Monday, December 30, 2013

Another Goodbye

Audrey just before port surgery a few months ago.
My family has had a rather rough year, but the last few weeks have been absolutely crazy. Saturday, we said goodbye to the matriarch of the family, my 94-yr-old great aunt, Blanche, who died a few days after suffering a massive stroke. In four days, we will do it again for my Blanche's youngest daughter, Audrey. She died on Christmas Day from cancer metastasis.

My Aunt Audrey was diagnosed with breast cancer almost a year to the day before I was. Like me, she'd had a history of breast cysts and, like me, she was diagnosed relatively early and received radiation. While I opted for a bilateral mastectomy, she'd had a lumpectomy instead.

Ten years later, she had a new primary - a stomach tumor that made its presence known when my aunt started having extreme fatigue and anemia. She was diagnosed Stage IV from the beginning and shortly after, a spread to her liver and pancreas were discovered.

Cancer is a mean, evil, bird-flipping witch. Through the neuropathy-inducing chemo and regular blood transfusions, the tumor never even simmered down. It just continued to wreck havoc on first her digestive system and then the rest of her body. Because her stomach was so damaged, eventually a feeding tube was inserted. She lost a ton of weight, spent many days and nights in the hospital before the doctors declared that she'd exhausted all of her treatment options and suggested the family call Hospice.

Still, the flood of people who came to see her never stopped. And on days when she seemed the furthest away, any familiar co-worker, church member or neighbor's face in the doorway made her brighten up in ways that can't even be explained.

The view from her window the day she passed.
My son and I stopped by last Sunday and she talked to us a bit, asking him if he had any money (knowing he's in college, she always asked him the same question when she saw him) and me if I'd cut my hair (like she did almost every time she greeted me). Then she told me "If I'm here on Thursday…" before her voice sort of trailed off. I know she said more, but it didn't register. It felt like I'd been doused with a bucket of cold water.

When we stopped by on Christmas Eve, she was practically catatonic. Her breathing was very labored and her heart-rate was extremely rapid. I knew it would be the last time I would be able to see and talk to her. While I was sitting at her bedside, I saw a little phrase printed on the pajamas she was wearing: "The day is done." Twelve hours later, her day ended. Her daughter-in-law who was next to her said that she just stopped breathing. She would have been 66 in February.

Audrey and her oldest son, Melvin Jr  (Mick).
Hers was the sixth obituary for a family member I'd help put together. It never gets easier - and not just because high school graduation dates and how long a specific company was worked for get forgotten, but because it is just so bloody hard to sum up someone's life in a few paragraphs. Everyone has bits of extraordinary in their lives. It is very difficult to drop a sentence about a childhood or another about a career without making their life read like an anecdote. It seems that no matter how beautiful the prose, the words that paint the picture of who the person was to those who may only have known her during one brief part of it always ring hollow. And it is hard not to wonder what they may have wanted you to include or take out.

My aunt was a mother, a teacher, a devoted church member, a musician, a civil rights activist, a wife, a woman with amazing legs who had no problem telling it like it was, a person who cared about others almost as much as she cared about herself - and then some. And I'm sure there are things she did, thought about, wished for, planned to do and felt deeply about that we, her family and friends, never even knew about.

Every once in a while, she'd call me "Miss Militant" mostly because of my views on women in society and things like the terrible connotation of "good" hair in the Black community. Even before I first started teaching as an adjunct, she was the one person who called me "Professor." One of my biggest cheerleaders, she always made me feel extremely special and like I could do anything on the planet if I wanted to badly enough. "Nothing surprises me anymore. Nothing at all," she told me once. I don't even remember what we were talking about, but I do remember how surprised I was that my fabulous aunt was so, well, jaded.

She and my mom, Maxine, grew up as sisters. They were the children of two sisters, but my grandmother had left their tiny North Carolina town - and her daughter - behind to find a job in the big city (New York City, that is). My mom was one of nine kids Aunt Blanche and her mother, my great-grandma Pearlie, raised together in the Jim Crow-era south. My mom considered all of her cousins siblings, and I always considered Blanche my third grandmother.

Melvin and Audrey say "I Do!"
A few years back, I interviewed Audrey and her hubby, Melvin, for a relationship article I was writing. At the time, they'd been married for over 40 years, but the interview revealed how they met: when my uncle dared his friend to smack Audrey on the butt while they were all in an elevator together. When his friend accepted the dare, Audrey thought it was Melvin who'd gotten so friendly with his hands - and she smacked him. He tried to tell her it was his friend who had goosed her, but she barely let him get a word in edgewise. As fate would have it, they were going to the same place: the apartment of my Aunt Paulette - who was married to Melvin's friend, Lonnie. There are no accidents, I suppose…

A photo and card left on her dresser Christmas morning.
As her immediate family is overwhelmed with the shear amount of things that have to be done, I offered to help put together a board of photos for  Audrey's viewing/wake and funeral. As much of my family is staying in town between the two services, we had a blast looking through Audrey's photo albums and seeing pictures of her - and us - after Blanche's service. We found some of Audrey doing "circle time" with the pre-schoolers she taught. We found some of her in a beautiful, little black dress, playfully showing a little leg for the camera. We found some of her pregnant and on bed rest with her youngest, Courtney. We spent lots of time huddled around Audrey's dining room table laughing about times that seemed like they happened just yesterday.

But a few yesterdays ago, she was here with us - then on Saturday, she wasn't. All of my family is feeling her absence this week. All of us are dreading the difficulty that will be Friday's service. All of us are hating cancer very much right now.

We already  miss you, auntie...


The Accidental Amazon said...

Oh, Felicia, I can't even begin to tell you how much my heart aches for you & your family. I'm teary & near speechless. I had a wonderful auntie like yours, who made an indelible difference in my life, who'd also had cancer, and I was shattered when she died a few years ago. Sending you lots of love. Always. xoxo, Kathi

Corey Allen said...

Great piece Felicia! Nice pictures as well!

ldk said...

Felici - that was such a beautiful tribute to your Aunt. She is so beautiful...her smile was the same from her wedding photo to the photo before she had her port put in. What an amazing woman. I have a feeling that there is a lot of her in who you are. I'm so sorry for your loss and how this disease has plagued you and your family. Sending love and a hug. -Lisa

ldk said...

Felicia - that was such a beautiful tribute to your Aunt. She is so beautiful...her smile was the same from her wedding photo to the photo before she had her port put in. What an amazing woman. I have a feeling that there is a lot of her in who you are. I'm so sorry for your loss and how this disease has plagued you and your family. Sending love and a hug. -Lisa

syl max said...

Felicia, your aunt touched my heart and soul. She was a mentor to me always believing in what our mighty God is able to do. There was always a praise in her mouth for God. She walked around Head Start singing " I will bless thee Oh Lord....". She walked to each classroom and say "good morning" to each and everyone. She was my grandson teacher and he loves her so. She called him "preacher boy" for he expressed in class that he wants to be "a man of God" when he grows up. She loved that and nurtured that desire everyday with her love. How I love how she would always say when asked how she was, "BLESSED AND HIGHLY FAVORED". I will miss her so, but rejoice in knowing that she is at our Master's table right now.
Thank you for sharing. Much love. Mrs. Sylvia Carrero