Last month we started packing up my aunt’s life in boxes and filing the pieces of her life away.
When Aunt Dianne’s room had been completely cleaned out it looked as if she had never lived there or even been a part of our family and our lives for 67 years, more intimately for the last 8 years when she moved in with my parents.
In reality, of course, she was real, she existed and removing the material things she had accumulated doesn’t erase the impact she made in our lives.
“Let’s blow bubbles!” She announced one late summer afternoon, pulling bottles of bubble mix and wands out of a bag.
She had been living with my parents for a couple of years now and we were used to spontaneous ideas from her.
Her eyes lit up like a child’s on his or her birthday.
We all went out onto the porch and we blew bubbles out across the yard while my son, maybe 3 or 4 at the time, chased them and laughed. The bubbles glistened in the sun and Dianne “oohed” and “aahed” at the various sizes we were all able to make.
My Aunt Joan, Dianne’s sister had liked bubbles, and Dianne, or my mom, or maybe both, said we should blow them to remember Joan. Remembering special moments in a quirky or fun way was a knack Dianne had.
There were people in my aunt Dianne’s life who saw her as a throwaway person. Even before illness stole much of her life my aunt felt she didn’t matter much to the people who mattered most to her. She was often pushed aside, pushed away and backs were repeatedly turned on her. She was loud, brash, bold and mouthy at times, but not mean-spirited so it was always confusing to me why she was treated by some as the black sheep of the family.
For my brother and I, she was one of the best parts of our annual visits to North Carolina from our home in Pennsylvania, which we often made for Christmas. We spent much of our time in her bedroom at my grandparents, laughing at old movies or her off-color humor. She had an engaging and infectious personality and she was able to make anyone who met her feel like they’d known her for a lifetime.
We used to say she was the “fun aunt”. This isn’t to say our other aunt, mom’s other sister, wasn’t wonderful, because she certainly was, but she was sometimes a little more reserved than Dianne.
Dianne laughed loud, unashamedly made inappropriate comments and noises, and let us get away with things other relatives didn’t. Sometimes she laughed so hard she couldn’t breathe and turned bright red and when she laughed that hard we laughed even harder. She made us feel welcome, always wanted to give more than she received and reminded us of an excited kid, no matter how old she got. She loved old movies, crafts, cooking shows and gossip. And every Christmas we somehow came home with a photo of her rear while she bent over to pick up a gift or move something out of the way. A photo of Dianne’s butt became an unplanned holiday tradition, an inside family joke, much to her disgust.
She was a smoker and during family gatherings she chose to stand outside on the porch or locked herself in her room when she lit up. She spent much of her life trying not to bother others, maybe because she always felt she was in the way and unwanted.
Of course I realize that a person’s life isn’t defined by “things.” A person’s life is defined by how well you love and are loved and she loved well and was loved well. Dianne had a lot of love to give, but it was often rejected by those she tried to give it to.
My uncle Larry smelled good and made us all laugh. He was handsome and had a movie star smile and perfectly gelled hair. One Christmas I was sitting on his lap and the next Christmas he wasn’t there and no one wanted to talk about him. It wasn’t until much later I was told the truth about how he’d cheated on my aunt, demanded a divorce and she was pushed aside again.
She never remarried and never had children.
“I would have liked to have had children,” she told me one time, not long before she died, contemplating all her unreached dreams. Her gaze drifted off and she grew silent for a few moments and then she shrugged her shoulders.
“Oh well, I didn’t,” she said matter of fact because there wasn’t any point of dwelling on it when it couldn’t be changed.
She spent a lot of her life accepting what hadn’t been and couldn’t be, finding ways to make even the disappointments something to be weathered through and learned from.
A few years after Larry’s death, Dianne found a check in the mailbox at my parents, where she was now living. In his apparent rush to find something new and exciting, Larry had forgot to remove Dianne as a beneficiary on his social security and his checks were now being sent to his ex-wife, in addition to his widow. Those checks helped pay for her mounting medical bills, but also for a few nice things she hadn’t been able to have before. As a Christian I know I’m not supposed to subscribe to the idea of karma, but if it was real, this was definitely an example of it.
In his defense, Larry did, one time, shortly after he was diagnosed with cancer, try to apologize to Dianne. Unfortunately, the damage had been done and Dianne let the lies that she wasn’t worthy chip at more of her soul.
She and I shared more than one shouting match, usually caused by her unwavering stubbornness, which only got worse the further her medical conditions progressed. No matter how loud the shouting got, it wasn’t long before we were sharing “I love yous” and she was blowing a messy kiss on my cheek and calling me “Shug.” Especially in her later years, I didn’t want the last thing we said to each other to be in anger, so I’d push aside whatever she had said to offend me and be the first to offer apologies and a peace offering.
I saw her almost every weekend when our family visited my parents, but I still feel like I didn’t have enough time to tell her how special and important she was to our family, how she wasn’t defined by how she’d been treated much of her life – that it is God who says who we are, not men.
There were times she was told she was too loud, unworthy of the love and respect others were shown; that she was in the way and needed to keep herself away from others, but that was not how God saw her. The men in her life who treated her as less than could not and did not define her.
Her ex-husband, who stole her heart, then stole her faith in true love, did not define her worth.
Family who told her she wasn’t wanted or needed and ordered her to leave did not define her worth.
Her father, who emotionally and physically abused his children, later doing his best to make amends before he died, did not define her worth.
God saw HER.
He didn’t see her flaws or her failings or the negative others pointed out over and over.
He saw HER.
He saw all of her. He saw her as someone to be loved, to be enjoyed, to be honored because He had created her. He saw her as someone who cared, who reached out for love and to give love and gave it even when it was ignored.
I tried to tell her this many times but I could never seem to find the right words. I wanted to take away all the hurt others had levied at her. I wanted her to know she was loved because she was alive. On Christmas Day we showed her love because we wanted her to know she belonged. She belonged with us and nothing could change that.
Four days after Christmas she was gone. Her health had been declining for years but none of us could imagine life without her and had established a shield of self-protecting denial around ourselves. She’d survived two heart attacks, numerous diabetic crises and other health issues, surely she’d bounce back this time too.
I’m not one who often says “God have me a vision,” or “I had this vision from God,” but shortly after Dianne died I was driving to my parents and I saw in my mind an image of her falling in my parents’ dining room. She was wearing her usual plaid, button-up shirt over a T-shirt and her pajama bottoms and slippers, an outfit that had almost become a uniform for her since she was often too tired to even change her clothes. The oxygen tube she had been wearing for a few years now was under her nose. She was heavy, as she had been for years while she battled various health conditions.
I saw her slump forward and off the chair she had sat on to catch her breath at the bottom of the stairs, as my mom had described to me, but instead of falling to the floor, I saw arms catching her and I saw her slowly turn, with her face upward. She was almost see through, like a spirit, yet still solid and her old body was on the floor, face down on the carpet, beneath her. When her face turned upwards she was young, thin, no longer bloated or her skin a grayish-blue color. She looked like the photos I had seen of her from when she was young. Her expression changed slowly from confusion to a smile of recognition and she reached up and touched someone’s face. I wish I could picture in my mind’s eye what that face looked like, but I can’t. Was it Jesus? Or was it God? Somehow in my mind I have decided it was the father himself, God.
I don’t know what this vision means to others, who might say it was something I imagined to bring comfort to our grieving family but to me I feel it was God saying “I have her. She’s ok. And now she knows she was wanted all along.”