It’s funny (and also not funny at all) how you start to get older and you start being aware of mortality, both your own and that of other people. You might lose your grandparents or some distant relatives you didn’t really know. Your friends might start losing their loved ones and you might even lose one of your friends. In that process, everything in your mind seems to shift. Another part of your own… innocence (or naivete?) is lost, never to return. It’s something you learn and endure that you can never un-learn or un-endure. Every time it happens it’s both not quite as bad as the last time, and so much worse, and completely different from anything else you’ve been through.
One year and twenty-six days ago, I lost a good size chunk of my heart. And while I probably appear fully recovered, or close, I don’t feel that way at all. I’m starting to believe that I really will never be the same.
When I was 15 years old, I lost the first of three of the women in my extended family who had the biggest impacts on me when I was a kid. Of course I had lots of great people around me, but these three particularly stood out as exceptional human beings and to this day I feel so extremely fortunate that I had them in my life. I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that I would not be who I am now if I had not learned what I learned from these three women.
My paternal grandmother died when I was 15 years old. She was one of the most amazing women I knew. I lived next door to her from barely-walking age until middle school. She took me on bike rides and to the park and imparted her wisdom about cooking, cross stitch, birds of Alaska, and how to laugh often, love deeply and unconditionally, and stay positive and genuinely kind in the face of any person or event to the contrary that I may encounter in my travels through life.
I remember going through the few months after her death on auto-pilot. It took me a long time to feel happy again. This was my first significant loss and I took it very hard. It was the first time I can remember my dad really crying. I remember feeling so angry that so many bad people were allowed to stick around with their families while someone like my grandma, who had a smile for everyone she ever met, had to get so sick, suffer and die. With guidance from my family I put one foot in front of the other and I got through that, though I still think of her so much. Every time I see or hear a little songbird, every time I see an old Schwinn bicycle, every time I hiccup (and that’s a lot!), and even when I laugh and begin to cackle.
At the time I don’t think I could fathom anything that would hurt that badly, except maybe losing my parents, which I will never ever be ready to do. Since then, I’ve been through infertility and three disrupted adoptions. Old friends and classmates have passed away. I’ve lost and had to cut off relationships with people I love, for my own best interest and/or for the best interest of my son or family. Those all hurt, too, but they are a different hurt.
I’m sad to say that I found that pain again.
My Aunt Betty, my mom’s big sister, was another truly amazing, exceptional human being. The kind you don’t encounter very often in this world. She was a bit like my grandma in some ways; always kind and positive. In fact, I distinctly remember a conversation with family members after her passing in which none of us could think of a single time she’d bad-mouthed anyone else. Ever. How many people on this planet can say that, or have that said about them in total honesty?
My mom completely idolized Aunt Betty, who was thirteen years her senior, from when she was as young as she can remember. Aunt Betty was always so full of goodness and grace, so pretty, and so sophisticated (but completely unpretentious). When she married my Uncle Jack – another fine human being by the way – they proceeded to have four children in about a six year span… all boys! Aunt Betty loved her boys more than life itself, and even more so loved being their mother. She was so fantastic at it, and anyone in her presence could tell.
Aunt Betty’s four boys were roughly 8-14 years old when I was born. Because she and my mom were so close, Aunt Betty’s house was a favorite destination for long weekends or even short vacations. We would drive or fly the 350 miles to Aunt Betty’s house quite frequently when I was a kid. She frequently told me that I was the ‘little girl she never had.’ She was so kind to me, even when I was a whiny annoying little kid. I don’t remember her ever being stern with me because she didn’t need to. It would have devastated me to upset or disappoint her, so I don’t remember ever having an issue during a visit.
I remember being so excited during the long drive to her house that I’m sure I drove my parents crazy asking if we were there yet. I remember a specific footbridge not far from her house that was a signal to my mom and I to brush our hair and make sure we looked our best for our arrival at Aunt Betty’s house. (Now that I live in the same town she lived in, I think of her every single time I see that bridge. It makes me smile every time without fail.)
The house Aunt Betty lived in became one of my best childhood memories. It was a happy place where I was always welcome, wanted, and loved like crazy.
I remember the strangest minute details, like the tiny black and white floor tiles in the kitchen that would leave nifty patterns on your feet if you stood in one place too long.
I remember the deck which wrapped around the side of the house and on to the garage roof, where I would sit for much longer than my normal attention span, just enjoying the company of my aunt, uncle and cousins. I remember Aunt Betty sitting on that deck, closing her eyes, and soaking up that warm Alaskan sunshine – but not too long, because she was so careful not to encourage wrinkles.
Speaking of wrinkles, I remember her nighttime ritual which included slathering at least two or three different creams and lotions on her face to stave off aging. She wore her bathrobe and a towel on her head. She compulsively tugged at the neck of her robe, making sure she never revealed anything inappropriate although that would have been virtually impossible because of how tightly it was wrapped around her.
I remember that they always had Aqua Fresh toothpaste at Aunt Betty’s house. I thought the stripes were nifty.
I remember the little food pantry under the stairs. She’d send me down there for whatever she needed while she was making dinner. I would cautiously venture down those stairs to the dark and scary bottom floor (which consisted of a bar/rec room area, two bedrooms, an office and a bathroom – nothing scary at all), sprint to the pantry, hastily procure whatever I was asked to, and sprint back up to the landing. Then I’d slow back down and walk up the rest of the stairs normally so Aunt Betty wouldn’t know I was such a chicken.
I remember that Aunt Betty kept boxes of cereal inside Ziploc bags. To this day I’m not sure why, but I’m sure it was a good reason. I also remember that she always – ALWAYS – had the most delicious orange juice at her house and she would pour it automatically for anyone who was hanging around in the morning. She always served it in cute little glasses.
I remember that she taught me that waffles are much tastier with peanut butter – a belief I still hold today, and that I have already passed on to my son. I think of her and smile every time I put peanut butter on a waffle for him.
I remember going somewhere with Aunt Betty in her car one day and the both of us having the biggest laugh of our lives because she was wearing heels and therefore having trouble with the pedals. She kept pretending to scream as if she was going to crash the car. I thought this was the funniest thing in the whole world.
I remember Aunt Betty not complaining. Ever. She raised 4 boys and contributed significantly to raising many of their friends and half the neighborhood children. No matter what happened, she would look at the bright side or point out whatever positive she could find. She never spoke ill of anyone, or at least not that I can remember. Ever.
I remember her teaching me to play Chopsticks on the piano in the living room. She delighted in that, maybe even more than I did. “Great job, Amber Namber!” she would say as (I’m sure) I messed up every other key.
I remember that she opened her home to hubby and I when we were asked to adopt a baby girl in early 2010, far from home. We brought that baby from the hospital straight to her house and for the first three days I was a mother, she was such a huge help, but never overbearing. Just her presence made me feel more at ease with that tiny baby. Of course we would end up having to give that baby back two weeks later; Aunt Betty and I talked at length about it. I felt like somehow she understood, though not many other people could. We talked about God’s plan and how she would be thinking about and praying for Allie’s birthmom as well as for us.
I could continue this for hours. I have hundreds of memories of spending time with my Aunt Betty and every one of them is happy. I’m sure she had hard times in her life, but you never would have known it. She made everyone she encountered feel happy and special. I’m probably not much like her, generally speaking, but if I ever become even half the woman she was, I will know I have done something right in my life.
Almost four years ago, we got a phone call that devastated all of us. After visiting her doctor with some confusion and headaches, Aunt Betty was diagnosed with brain cancer. They whisked her immediately into surgery. While it was a successful operation, we learned that brain cancer surgery is unlike other surgeries in that the doctors cannot remove additional tissue around the cancer to prevent spreading. Brain tissue is obviously extremely important and not something they are able to remove in most cases and still preserve quality of life.
Somewhere along the way, she was told she could expect to survive roughly a year. I don’t remember hearing that. Either the word never made it to me, or people just didn’t really spread that tidbit, or I chose to ignore it.
Aunt Betty fought cancer with all the strength and grace she’d always shown in everything she ever did. When her hair fell out, she wore pretty hats and fussed over whether she looked okay, while simultaneously refusing to let anyone else fuss over her. I would call to check in with her and she would practically dismiss my requests for an update on her health. She would make a general statement about doing okay and then ask me a million questions about my life and how I was doing.
Before I knew it, a year and a half had passed by. Aunt Betty was spending a lot of time in bed, but still had her faculties about her and could move around reasonably well. We went to visit her – a privilege we only had once or twice a year. It was a wonderful visit. Aidan was big enough to be more interactive with her, and they adored each other as I always knew they would. We took some very precious pictures that day.
It would be another year before I could get to Aunt Betty’s house again. In April of 2013, I had discussions with my cousin (Aunt Betty’s son) and my uncle (her brother), both of whom were very in-the-know about her medical status. They both indicated, without necessarily saying so, that things were beginning to deteriorate. A sense of urgency struck me and I modified our existing road trip plans so that I could take my mom to see Aunt Betty a few days earlier than originally planned.
We had a wonderful visit. She was still somewhat coherent, though sleeping most of the time. She knew who we were and her eyes danced with joy when we arrived next to her bed, or told stories of happier times gone by. We spent a lot of time sitting with her in silence as she dozed off and on. We would each hold one of her hands and just be with her. The pain in my mom’s eyes when she left the room for a break mirrored my own. We knew what was going to happen, but we didn’t know when. We were overjoyed to be there with her while she still knew us, but we wished we didn’t have to see her that way and we dreaded what was to come. There was no ‘right’ thing to say to her at that point, but there was no wrong thing either.
A couple of days later, I put my mom on a plane back home and the next day my husband and kiddo flew in for our regularly scheduled trip. On our way for our first visit with Aunt Betty, I spoke to my (then) 2-1/2 year old about how Aunt Betty was sick and sleeping a lot, and how we were going to sit with her quietly and talk to her and be very gentle with her. Though in a ‘stranger danger’ stage at the time and having not seen her for a year, he held her hand, kissed it, and whispered to her.
In that moment, I realized he would never know her the way I did. I had to leave the room so that neither of them would see me cry.
We had a lovely visit. We spent time with Aunt Betty for a little while each morning and did several afternoon visits, too. The last day of our trip eventually crept up on me. I walked into the house that morning with a toddler on my hip, a husband supporting me the best he could, and a ton of emotions, not the least of which was dread over saying goodbye. We climbed the stairs and took my seat next to Aunt Betty’s bed. Aidan climbed onto my lap and whispered hello to his great aunt before kissing her hand again. We visited for as long as a 2-year-old’s attention span would allow, then I sent him and hubby downstairs to play with toys (that she always kept on hand for visiting kiddos) while I spent some time with her alone.
I knew it was my last chance to say things I needed to say. I didn’t know if I could do it without breaking down and possibly upsetting her. I took a chance and did it anyway, knowing that I would have devastating regret after she was gone if I didn’t.
I told her that she was one of the most positive influences in my whole life. I told her that she taught me so much about being a strong, dignified, faithful, positive woman. I told her that when I faced struggles in parenting, I thought of her and how she would handle whatever situation I was dealing with. I told her that I was in awe of her patience and grace as a mother and that I aspired to it. I told her that I was a far better adult because she was around me as a child. I told her that her house was, to me, a place where I was loved so much that I’d never be loved more anywhere else. I told her that I appreciated her in a million different ways. And I told her that I didn’t want to ever lose her. I must have said I love you a dozen times. She was somewhat unaware that she was close to the end, so I didn’t talk about that.
Because she wasn’t generally talking much, there weren’t many replies. She closed her eyes at times as I was talking and her face would relax between frequent smiles. She may have been asleep, but I believe she was still very much hearing and understanding me. She squeezed my hand with every sentence. She didn’t cry, and I did my best to hide the fact that I did. She asked when we would be coming to visit again. I told her, “as soon as we possibly can.”
After my monologue, I sat quietly. She knew I was getting ready to go. Her last words to me were, “I love you, Amber Namber. See you next trip.”
I still wonder if she knew what that really meant, despite not letting on.
I made the lonely trip back down the stairs where my husband, cousin and uncle were waiting for me, I’m sure fully expecting me to be a wreck. They were not wrong. My heart was crushed. I wanted to stay longer, to have more time. I was already having such deep regrets about not calling more, not visiting more, not being there for her more while she was sick. She was still alive, but I was as shattered as if she were already gone. All I wanted was to race back up those stairs and sit there for weeks, to be there for anything she could possibly need. To brush her hair and help her put on her chapstick and help her with her drinking straw. To just be there. But I couldn’t. It wouldn’t change anything.
Almost five months later, I heard the phone ring as I put my son to bed. I thought nothing of it. When I came downstairs half an hour later, I knew something was wrong. I still didn’t expect this. Dave made me sit down and he put his arms deliberately and tightly around me. I was confused.
“Your uncle Kenny called.”
Uncle Kenny never calls me.
Instantly I knew. And just as instantly, I fell completely apart. It is a good thing I had a couple of strong arms around me, or I may have flailed about uncontrollably. Instead, my body-wrenching sobs went into my husband’s shoulder. I didn’t care if I woke the baby. All I knew was that my world had just changed for the worse. So, so much worse. I feel sure he told me that she was free from her pain and restored to her previous strength and beauty, and I’m sure I knew he was right, but I don’t remember any of that. I only remember the heartache. The regrets. The selfish sadness for myself, my son and my mother, who I worry about far more than I probably am supposed to.
Speaking of my mother, I had told Uncle Kenny that I would be willing to call her and break the news. After I hung up with him, I wondered why I did that. I’ve had to deliver several pieces of bad news to her in the past few years and every time it breaks my heart. Yet I feel uniquely equipped to be able to communicate tough things to her in such a way that I feel comfortable she’ll be okay. I remember her deep sobs on the phone. I remember her saying (despite a stroke taking away most of her speech years ago), “my big sister, I lost my big sister.”
All the stories she’d told me about time they spent together raced through my mind, and I’m sure hers too. They had been through some childhood traumas together and Aunt Betty, being thirteen years older, had helped my mom learn to cope. I really don’t know that my mom would have been okay without that influence.
I wanted more than anything to travel to Aunt Betty’s memorial service. I wanted to be with my family, in the comfort of the only other people on the planet who could possibly understand the gravity of the loss the world had just experienced. Unfortunately, because of our impending move to the very city where she had lived, I had just given notice at work. The company was already breaking policy by allowing me to work through my 3-week notice instead of walking me to the door (which is standard procedure if you are leaving to work for a competitor). Even if I did manage to convince them to let me go, it would have been unpaid… and the primary reason we were moving was financial. There were no reserves with which to cover the trip and the time off. My heart broke all over again when I realized I really could not go.
Just 19 days after Aunt Betty’s passing, we executed our previously-planned move to the city where Aunt Betty lived. The city that was, because of her, synonymous with love and joy and family and pure goodness for me. It just felt cold and empty without her. During all the weeks we’d spent planning this move, I’d been thinking that I could visit her every day if I wanted to. I could sit with her and brush her hair and just talk about mundane things. I could hopefully feel her squeeze my hand and maybe see the occasional smile. But it was not to be. She had made it almost three years on a prognosis of "12 months at most," and she was ready to go. I could never blame her for that.
That was one year and twenty-six days ago. I have felt the loss every one of those days. I still burst into tears at the most random things. I still think to call her at least once a week and have to catch myself before reaching for my phone. If something exceptionally good or bad happens, I want to tell her about it. I so badly wish I could sit and watch her and my son play together. I try to be a good example for him in all the ways she was for me, but I feel like I could never measure up.
Losing her three weeks before moving away from the only home I’ve ever known – and most of my family – seems to have only compounded the strain on me as far as missing those I love. My grief is so much deeper than I expected, especially around the holidays. I remember last year, feeling as if I might never be the same again. My parents coming to visit for Christmas is likely the only thing that kept me from sinking into a deep depression. They were only here for about three days, but it was enough to keep me away from the edge. I’m doing better this year, but definitely still grieving over so much loss at one time and struggling with just not feeling the same excitement, joy and fulfillment from the holidays as I always did before.
Tomorrow is Thanksgiving and if Aunt Betty were here, I feel sure I would be spending part of the day with her and all the family. She would fuss over every single person, making sure everyone always had a full belly and a happy heart. She’d let me help her in the kitchen and we’d talk about old times. She would express great interest in all my goings-on and smile whenever I mentioned my son. She’d talk about how proud she is of my mom and how well she’s doing despite her stroke.
Without any of those things in my future, I will do my best to handle this year’s holidays as Aunt Betty would have told me to. To enjoy what I have, when I have it. To live in the moment. To always be grateful, appreciate the good things and move past the bad. To be kind and loving, patient and graceful. To not focus on losses, but to not ignore them either.
That’s all a bit harder than it sounds. I’m hoping it gets easier with time. Until then, I’ll remember that no matter where I am, she’s with me.
Last weekend, I fought tears through an entire grocery shopping trip because I was just missing her for no specific reason. Thanks to a lengthy hiatus from my usual frequent baking, I haven’t been into that aisle in the store in a while. This time, though, I needed chocolate chips. As I turned the corner, I saw this.
Got it. Loud and clear.
I love and miss you, too, Aunt Betty.
And I always, always will.