Monday, January 16, 2017

A Sudden Farewell

On our second day skiing, when it was -5 degrees out and dumping snow, I took a morning break in the Summit House at the top of the second peak. I thawed my hands and checked my phone - already down to 12% power because the cold temps were draining my battery now matter how many layers deep I buried my phone. I had an email from my dad, the title: MB in Hospital ICU.

MB is my mom's sister. My aunt and godmother. Her name is really Mary Beth; my dad has always - fairly exclusively - called her MB. She was 19 months younger than my mother. Child #2 of 4 in their family. Married for 23 years; mother of two, my only male cousins on my mom's side, currently in high school and college. She had been sick, in and out of hospital and care facilities for more than two months. Though we did not know it at the time, she had cirrhosis of the liver. My aunt was an alcoholic.

My dad noted that my grandparents were on their way from San Antonio to Houston and he was ready to drive my mom as soon as she could leave school. I wrote a quick response, asking to be kept updated, and went on skiing, pulling my phone out on every lift I could to check for updates. I didn't know what that meant. She'd just gone back home again from the hospital right before Christmas. What could have them heading to the ICU in an ambulance so suddenly on a Thursday morning?

My phone died after lunch, so I took a break at 2, tromping out to the parking lot in my ski boots to turn on the car and charge it up enough to check my messages. I had one from my mom- brief and heartbreaking: all Mary Beth's organs were failing, but they would keep her on life support until everyone could arrive to say goodbye. Most were already there and my uncle was on his way from Atlanta. I was shocked. Sitting in a car alone, half-buried in a snow drift, I called my mom to hear her cry for maybe the 10th time in my entire life. I said I was sorry, so sorry. Asked some inane questions, inquired about my grandparents, and let her go. Called my sister, did the same, taking turns asking questions neither of us could answer. I tromped back to the village to meet up with James before getting the kids from ski school. I didn't know what to do. "How do you feel?" James asked, when I told him. "I have no idea." I responded.

I've never had a death in the family. All four of my grandparents are alive and healthy. I think maybe it always feels a little bizarre, that someone can be here one day and not the next. My distance from the event made it even more surreal. Gathered around the table with James and the kids in Colorado, eating a cozy meal of Mexican Rice after a hard day of skiing, trying to chat with them about their days, my eyes riveted on my phone waiting for the news. I thought about the first time I ever had our family-favorite Mexican Rice dinner. My siblings and I were staying the weekend at my aunt's town home in Houston. She wasn't married- she married later in life and thus spent a lot of time as a doting aunt to the three of us, babysitting us frequently and bringing us special gifts. We loved her new town home- an apartment with stairs!!- and her complex had a very cool pool with a bridge over it. She made us this delicious Mexican dinner, with all the toppings, because she knew it was simple and tasty and we'd love it. And here I was, serving it to my three, because it's simple and tasty and we always love it. I started crying into my bowl. I got the text - "She's gone."

I told the kids. They knew her, but not very well; we hadn't spent as much time together in more recent years. I was shamefully thankful for that bit of emotional distance as they hammered questions at me in their curious way as we lay all together in Cora's big trundle bed. They spent a while trying to figure out the family tree; the fact that I have an Uncle Erik and they have an Uncle Eric and I have an Uncle Carl and a cousin Carl and they call my grandparents "grandma and grandpa" when really they are Gigi's (and thus Mary Beth's) parents all made for quite a bit of confusion. They were shocked she could have kids in school and still die. We talked about the disease of alcoholism. We talked about crying, since I was doing so off and on throughout, and about being sad and how it can make you feel funny inside to see other people so sad and that's okay- it's okay that they're sad, and it's okay if you're not. We talked about funerals and burials and I answered 55 questions from my resident biologist about what happens to bodies after death. I wikipedia'd things I've never wikipedia'd before. We talked about all of these things that night and for most of our car ride home. It was exhausting and therapeutic and still completely unreal. Like I was talking a hypothetical.

I spoke with my mom on our drive away from the mountains the next day. She told me the story of the night before. That everyone was able to be in the room as she passed- all her siblings and spouses, her husband and sons, her parents, my brother and one of my cousins. Every single person who lives in Texas and two who flew in from Georgia. She understood what was happening and though she couldn't speak for the breathing tube, she was able to say goodbye. They sang her favorite songs, recited her favorite Bible verses. At the end, my grandmother was able to say "Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep" to her daughter as she passed. Constantly fearful of losing my signal, I tried to make some noise in acknowledgment of her words even as we were both crying and unable to talk. It was beautiful, my mom said. We all got to say goodbye, to tell her over and over how much she meant to us, to put her in the center and love her every minute of her last hours. I'm so glad for them. For her, for my uncle and cousins to have had that around them.

We pressed on with the trip, unsure of what else to do. I didn't want to say anything publicly, feeling like it was so much less my loss than my cousins' or mom's or grandparents'. It still felt surreal. Seeing her obituary pop up on my computer was a cold, sudden shock.

The funeral was Saturday. Having just unpacked from skiing, we packed for entirely different weather and left our house very early Saturday morning to drive directly to the Houston church. We all wore blue and yellow in honor of her favorite colors and beloved Swedish heritage and flag. I wore the beautiful pearl choker and earrings set she'd bought for me in Spain many years ago. Always one for occasion and tradition, she'd shown me the necklace when I was young - maybe 8 - and had told me she was saving it for me when I turned 18. And sure enough, she gifted it to me my senior year of high school. I wore them to my first job interview and on my wedding day and innumerable times since. The pearl drops she gave me when I graduated college. I was so glad to wear something of my godmother on Saturday, and glad I could tell my uncle the story, surprised he hadn't heard it, and glad again that he could smile and cry over something so very her. He'll know now that I think of her every time I wear them.

The service was beautiful and very personal. She was extremely involved in their church and it showed in the way the pastor spoke of her and the way the service was written. I read a Bible verse, along with my grandfather and cousin. She was a former English teacher and her sons read passages from literature. My uncle, her brother, read her biography and my mom read a story she wrote of the night she passed. It was beautifully done and I can't believe she got through it. The kids were very well behaved, even as the service went past the hour mark. We'd told them they could ask us any questions at any time, as long as they were discreet and quiet, but they couldn't ask anyone else. They're close to my mom and Grandma and I could only imagine what they might find appropriate to question right then. The church was completely full. I saw very personally what I have always read to be true- when someone you know dies, you go to the funeral. You show up. Just be there, hold space, fill the pew. I cannot tell you how much it meant to see so many people present, even if I had no idea who 90% of them were, and that feeling is amplified by 1,000 when I think of my bereaved uncle and cousins, of my grandparents and what it meant to them. Of my mom's face when she saw friends of hers she'd had no idea were coming. You show up. It doesn't matter if you weren't close, it matters so much that you are there. My aunt's high school boyfriend sent flowers. It gave everyone a smile to see the card, to know she was thought of after so many years, to be able to share stories of when she was so young and vibrant. A different Mary Beth than some of us knew.

There was a reception at the church after the service and we got to see many old family friends I hadn't seen in a long time. We went to dinner as a family- just the aunts, uncles, cousins, and my grandparents. My sister was there with baby Sky; it was wonderful to see them again even after only 6 days apart. A funeral isn't a good reason, but it is good to be with so much family, particularly as we are now increasingly far flung, with cousins of mine flying in from LA, Atlanta, and Boston to attend. That night, we finally headed to my parents' new house- a rather impromptu first visit. It is incredibly beautiful, and while maybe not home yet, it's lovely and warm and filled with them. All the rest of my family came too, to gather again, loathe, I think, to separate, even as we were tired and drained. I worried so much for my grandparents. My aunt was extremely close to them, calling them twice a day, every day. And I can't imagine watching your own child pass, and enduring their loss when they're gone. But they are strong. Hurting, but so strong in their family and their faith. It was good to see them surrounded by all of us and to know they felt the love for Mary Beth and for them.

We left yesterday afternoon after another family gathering at my parent's house for lunch. We drove home in a torrential downpour, with tornadoes touching down 20 miles away and lightning illuminating the whole sky. We had to pull over a few times because visibility was nil, but the kids weren't bothered and we eventually made it home okay, though James- who does all the driving- is pretty done with road tripping for a while. I'm so glad we were able to be there, that we all were. I still find it so impossible I've lost an aunt. My godmother. My mom's sister and my grandparents' daughter. I'm so sad for her, for my uncle, for my cousins. I'm thankful for the memories I have with her, particularly when I was young. The ones Eric can barely recall, but I remember so clearly- she was such a big part of our lives in those years and gave so much of herself to us. She introduced me to the books Heidi and The Secret Garden (both of which I loved); the movies The Princess Bride and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (both of which terrified me); and told me that animals can talk to you at midnight on Christmas Eve, something I was skeptical of but desperately wanted to believe (not that I ever made it to midnight to check). I'm thankful for the pearls she gave me, that I have something so tangible to remember her by. I'm deeply grateful for family and friends for their support of my grandparents, Mary Beth's family, my parents, and my other aunts and uncles. I think they have felt very held up right now; it has made me realize how much more I can do to support those in my own circle.

We made sure to leave before the kickoff for the Packers game yesterday (or tried to, we were like 5 minutes behind). My aunt was a huge Packer fan (and shareholder), as are my grandparents and cousins, and they take their watching very seriously. As I googled updates on my phone on our endless drive home- perhaps the first time I have ever googled a football game result, I smiled to see the game be so close- I could only imagine the tension at my parents' house- and then got a huge grin to see the Packers win it all at the very end. I'm quite certain my aunt was cheering them on from above, smiling to see her husband and sons on a couch surrounded by her parents, my mom, dad, and brother, her brother and his wife and daughter, all cheering together, all thinking of her.


  1. I wish you peace and love during a time of sadness. You wrote an incredibly beautiful tribute to your aunt and entire family.

  2. I'm so sorry about your aunt. That's lovely that you could tell her husband about how she gave you the necklace.

  3. I'm so sorry for your loss. It's really hard. But what a sendoff you all gave her.

  4. Alcoholism is a cruel disease. So sorry for you and the family that she couldn't get treatment that worked.

  5. I'm so sorry for your loss.

  6. Further to my comment at 7:17, I was so inspired by the talking about feelings with your kids. I think that kind of emotion education and model is one big factor in preventing alcoholism from continuing from one generation to the next (or skipping a generation as is often the case too). It's great that you're teaching your children by your words and example that their and others'feelings are okay. I think this lessens the likelihood that they would feel the need someday to turn to substances or other addictive behaviors to change the way they are feeling.

    You're a rock star in my book for this. Thank you for your incredibly adept stewardship of your part of our future /next generation. You help the world with the good you instill in your kifs.

    And it's no easy feat even when it's a labor of love as it so obviously is with you.

    1. This meant so much to me to read. Parenting is so hard and we're making it all up as we all go, so thank you so much for taking the time to write something so thoughtful and kind.

  7. L.L., thank you for sharing such a personal story.So sorry for your loss. You WILL think of her every time you don the pearls-- forever. What a lovely tribute to her and your whole family!

  8. What a touching tribute. You are an incredible writer and share your heart so beautifully. I am so sorry for your loss. I have only lost my two grandfathers- my closest one who was like a dad to me last year on a Christmas Eve. So I can empathize with so much of what you're feeling. I love how honest and transparent you were with your kids. I think that's something that very few parents do, sadly. I am deeply sorry for your loss and wish your family peace and healing.

  9. I'm very sorry about your aunt's passing. I'm very sorry that she had to struggle with alcohol and that your family had to experience that too. Thank you for sharing. I've been thinking deep thoughts related to this all day. Thank you.

  10. I'm so sorry for your loss. We lost my grandfather due to complications from alcoholism; it's a horrible disease. Keeping you and your extended family in my prayers.

  11. I'm so sorry for your loss...may she rest in eternal peace.

  12. I'm so sorry for your loss. May your Aunt's memory be a blessing to you.

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  14. Oops, accidentally deleted my post!

    I'm so sorry to hear the news about your aunt. What a beautiful and special tribute you've written, though, and I know she will continue to live on in your thoughts. I'm thinking of you and your family. xo.

  15. I'm so sorry for your family's loss. I echo another commenter in saying that it's wonderful the way you are talking to your children about feelings and modeling the kind of vulnerability and communication that is not necessarily the norm, especially among scandi-midwestern folks.