Aunts and Aunties have been on my mind these past few days. Thursday was my Aunt Lois’s birthday and my kids’ Auntie Kim and I toasted her enjoying wine on a sidewalk patio that evening. Last night, my kids and I met up with a dear friend whom I haven’t seen in person in years. We got to talking about chosen families and our mutual friends whom my kids call Auntie Ar and Auntie S. He mentioned the importance of aunties in his community and there was no family tie, just deep friendship.
Lois and Beverly were the same age and were similar in many other ways. Lois was my father’s second eldest sister and Beverly was my mother’s eldest sister. I saw Lois regularly while I was growing up and through college. I saw Beverly nearly every day of those years spent at home with my mom. From third grade until I was in high school, Beverly lived next door.
Both were single. Lois was married and divorced and Beverly never married. They did not have children of their own. Lois was a terrific fourth grade teacher and had a full live in Ft. Madison, Iowa. Beverly never worked a job.
Both Lois and Beverly had major health events as teenagers. My mother’s family had horses and Beverly had a riding accident. The horse kicked and knocked her off its back. She hit the ground and suffered a severe greenstick fracture in her right forearm. (If you don’t know what a greenstick fracture is, go look it up. I’ll warn you though, it’s gross.) If she had sustained that injury today, a hand surgeon would have been able to repair the break and the nerves. However, in 1950-something, the damage left her hand fairly useless, weak, and with an uncontrollable twitch. She often walked with that hand resting on the small of her back.
Lois achieved an extraordinary feat. Nothing short of a medical miracle. She developed uterine cancer around 14 years old, in the mid-1940s. At that time, a cancer diagnosis was almost certainly terminal. My father tells the story of how they went to visit her in the hospital in Red Oak to say their goodbyes. I cannot imagine how wrenching an experience it was for them all. She beat cancer two additional times in her life until she passed from the last bout at age 85.
Both women had their share of mental health issues. Beverly lived with cognitive developmental disabilities and schizophrenia. For most of my life, she was present but not really there as psychotropic medications were the treatment of choice for her issues. It wasn’t until nearly 20 years later that a doctor peeled off nearly all of her meds to reveal her quirky, bubbly personality that had been latent all her life.
Of them all, Lois and I were quite close. She nicknamed me Prunella Jane and it stuck. She’d address letters to me using this name and I’d sign off, “P.J.” About the time that I was married, she retired to Florida to be near Nadine and her husband Weymer. Our contact had lessened and I always threatened to go visit her over the years. When my marriage ended, Lois came in. She knew what it was to be a divorced woman in her time and it was difficult and scary. Lois said that I inspired her as a single mom raising two children on my own. I guess we inspired and supported each other in this way. On our last visit to Florida, Lois’s health was rapidly deteriorating and while we were there, we were in the process of moving her to an assisted living apartment in the same building as Weymer lived. After Nadine’s death, Lois and Weymer supported each other. They lived just blocks from each other. Lois promised Nadine that she would take care of Weymer. The day we moved Lois into the assisted living facility, Weymer died. I got the call from Dad as my daughter and I were passing through Birmingham, Alabama, on the way home to Iowa.
“Oh, and Lois wants to move to Iowa.”
Cousin Mark dove in head first to make that happen and within two weeks, he’d cleared out her house, put it on the market, got her on a plane, and packed his pick up with what he could and her little dog and headed for Grinnell. He handled all the financial and legal affairs. She was admitted into hospice at Mayflower and lived a full, comfortable nine months.
We often talked about death. She had been through enough chemo, surgery, and radiation throughout her life and did not want to take that route this last time. She said that it would just keep her going to be able to go to more medical appointments with no cure. She was able to come back to Iowa where her heart never left. Lois was definitely at peace with dying. She was more afraid of living too long. As she moved from assisted living into skilled care when her needs increased, she was quite happy to be where she was. She had missed the snow but not the cold and loved living through four seasons in Iowa one last time.
Just before Thanksgiving, our community has a holiday celebration with Santa, carriage rides, caroling, and of course, lots of lights. The day after Jingle Bell Holiday, I was looking through Facebook and a friend had posted photos of the event. There in the corner of the shot was a tiny lady in a stocking cap, swaddled in blankets, with the biggest smile ever. I could not believe my eyes. It was Lois. I quickly messaged my friend Rachel and asked if she would send me the photo and explained why it was so important to me.
Chery, the activities director, told me that she stopped into Lois’s room to see if she wanted to get on the van and look at Christmas lights, just for a little while. It took a little convincing because by now there was very little left of Lois to stay warm. But Chery got her bundled and on the van. When then arrived downtown Lois was so excited that she wanted to get out and join the fun. Chery took loads of photos of Lois having Iowa Christmas. She decorated cookies with elves at the bank. She got to pet the nose of the horse pulling the carriage and reminisced about the horses her grandfather and father kept. She loved seeing children and families having a great time. It was so very special.
When I arrived that Sunday morning, she had changed. She said that she didn’t go anywhere last night and asked if I had seen grandma outside. She told me that she had laundry to do and that was going to keep her busy today. She also mentioned that she needed to clean the floor as it was dirty and needed shampooing. It dawned on me that she was close to leaving. I reminded her that it was Sunday, that Grandma was getting ready for church and that the chores would wait until Monday. It was time for me to live in her world.
We had been planning on bringing her to my house to have Thanksgiving dinner with my dad and my kids. It was the Sunday before and I knew that was probably not going to happen. We decided to take Thanksgiving dinner to her. That didn’t happen, either. We came to her room on Thanksgiving and found her all dressed and sitting in her chair. She had chosen her outfit and her jewelry. Her little brother was coming to see her. She was still very much present and with us but it was difficult to know that for the pain medication. I took over for the aide who was feeding her and the sadness in the room was heavy. There’s nothing quite like watching your father and his sister saying goodbye for the last time. That’s a real life moment to remember.
I went back later in the day and fed her a little dinner. I talked as I always had but she couldn’t respond. When I left her, I told her that I loved her as I always did and asked her, “Will you be here tomorrow when I come back?”
As clearly and plainly as ever, she whispered, “I don’t know.”
When we talked about her dying, Lois said that she just wanted to go in her sleep. We both said that is how everyone wishes they or their loved ones could pass away. We prayed for that and that the cancer and the Parkinson’s would take over quickly. She was so afraid of lingering on.
The phone rang about 2:30 a.m. It was the nurse at Mayflower telling me that she had come into Lois’s room to check on her and found that she had gone. What I really wanted was to have a follow up with Lois about it. I mean, it happened exactly as we had hoped. Dad was one of the last of her family to see her as everyone had been over in the weeks prior.
My mantra these days is to live like Lois. She was frugal but spent well on travel and trips around the world. She stayed engaged in the world and current events. She enjoyed her friends and long conversations over wine or coffee. She loved the natural world and was an avid birder and naturalist. She was a voracious reader and read books one after the other. She was my dear friend and my aunt.