugar cubes; the grasshoppers were destined for a fishing line or a jar where the boys would try to toss them down our shirts later. I still hate grasshoppers.
We wandered the dirt road, climbed trees to get the green apples that gave us stomach pains, and rigged up “sprinklers” with clothespins clipped on the end of a hose flung over the clothesline. Our backsides would be black from sliding down the tar paper roof of the root cellar, we jumped off precariously high piles of hay bales, and tried to catch wild kittens in a barn no longer save for dairy cows, much less little girls. At this age, we really didn’t think too much about the risk of our choices. Although I usually knew that I would get scolded by my mom for getting too dirty.
Grandma made rag rugs on a loom out of material salvaged from old clothes. We spend countless hours as kids playing dress up with the clothes – wherever they came from. Before they were cut into strips and rolled into balls, we up-cycled them into costumes for Ms.
pageants. After all, we couldn’t reach the pedals on the loom, so we might as well just play. Or eavesdrop on the adults through the hole cut into the floor to allow the heat to rise upstairs from the wood burning stove. We would be plopped on the beds covered with grandma’s hand-sewn quilts (also made from salvaged material) and surrounded by comic books. America
When were older, we often joined with other relatives to go bowling or to cruise along the canal. We went to the drive-in or Big Boy for late night meals that were never healthy, but at that point we could eat crappy food and not gain an ounce. That changed for me soon enough, but Deb always seemed to be stay thin. Back then, the newspapers didn’t tell us about the health risks of these addictive habits.
We lived two hours apart so went to different high schools. We competed against each other in swimming. I could never beat her although I always got my fastest times when she was in one of the other lanes. But then again, I couldn’t catch her when we played games at the farm either.
It was in college that we started to drift apart. I saw her often enough on campus. I was pursuing a degree in science but I never saw her in those courses, despite that earlier dream of being a neurosurgeon. I did see her partying a lot. Occasionally, we would go to the Pizza Hut for the lunch buffet to see who could eat the most slices of pizza. We did the same with grandma’s pancakes when we were younger. I never won, but often felt sick to my stomach for trying! It never seemed to faze Deb.
Deb married and had babies early. I moved on to graduate school to become a different type of doctor than I originally imagined. I would get updates from my mom and, if I was home visiting family, I would occasionally run into Deb. Sadly, I never really got to know her children living as far away as I did. My own children would be born much later; I am not sure if they remember the one time they met her at that little green house before her mom and dad moved to a senior living apartment complex.
Perhaps that was our last conversation. Or maybe it was at my grandmother’s funeral. Deb had braided grandma’s long snowy white hair for the event, noting that she had been the only one gram allowed to play with her hair. She was probably right, but I wasn’t in the mood to rekindle our competitive sparring from years gone by.
This is a family that has seen much tragedy. The father, my uncle, had suffered serious health problems from a major fire at the paper plant he once worked for. He now has Alzheimer’s and may not understand the news he will be told about his daughter today. Several of the children had serious health problems when they were young. Two brothers died in their 30’s. Parents should have to see their children die first; the father just lost his third. Despite a large family, low income, and string of misfortunes, this family was always generous – always ready to share food, stories, love, hugs, and laughter. I am sure that this is what gives them all the strength to handle all that life has thrown their way – an unfair share, if you ask me.
To me, the wealth in all of this are these types of memories, the great times that we had together, and the immense amounts of love shared, without ever saying the words. I hope that Deb remembered some of these rich moments and that she had found the peace that she has needed through her rocky, rebellious life. Rest in Peace, dear cousin. I miss you!