My dad called at 6:15 this morning to tell me that my Aunt Pat had died. A heart attack during a visit to Pennsylvania.
I confess I did not know my Aunt Pat well growing up. I knew she was my mom's big sister, the smart one, the one to whom my mom always compared herself.
I knew she was a librarian, and spoke with a gentle voice, and told stories to children. I knew she had three children herself, my cousins: Sabrina, who seemed destined for the stage somewhere as she swooped about our family meetings dramatically, Cliff, artistic and the quietest boy I had ever met, and Eric, the youngest who bubbled with energy and had a smile that begged to be splashed all over ads for peanut butter and cereal. I knew she used to live in Kansas City with my parents and her husband, big Cliff, before I was born, but had moved to Texas and made it her home for many years. Everything else about her was hidden in the secrets of the Adult World. And when I finally joined the Adult World myself, I never thought to ask, finally, for the rest of her story. After all, there are so many questions to ask once you're old enough to finally think of asking them. And old enough to stop and listen to the answer.
Aunt Pat on her second birthday
When my first daughter, Annika was born, Aunt Pat sent me a thick book of Mother Goose rhymes, beautifully illustrated by Rosemary Wells. It was the kind of gift that matched perfectly my memory of my Aunt: bookish, aware of tradition, but slyly humorous. When Annika was a few years older, it became such a favorite that I had to put it away out of her reach. She kept trying to tear out her favorite pages and tuck them into her bed.
Aunt Pat took time off to come to Chicago when Annika was at her very sickest as she waited for a liver transplant at the tender age of 12 months. Her sons, first Eric and then Cliff, had volunteered to donate a piece of liver to replace Annika's dying one. She had to sit with both Eric and Cliff as the doctors and social workers explained in stark terms the possible complications of donating. She was there with Cliff before they wheeled him off to the operating room. The last question they ask, and not for the first or even second time or third time, before putting donors under anesthesia is, "Are you absolutely sure you want to do this? Even if it kills you? You do
know that you could die from this?" Cliff answered, "Yes," and his bravery is astonishing to me. But also amazingly brave was his mother, my Aunt Pat, who stood there with him. As a mother now, I know that the thought of losing a child is many times more painful than the thought of dying yourself. And yet she stood by Cliff, and told him how proud she was of him and his decision to save a dying baby that he had never even met before his trip to the hospital in Chicago. She was a strong and compassionate woman, who raised strong and compassionate children.
During those days that we waited for the arrangements for the operation to be made, Aunt Pat spent most of her time in the hospital with Annika and my mom and me. The waiting was hard: Aunt Pat was not used to the waiting. She believed in being useful and productive in every waking minute, and our time spent waiting and watching Annika struggle was certainly neither. So she volunteered to do story times for the kids, but was told that the vetting process for volunteers at the hospital took many months. I'm sorry that the kids there didn't get a chance to hear her spin a tale in her soft and careful enunciation, and sorry, too, that I didn't get a chance to hear one of her stories as an adult.
By the time Aunt Pat arrived in Chicago, Annika had reached the point in her illness that she needed me to hold her constantly. Even sleeping, if I tried to lay her in her crib, she would scream, eyes still closed but feeling the cold air that signalled that human contact had been broken. Jörg brought food to the room for me, and my showers became 45-second affairs rather than the warm-water escape therapy of the previous months. I could not stand to hear her scream. I was scared of her dying, but I was even more scared that she would die unhappy or hurting or not feeling the safety and security of loving arms.
I was sleep-deprived and dreaded the necessity of showers and toilet breaks and anything that meant I had to remove Annika from my arms. But one day I handed Annika to my mom. As usual, Annika realized that the always available comfort of my breasts (she nursed often), was suddenly missing, and she started to cry. My mom began to rock Anni back and forth on her shoulder as she stood in the middle of the room. My Aunt Pat came over to them and stood right behind Annika, rocking in time with my mom, so that Annika was completely surrounded. Aunt Pat rubbed Anni's back and began singing her a song she had heard me sing Anni many times, Tell Me Why
. Amazingly, Annika stopped crying. I left the room for the first time in weeks feeling relaxed. When I came back 25 minutes later, Aunt Pat and my mom were still standing and rocking together with Annika snuggled in between them. Aunt Pat was still singing, and my mom had joined in. It was a beautiful and touching scene. I wish I could have recorded that moment to show Anni, to show her how very much she was loved by this great Aunt that she never met again and now never will. I hope this eulogy will help her know someday. Aunt Pat was a beautiful woman, the sort of woman who knew how to give comfort, and which song fit the moment best.
My Aunt Pat was generous with her love, and I am so sorry for the pain her children and husband and parents and sisters and grandchildren must be feeling right now. She lived a full life, raised three wonderful children, and touched the lives of countless others as the librarian who told eye-widening stories. The world is a lesser place without her gentle voice and smiling eyes. I hope her touch is carried on in the lives of her children and grandchildren, and perhaps even in my own child, who felt her loving touch at a time when she needed it most. Thank you and I love you, Aunt Pat. Goodbye.