This is my beautiful Aunt Marie on her 70th birthday about eleven years ago.
She is dying.
Late last spring, she had a stroke which caused a major blood clot in her brain. They rushed her from Kenosha to St. Luke’s Hospital in Milwaukee for surgery and removed as much of the clot as they could. They put her on Coumadin, a blood thinner, to try to prevent another one, but she didn’t like to take it and inevitably had another stroke. This one landed her in the nursing home she used to work in as an LPN in her younger years. Life is nothing if not ironic. While she had gone through a lot of rehab and saw some improvement, she still remained paralyzed on one side and was only able to regain some of her speech, a great frustration for her. She wasn’t going to be able to return home.
Night before last, she had another major stroke which completely paralyzed her and robbed her of her speech. Her wishes are to be a DNR, so she is now in hospice care, no food, no water, no meds, only comfort measures with a little oxygen tube in her nose. As hard as it is, we as her family must respect her wishes and let her go. I am glad that my cousins, her sons, Darryl, Robert, and Todd are brave enough not to want her to suffer, because that’s not who she is. Or was during her life.
One of my earliest memories of my Aunty was what a love bug she was. I come from a big, demonstrative Italian family, and my aunt was always pulling me on to her lap and cuddling me, and I remember being aware of how prickly her legs were from shaving! I used to squirm to try to get off her lap, and after many kisses and “zirbits” on the tummy and neck, she would laugh and let me go.
My Aunt Marie and Uncle Al lived only a few blocks from the house I lived in as a little girl, and her house was actually closer to my school than my own house was. Sometimes I would brave the mean crossing guard and go down her street first so I could get milk and home made cookies. Yum! If my uncle was home, I was always a little nervous because he was a big, blustery German cop and I found his uniform intimidating. If he was around, I would run outside and play with the boys, my three cousins, if they were home, and their dog, Kipper. We played in the driveway next to the big picture window in my Aunt’s kitchen, while she looked on making sure the boys weren’t too rough with me. (They loved to dump me into their snow mazes, built much taller than I was, and make me find my way out.) After about a half hour of play, she would get one of them to walk me home. Even our German Shepherd Venus, when she ran away, ran to my Aunt’s house.
My Aunt used to tell me that I was the daughter she never had, and I was very special to her, as she will always be to me. My middle name is Marie after her, and she is my Godmother. When I learned to knit in the second grade, she came over and knit a couple rows on my “project.” I think it may have been a soft, sunny, yellow potholder, or some such thing, and of course she brought me presents. No matter what silly little thing I accomplished as a little girl, there were always presents! Pretty cool. I still have some of her knitting needles, a treasure I didn’t realize would mean so much to me until now.
When I was almost four, my sister Jaime was born, and I was very jealous and afraid of what it would mean to not be an only child anymore. My Aunty came over the night Jaime came home, walked in the door, and yelled, “Where’s the new baby?” I felt panicked, but I needn’t have worried. She had lots of hugs and kisses and presents for me too. My aunt was great that way; her love was limitless. It always will be, even after she’s gone. As you can see in the picture above, she loved all the babies in our family and always had one in her arms to cuddle at any family event.
For a few years in the 70s my family lived in Florida. One year, my aunt and uncle came down to visit us, and they decided to take my sister and I to Disney World for a few days. Back then, it was only the Magic Kingdom, and Orlando was a little po-dunk town with nothing else going on in it. My sister and I (ok more me than her) cried the whole way there because we missed our parents. Exasperated, my aunt told us to knock it off or we were turning right back around and heading home. Somehow, we sucked it up; we weren’t going to miss out on Disney World! We had an absolute ball, of course, and I can remember having major pillow fights with Uncle Al in the hotel room while Aunty pretended to be mad at us.
When I was a lonely, scared 18 year old, back in Wisconsin during my first year of college, my Aunty wrote to me every week. She would do funny things like cut the letter up into puzzle pieces that I would have to put back together to read, or write the entire thing into a spiral. I would pay her back by answering her questions from the previous letter like her son Robert invented when he was in college, much like this:
Dear Aunty, Yes. I might. Only on Wednesdays. No. No. Yes. I always thought so. Me too! Love, Christy
I’m sure that cracked her up. A funny thing happened with some of our letters. Back then, you had to lick stamps before placing them on the envelope, and sometimes they would lose their stickiness. In an effort not to waste one that this had happened to, I stuck it on her envelope with a piece of tape. When she received it she accidentally smeared the post mark off, and realizing it looked like a new stamp, stuck it on to her return post to me with more tape. We thought it was a scream that we re-used the same 13 cent stamp over and over again until we both received a letter saying we were committing mail fraud and risked a jail sentence. When the panic settled, we both laughed hysterically and tried to figure out how we would decorate our shared cell in the federal pen.
When I became an adult with a family of my own, I didn’t see my Aunty as much. By then, she and Uncle Al had retired and spent winters in Phoenix golfing, and summers in Kenosha with the grand kids, so I did get to spend some summer days in her condo swimming pool with my kids and her grand kids. It was a joy watching them grow up and blossom under her love. She adored her grand children, and each one in turn got to spend a weekend all alone with her in the summer being spoiled and doted on. She even potty trained most of them when my cousins grew desperate. They took their offending toddler to Nani’s for the weekend, and by the time they were ready to be picked up Sunday night, they were trained. A little shell shocked, but trained. No one knew how she did it, and nobody dared to ask, she wouldn’t have told her secret anyway, but her kids referred to her as “the potty nazi,” half in awe and half in fear. Of course they didn’t dare call her that to her face!
As time has a way of doing, we got busy with our lives and drifted apart, but we always saw each other on holidays, never missed a birthday, and celebrated each other’s milestones in life. We had a wonderful way of picking up just where we had left off as if no time had passed at all.
I still have all the cards and Christmas ornaments she made me; she loved stamping and crafts. She always signed her cards, “With much love from Aunty M,” and it will be bittersweet to hang those ornaments on my tree this year. I imagine when I pull them carefully out of their boxes I will be a little choked up while doing so. It also breaks my heart that she will not be here when I graduate from college next spring, it’s only taken me thirty years, but I know how proud she is of me.
Last night, I had to say goodbye to my Aunty, and it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. When she saw me, tears trickled down her face. I talked to her softly and told her that it was okay that she couldn’t answer me. I stroked her beautiful salt and pepper hair as she drifted in and out of awareness. When it was time to leave, I kissed her on the forehead and told her I loved her. She opened her eyes and looked at me with such determination and said, “Wuv you!” twice. I haven’t stopped crying yet. A part of me never will.
God bless you, Aunty.
Give Uncle Al and Nan and Grandpa kisses for me when you get to heaven. You will always be one of the most special people to me, and I will never forget you or the love you gave me so unconditionally during my life. All of my memories of you will live on forever until I am blessed enough to be with you again.
…and tell Jesus I’m sorry about the whole mail-fraud-stamp thing. I’m sure He won’t hold it against us.