(*this was written a month ago, just for reference.)
I can’t remember when I found out Aunt W had cancer. It was several years in; she did not want to worry anyone.
She fought for 12 years. She tried everything. From chemo to herbs, from FDA approved treatments to those sworn by naturopaths, and everything in between. The last several years she traveled to a nationally renown cancer center in Philly. Every few weeks, my mother would drive to Aunt W’s house and jump on the train with her. They once sat next to some famous woman who worked on Clinton’s staff, or something. Great story, I know.
Everyone at the cancer hospital loved her. Fellow patients looked to her to encourage them. She gave people hope.
How unfair, then, that in her passing we need her to comfort us the most.
I could go on about how beautiful she was in spirit and body. I have memories of the dresses she made for us, the games she played, her old dolls she let us play with in her apartment, and my friends who got just as excited as me when she was coming to visit.
But this post is about how to cope when I am left only with the memories. She will not be Aunt W to my own children. She won’t make any more Easter dresses–I really can’t write anymore or I will cry too much to be able to leave for work.
I want to share how I mourned these past few weeks. I want to share because part of it surprised me.
First, I am very grateful for my co-worker from Korea, Rae. Rae came to visit the States a few months ago, and I MegaBussed to D.C. for a day to spend time with her (minor aside: MegaBus is awesome). While there, Rae’s boyfriend generously drove us to my Grandma’s house, and we spent part of the afternoon with Grandma and Aunt W. It was so happy and fun, and the last time I saw her healthy. I didn’t know we had so little time left. Cancer is like that.
About a month later, I learned she had been hospiced. I dealt a lot with denial. The next few weekends I was “busy,” and didn’t cancel things to go see her because she wasn’t going to die. Even Aunt W herself kept saying phrases like, “When I get better,” and “Well next year I’ll…” She always had hope.
Finally, thankfully, Boyfriend and I traveled south to visit. I feel guilty, because I was shocked at how she looked. She look gaunt. She looked like she was dying.
We could only visit for a few hours, before she became too tired to entertain anymore. That was the weekend we visited Boyfriend’s new baby niece (only a few hours added to our drive, and why not take the opportunity, as I had now learned). The irony of watching one life ending and another life beginning in the same day did not escape me.
I talked regularly with my mom for updates, who would drive up every week for Friday and Saturday. I sent her pictures to show Aunt W, and we had speakerphone conversations.
The week of Thanksgiving was very stressful, as W’s condition began deteriorating faster. We had lost another much-loved and well-remembered Aunt (and mother and sister and daughter) on Thanksgiving day, from the same cancer, a decade and a half ago.
That Saturday, I sent a picture of my Christmas tree to Mom to share with Aunt W. She enjoyed the picture.
Saturday night, I broke down. I forget what led up to it. I just remember sobbing into a pillow for however long it was. I didn’t want to lose another person I loved. Especially W, who always lived close and the only person more involved in our lives was our own mother. I mourned the loss to myself and to a future without her in it.
On Tuesday at 3:36pm I texted Mom, “How is today?”
At 3:43pm she responded, “It will be very very soon.”
At 4:45pm my dad texted me, “W just passed away.”
Then I got angry.
My current job involves a lot of coordination of a lot of different things–most of it over the phone. From 12:30pm until 9pm. I received this news in the middle of my work day. I didn’t want to have to be pleasant and helpful for all these people who needed me. I needed my aunt, and I didn’t have her. It wasn’t fair.
I actually yelled at a co-worker before I realized how heightened my emotions were. I took a break, walked to the water fountains, leaned against the wall facing the atrium, and let the tears come for a minute.
I vocally told myself, “I am angry right now. I’m just angry. And that’s OK. I am allowed to grieve.”
I am angry because why do some people beat cancer and other people lose the battle? Why do some families get to keep their loved ones, but mine keeps losing theirs? Why us? Why me? Why? I know it’s selfish, and W definitely wasn’t, and I’m trying to be better at this, but we will all miss her for the rest of our lives.
At her funeral, my dad choked up a bit as he gave the sermon–how else could he say goodbye to the woman who loved his children as much as she did, and who loved his wife as much as a sister could?
Aunt W chose “I Will Rise” and “What a Day That Will Be” as her songs, along with Psalm 23 as her Scripture. Hopeful, faithful, and loving until the end, she even ordered a catered meal for her family after the service, so we would be taken care of for our long trips home. I still cannot fathom how or why she thought of doing that. One of many reasons we miss her.
My two brothers, her two brothers/my uncles, and two of my cousins were the pallbearers. I sobbed the most when they lifted the coffin into the hearse; and then again at the grave site when they, one by one, placed their boutonnieres on top. I think it was the finality of it. My sister, who dislikes showing emotion, leaned into me and I held her as we missed W together.
My mother cried when she saw the unending line of cars in the funeral home parking lot pulling into place to accompany us to the grave site. So many people loved her so much, because she cared for them so evidently.
She chose a plot fitting to her: away from the busy roads, near the forest line where she liked to go hiking. To the last, she was so thoughtful. Everything she did had her heart in it. She even started a crost-stitch for a very-soon-to-be-expected grand-niece (who is now healthy and beautiful, and will hear stories of her Great-Aunt W). Aunt W was unable to finish it, but her niece, the new mother, will. We all want to remember her in as many ways as possible, and cherish every act of love she offered us.
There is one part to this story I cannot share now. But I hope to soon.
In closing, there was a moment during the graveside service I stopped my tears. With one arm around my sister, I looked down at the woods Aunt W laid near. I resolved to put more energy in to loving people like she did. I focused on how she is now free of pain and full of joy. I resolved I would see her again one day.
She is gone from us, but she is reunited with her father and sisters–just as we, one day, will be reunited with her.
There’s a peace I’ve come to know
Though my heart and flesh may fail
There’s an anchor for my soul
I can say “It is well”
Jesus has overcome
And the grave is overwhelmed
The victory is won
He is risen from the dead
And I will rise when He calls my name
No more sorrow, no more pain
I will rise on eagles’ wings
Before my God, fall on my knees
I will rise
“I Will Rise” by Chris Tomlin