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Saturday, April 17, 2010

Mary's Kids

Early Thursday, as we were in the middle of the morning rush to get 4 kids ready for the day and on the bus, Jay glanced at the clock and commented that it was strange that the phone had not rung yet. It was Jayden's 9th birthday, and Great Aunt Mary ALWAYS called the morning of the kids' birthdays (without fail, she always called). Shortly after, I left for work and to drop Wesley at daycare.

Jay then called to check on Mary ... and found out that she had taken a sudden and drastic turn overnight and was struggling to breathe. (About 8 months ago, Mary was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer which had mestatasized to her lymph nodes.) Always worried about disturbing us at odd hours, Mary had called her friend Wanda at 6 am to be with her.

Jay called me at work to let me know what was happening and we had a brief conversation about whether or not he should go to class (he's in a masters program out of town) and we agreed he should carry on with his schedule and I would go see Mary closer to lunchtime - afterall, she wouldn't want him to scrap his entire day of classes.

Over the course of the preceding months, this fiercely independent, dignified, 84 year old woman was being reduced to a fraction of her former self. The cancer was ravaging her body, starving her of nutrients, starving her of strength, starving her of lucidity, starving her of independence, and starving her of oxygen.

She was curled up in bed when I arrived to relieve Wanda. She slept most of the time I was there and when she stirred, I went in to reassure her. She was disoriented at first, but then with great effort she focused and recognized me. I told her where Jay and the kids were. I told her I was going back to work for a few hours and that her friend Jill would be here with her. I squeezed her hands and urged her to rest some more. She nodded her head, dozed off ... and never woke up again.

Mary's husband died of lung cancer back in 1993 - so unfortunately she knew the drill when she was diagnosed. Mary married late in life and never had children of her own - but she had our kids. She was a widow for 4 years, depressed and lonely, when our first daughter, Emme, was born. I remember showing Mary how to change a diaper (the new-fangled disposable ones), warm up a bottle, even how to hold a baby - and a light went on in her life ... for the next 13 years. I remember watching her long, large hands as they cradled my tiny daughter.

Mary ended up taking care of Emme every day while we were at work - until Emme started Kindergarten. By then Maea had come along, and Mary joyfully turned her attention to Maea. Cheering for her as she learned to crawl, and take her first faltering steps. I remember Mary's long hands as she adeptly grasped tiny crayons, teaching the girls how to "stay in the lines". Little Maea couldn't say "Mary" at first -she just couldn't pronounce the "r" - so Mary was affectionately christened "Maena" and we've all called her that ever since.

Mary was a tall woman, and she had memorable hands ... long and slender, with almond shaped nails, knobby knuckles, dextrous and limber with no encumberances of athritis. I clearly remember thinking how small my baby daughters looked in her hands. And how those hands fumbled at first with the velcro on the diapers until she could diaper a baby in her sleep if she needed.

She took huge satisfaction in the girls' accomplishments - listening to all their stories from school, stories about their friends, looking over their homework and report cards, and attending every school function. She would take the kids to the library and the local deli and she was so proud of her little nieces. When we moved to Minnesota 6 years ago, Mary was quietly devastated about us moving. So we told her she was welcome to move too - and she gathered up her possessions and we found her a great little apartment downtown, so she could still see her nieces every day.

Then the little boys came along - and she took to them like she took to the girls. Spending hours on the couch with Wesley playing matching games, doing puzzles, teaching him colors and animal names. Then Jayden would come home from school and they'd sit with their heads together and work through flashcards with letters and numbers - patiently teaching him English. Her long, large hands next to his small, brown hands, teaching him to hold a pencil properly. And she loved our boys as much as she loved our girls.

I was about 15 minutes away from her place when my phone rang and Jill told me that "Maena" had just taken her last breath, in her sleep. When I walked in, Jill and I cried together for a few minutes and then I went into her bedroom.

I've always felt so awkward and uncomfortable at funeral visitations and I had a moment of hesitation as I closed her door so I could sit with her for a few minutes. I sat on the bed next to her and the tears streamed down my face ... at that moment I was feeling so much regret for not being there when she died. So much regret for all her lonely years - especially as the kids' lives got more and more busy as hers was slowing down.

The blankets were pulled all the way up to her chin and I noticed how the cancer had made her nearly unrecognizable from her former self - gaunt, bald from the chemo, swollen in places. But as I pulled the blanket down to a more natural position, I saw her hands crossed on her chest - and it was almost like a split-second, slow motion movie played back in my mind.

Those were Aunt Mary's very memorable and very recognizable hands. The long fingers, the bony hands with the knobby knuckles and they were just slightly cool to the touch as I held her hands for the last time. Playing back in my mind those many moments when those long, strong hands held my babies, wiped their tears, zipped their coats, wiped their noses, tied their shoes, helped them hold their crayons, held their flashcards, brushed their hair, placed puzzle pieces and traced the words in the book as they read for the first time.

Later that evening, as we opened presents for Jayden's birthday, he moved from the presents to a stack of cards that had arrived in the mail. As he opened one of them, I suddenly recognized Mary's strong and precise hand-writing. I must have gasped because every eye went to that card and the room got very quiet and tears began to flow.

Jayden whispered "She died on my birthday."

And he looked lost for a moment, so I read the card out loud ...

"Jayden, I am so happy to have you as my nephew! Wow! I hope your birthday is as great as you are! Love you lots, Aunt Maena XOXOXO"

And he smiled.

Maena's funeral is on Friday and she is already very missed by us all.


Apryl said...

Oh, Karen, I'm so sorry to read this--what an amazing description of a very special woman.
many hugs,

Karla said...

Love you all - I've got nothing but tears and squeezes! Beautiful way to remember her!! Love you - Karla