I use song titles as blog post titles a lot. It’s not laziness, but rather these few words tend to capture feelings so well. Feelings that are hard, like grief.
Twelve years ago today I lost one of the most central people in my life. My head understood she was very sick and suffering; my heart was (and is) broken in ways that can never, ever be fixed.
My aunt Helen died quietly at her home in the early evening hours of the last Friday in February, after a short battle with leukemia. There are some memories that never leave you, and the night of her passing is one of those, even a dozen years later. Sitting there in the (virtually unchanged) house of my childhood, making awkward conversation with her rat-bastard of a husband as I tried to adjust to the idea that the person who was so much a part of my memories and my life was with us no more.
We had no hint (but should have) of the storm that was to come. Ugly, needlessly cruel but ultimately pointless.
My aunt, beautiful inside and out, was such a central figure in our lives; but she was so quiet and unassuming that none of us realized until she’d passed how very much things depended on her. She’d married in October 1950 and had two children, a stillborn daughter and then a son with Down’s Syndrome who died in his early 20s. She started working in her early teens and never stopped until the last year of her life, when illness made it too difficult.
She was the family historian, the mother figure in many ways after her own mother passed in May 1983. She was the one who knew the connections and remembered all the names — and most importantly it seems — was willing to talk about those days. For a girl who left school in the 8th grade, she was well read and well-informed, able to talk about anything to anyone. She saw the movies, loved the sitcoms and in one of the last conversation we had was complaining about Janet Jackson’s infamous “wardrobe malfunction” at the SuperBowl.
She didn’t get to travel very far or very often. Her prize possessions were a strand of genuine pearls and her engagement diamond inherited from her own beloved aunt. Her home was small and simple, and she was denied a dishwasher or clothes dryer. She made do. She didn’t buy, she watched (egging them on all the way) while others did. She took pure, genuine pleasure in other people’s good fortune.
To this day I grieve her passing, I know now that I always will. We are less without her. I’ve also come to realize that she’s worth every bit of sadness, every tear I (still) shed, and all the pain of longing I still feel.
I wonder what she’d think of things as they are now, of where we all are now, so many years later. Those babies she knew are (nearly) grown and gone. Gone too are many of the people she loved. Cell phones would amaze and intrigue her. Now there’s a house at the lake she loved and swam in all her life. Sometimes I wonder if she “looks in” on us once in a while.
I hope that wherever she is now, she is getting better than what she did here, in this life. Front row seats. The best of everything. And the power to do just as she pleases. I like to think of her as she often was, smiling and with a certain sparkle in her eye, watching the world with knowing eyes in comfort. Satisfied that her work is done, and it was done very, very well.
I miss you Helen Patterson. Have a cup of tea (or something stronger) at that big kitchen table, and know beyond doubt you are not forgotten.