Monday, May 2, 2016

Dear Aunt Pat

Dear Aunt Pat,

All of your family and friends gathered for a cookout on a warm day in Cincinnati yesterday to celebrate your life. When it was my turn to speak, this is what I said. I'm leaving it here for you because you've always been so supportive of my writing. I assume you have internet in heaven because that's where Netflix came from.


On the evening of April 11th, my son was running around naked after his bath (“Air drying” as we like to call it) when I got a text from my dad. The worst kind of text; the one that we all started to receive that evening. My dear Aunt Pat had passed away.

It’s odd how something so expected can still muster such a gut punch.

Still in the midst of our nightly bedtime routine I put a diaper and jammies on my little guy and mindlessly grabbed a story off the bookshelf. It turns out that I picked a gargantuanly stupid book to read that evening. On the Night You Were Born opens like this:

On the night you were born
The moon smiled with such wonder
That the stars peeked in to see you
And the night wind whispered, “Life will never be the same”
Because there had never been anyone like you… Ever in the world.”

My husband had to read the bedtime story that night.

But how perfect is that message for today? Today is not about the evening of April 11th. No, we’re having a beautiful cookout and wearing bright colors because today is about July 20th, 1956. Younger or older that day, near or far, or maybe not even born yet, July 20th is the day that blessed all of our lives.

Generous, spirited, vibrant, caring, fun… My Aunt Pat was the best parts of humanity, rolled into one human being. She was endlessly, selflessly supportive. Aunt Pat drove in from out of town hours before my high school orchestra concerts. She took me on my first trip to Disney World, and she offered up the pullout couch at her timeshare when we wanted to go on vacation. She planned our baby shower, drove to Chicago for that baby’s first birthday party, and made a quilt decorated with farm animals to commemorate his first trip to the Indiana State Fair. Aunt Pat sent me a box of craft materials when I started scrapbooking; she read food labels for me at Costco when I eliminated gluten; she invited us to a Reds game when she found out my new boyfriend liked baseball; and when I married that boy a few years later, she is still the one everyone remembers from the dance floor at our wedding.

My father-in-law said it best. A few months after he first met her, I mentioned her in a conversation and said, “You remember Aunt Pat, right?” To which he responded, “Aunt Pat? How could I forget Aunt Pat?”

How could I forget Aunt Pat? Those six words are as true today as they have always been: “How’s your Aunt Pat?” has been a common question throughout my whole life, especially after her diagnosis in 2010. But even when she was sick, the answer was always, puzzlingly, the same: “She’s great.” In her persistence - her insistence - to live her whole life to its truest potential, she was a constant reminder to live the good life: That in the face of sickness or doubt or heartbreak, we must always choose happiness. July 20th, 1956 lit a light too bright for even cancer to fade.

Aunt Pat’s positivity in the face of her illness reminded me of a little story I read in Tuesdays With Morrie:

The story is about a little wave, bobbing along in the ocean, having a grand old time. He’s enjoying the wind and the fresh air — until he notices the other waves in front of him, crashing against the shore.”
'My God, this is terrible,’ the wave says ‘Look what’s going to happen to me!'
Then along comes another wave. It sees the first wave, looking grim, and it says to him, ‘Why do you look so sad?’
The first wave says, ‘You don’t understand! We’re all going to crash! All of us waves are going to be nothing! Isn’t it terrible?’
The second wave says, ‘No, you don’t understand. You’re not a wave, you’re part of the ocean.’
Aunt Pat has always been my second wave. And we are all so lucky to have shared the same ocean with her. She was special in ways that now seem so difficult to qualify. Reducing her to adjectives feels like trying to describe an inside joke, or a movie plot line, or the taste of chocolate: it's just best experienced first-hand.

Of course, as we all know, no quality defined Aunt Pat more than her love for Max. In fact, one of my earlier memories from my childhood is of a conversation I had with her shortly after Max was born. I was ten years old, riding in the passenger seat of her little dark blue Toyota, and she was talking to me with maturity and trust, as she always did, like a friend. Then she started talking about baby Max. I remember this conversation almost verbatim: She said to me, “You know, when you were born, your parents would say to me, ‘We really love her.’ And I would look at them and say, ‘I know, I know, she’s cute; I love her, too.’ But now I have Max, and I do. I really, really love him.” I wouldn’t have my own child for another two decades, but that day in 1995, I understood the depth of a mother’s love for her son.

So when I said goodbye to my Aunt Pat for the last time a few weeks ago, she said to me, “Just love Max.” “I already do,” I said. That’s the thing: Max, you are so much like your mom: generous, spirited, vibrant, caring, and fun. But most of all, just like her, you are so incredibly easy to love.

A few weeks ago, I tucked my son into bed with his farm animal quilt, and my husband finished the story. Here’s to July 20th, on the night my Aunt Pat was born.

For never before in story or rhyme (not even once upon a time)
Has the world ever known a you, my friend,
And it never will, not ever again.
Heaven blew every trumpet
And played every horn
On the wonderful, marvelous
Night you were born.