10 June 2013

A Tornado, a Birthday, and a Funeral

My Aunt Jetta

We went to OKC recently to attend my aunt's funeral; the weekend before we'd gone to celebrate my grandmother's birthday (early) and to see my aunt Jetta who was very sick. She had been diagnosed with late stage cancer just after Easter. We had no idea how rapidly she'd decline. She only had one cycle of chemo that lasted just three weeks. She died before her hair even had a chance to fall out. 

I had no idea that Memorial Day weekend I was saying goodbye for the last time. That weekend she said no more than five words to me, which in and of itself was a feat. She was virtually non-communicative towards the end. That weekend when I reached out to her she responded, whispering "Thank You," "Love you," and "Pretty," (that last one was her acknowledgement of the bouquet of flowers I brought her from Mema's garden.) I am grateful for the visit I had made earlier in May when she was doing a little bit better and when I brought her a birthday gift and a card, which I know she treasured; she wouldn't even let my mom throw away the envelope that her birthday card came in. She passed away peacefully on Wednesday morning, May 29.

I struggled with how to tell Julia that Jetta passed away. She knew something was up ("Jetta doesn't feel good.") and had already asked some poignant questions (“Who hurt Jetta?”). But she is too young to understand death. When we went back for the funeral, I worried that Julia would inquire after Jetta or want to know why we were all sad. She IS in the “Why?” phase, after all. We used our best euphemisms and our simplest language and I think in some fundamental way, she understood just enough. The truth is that her child-like view of it all brought some levity that I found to be refreshing in the most stifling parts of the mourning process: “She’s pink!” (Julia said, at the funeral home where there was a pink light shining on the body) and “Jetta has a new bed!” (after the viewing) and “Is Jetta hiding?” (at the graveside service).

In many ways I was helping myself understand death as much as I was helping Julia. This was the first death in the inner circle of my mom’s family since the year I was born. I’ve never had to face it so forthrightly. I questioned what it all meant each step of the way.

The night of the viewing of the body, there was a big storm brewing. Being tried and true Oklahomans, we all knew something big was coming. You could just feel it in the air. (Also, we were watching the news and the meteorologists said something big was coming.) We proceeded with the evening’s plan nonetheless; my mom took Mema to the funeral home and many other folks arrived. Sergio and I came with the girls and were able to have our moment to say “Goodbye” and “We love you, Jetta.” Before long the storm had progressed and we realized we needed to take cover. We hustled out of the funeral home and piled into our caravan of cars as the newscasters on the radios advised us all to take shelter. We were headed across the street to go into the basement of the church. It felt so weird to leave Jetta behind.

The viewing of the body is peculiar. We know in our heads what has happened, that our loved one has died, but our hearts want to believe that maybe it’s not true. Our hearts want to believe the way Julia probably believed - that Jetta was just asleep. It certainly looked that way. She looked beautiful (no small feat after her illness) -- and pink, even! -- as though she were just resting for a moment. But let me tell you - nothing drives home the reality of your loved one’s condition like having to leave her behind in the funeral home while the rest of the family takes cover from a tornado.

Oh and did I mention that this was my grandmother’s 92nd birthday? What a strange way to spend your birthday. That night, Mema powered through the visitation and the tornado, broken heart and all. We all even managed to share some cake together and reflect on those 92 years. But it was far from a happy birthday. We found out later that the tornado that came through that night was the widest tornado ever recorded in US history - about 2.5 miles. The wide-reaching path of destruction was an apt metaphor for the ripple effects of Jetta's death - of anyone's death, I am sure. It has both a broad (for many) and a personal (for each of us) impact. However, no one felt Jetta's death quite the way Mema did. As she told me later on, tearfully, at the graveside service, "It just cuts so deep."

The next morning the sky was clear and beautiful. The funeral for Jetta was perfect; she would have loved it, I am sure. Family came to town and my parents' house was full of warmth and full of flowers and full of food. There was an amazing outpouring of support from my parents' friends and co-workers, my aunt's friends and co-workers, my friends - more generous that you could imagine. If quantities of food delivered to the bereaved are any indication of how well someone was liked, then my aunt was extremely well loved. The remainder of the weekend was part hustle and bustle of family gathering and part quiet reflection. And lots and lots of emotion.

Jetta was a giver of great gifts, a baker of amazing birthday cakes, and a taker of great photos. She was patriotic - didn't care who you voted for in any election just so long as you voted. And she'd give you The Raised Eyebrow of Consternation if you didn't. She was a loyal Hallmark Gold Crown shopper and invested a lot of time in finding the right gift. She was a bit of a wallflower. She was full of tact. She never said an unkind word. She loved iced tea. 

It is so hard to believe she’s gone. We are all better off for having had her in our life. We miss her so much.

“I had rather be shut up in a very modest cottage, with my books, my family, and a few old friends, dining on simple bacon, and letting the world roll on as it liked, than to occupy the most splendid post which any human power can give.” - Thomas Jefferson

(a quotation framed and hung on the wall at Jetta's house)

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