On May 9th, Mother’s Day, I got the call I’d been dreading. Aunt Judie had let go of her pain, her illness, her cancer – and finally was able to rest. I hated that I wasn’t able to see her one last time before she took her journey, but that’s not the way I wanted to remember her.
Last Labor Day, when Tori was a mere six weeks old, we took the long journey together to Mobile, Alabama. When I was pregnant with Tori I’d learned that Aunt Judie had cancer – that’s when I learned she had anywhere from two months to six dependent on what treatment options she chose. I wanted to go visit her as soon as possible before the cancer took her and made her unable to meet her great-niece. Mama, Tori, and I all piled in the car one afternoon and went to go visit her. Just as soon as she saw my little one, Aunt Judie took her from my arms and held her for the longest time. She surprised Mama and I at how long she held my little baby, just sitting there playing with her little fingers and toes. She told me Tori was absolutely precious. We got to visit for a little while, but not too long – chemo was taking its toll and Aunt Judie was tired. As we left I gave Aunt Judie a long, tight hug. I knew that was the last time I would be able to see her. I knew with a brand new baby and mounting bills that I wouldn’t be able to make that journey again any time soon. I knew that I was saying goodbye and that my sweet girl would never have the chance to remember meeting her Great Aunt Judie.
I had forgotten to bring the camera with us so that we could take a picture of them together. I could kick myself for that now. I would have loved to have shown that to Tori when she got a little older, so that she could know she was held by one of the greatest women I know.
For months my mother faithfully took care of her and everything she needed. Mama accompanied her sister to just about every chemo appointment, white blood-cell count, and doctor’s appointment while Uncle Eddie worked to keep the medical insurance Aunt Judie needed so badly. Mama cleaned her house, cooked her meals, and talked with her on the phone every day. Mama became closer with her sister in those last several months than I believe they’d ever been – and Mama knew as time grew closer that she wouldn’t quite know how to say goodbye.
When I got the call on Mother’s Day, I knew I had to make that long journey again even though I hate funerals.
I hate the way death takes everything you knew about a person away. I hate the shell of a body it leaves. Makeup only emphasizes that the person isn’t there in that shell anymore. I hate the smell of funeral homes – carnations mixed with embalming fluid and burnt coffee. But it’s not about that . . . a funeral is about supporting your family during their loss, even if the only thing you can offer is your presence and a hand to hold.
Aunt Judie didn’t look like Aunt Judie, even though everyone swore how lifelike she looked.
The saving grace? Aunt Judie was herself, right down to the funeral arrangements. She said she wanted a short visitation because, as she said in her own words, “I don’t want a bunch of motherfuckers gawking at me!” Family visitation was for one-half hour, then friends could come for an hour. A few short words were said at the funeral home, then we joined the procession to the grave site. A few short words were spoken graveside by a friendly priest. I stood behind my Mama as she said her goodbyes to the sister she’d gladly cared for in her last months of life.
Now a few weeks have passed . . . the tears have dried. Yahoo has stopped showing her last status update on my news feed. Predictably, our family has turned into an episode of Jerry Springer. Our trip down to Mobile is a memory. Now Aunt Judie is a memory, too . . . a damn fine one.
Rest in peace, Judith Graham. You are loved. You will be missed.