“Ray, can you run to 7-Eleven quickly before the funeral and buy me a few candy bars?” I asked. Ray’s wtf expression said it all. I texted him the specific kinds I needed, and he left. When he came back, my kids and I got into his car to drive to the funeral home, where I would soon be delivering a eulogy for my aunt. It finally happened. My aunt had been suffering from sarcoidosis (an inflammatory lung disease) for years. For the past few, it left her laboring to breathe and needing to rest for a full day or more just to be able to go out for dinner. She needed a walker and then eventually needed a wheelchair. Yup, that woman, who loved to dance at parties and plow her way through Bloomingdale’s, was left to struggle on the short path from her bed to the bathroom.
If you’ve known me for years, then you know my mother’s sister. She was always there in the running movie of my life. Sometimes she was the lead role; sometimes a supporting actress; and sometimes just an extra moving through a frame. She was always in the credits, though, always. She was in college when I was born, so she celebrated with her friends in her dorm. She lit a candle at my bat mitzvah. She stood by when I signed my ketubah. Then she stood by again when I took that ketubah down off of my wall. She had sleepovers in her bed with my children. She thought I was funny. She thought I was clever. We weren’t just aunt and niece. She loved me, and I her. People showed up at my aunt’s funeral and shiva for me, even though I was not her child. When I told my friends she had died, I knew they understood what that meant to me.
My mom and her sister were pretty much velcroed to each other, and that’s why my aunt was ever-present. They even lived together for the past four years. It didn’t matter that my aunt had a husband for most of those years; the real love story here was between these two women. We heard the stories of how they cuddled in bed as kids and how my mom always brought home a gift for her baby sister. They even slept in the same room some nights in recent years, like teenagers on a sleepover. If they weren’t together, their phones were like an umbilical cord connecting them, ringing almost hourly.
But, then my phone was ringing on the morning of September 12th. My mother’s broken voice said it all. She was gone. That little woman, who stood only 4’11” and had a big laugh, never woke up. She had been granted her wish—to die in her sleep. It was now time for the aide to unplug the oxygen machine from the wall. It produced an awful silence, the kind that makes you feel lonely. She didn’t want to leave us. She wanted to see her grandchildren grow and didn’t want her children to be motherless. She didn’t get to binge-watch Downton Abbey or finish the second season of Ozark. She didn’t get to see the fabulous and large police motorcade that closed down traffic on the Garden State Parkway all for her on the day of her funeral. She would have been so proud of her son, the Congressman, for making that happen. Even the Governor of New Jersey came to her shiva.
So, when it was finally my turn to stand up and speak in the chapel, I looked out into a sea of faces and held my voice steady. I know she would have loved how I celebrated her “small-but-mighty” nature, highlighting both her feistiness and tenderness. She would have laughed heartily at the other speakers, who poked fun at her, and she would have teared up from the deep love that was thrown her way. After we all filed out, we had only one more place to go. It was at the cemetery, when I reached into the plastic bag Ray had given me. I pulled out a box of Charleston Chews and placed them on the headstone to the immediate right of my aunt’s plot. This was my father’s grave. (Yes, my dad will be her next-door neighbor for all of eternity.) I reached into that plastic bag again to place the Goldenberg’s Peanut Chew next to the rocks on my nana’s footstone on the other side of the cemetery. The final candy was Gwenn’s favorite, a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, which I discreetly tossed into her grave in between my shovelfuls of dirt. I liked how the orange wrapper stood out so boldly against the dark brown soil. I stood there and watched it slowly disappear with each new mound of dirt thrown in until it was completely gone.
I dedicate this blog to my mom, who is beyond heartbroken. This truly was a love story between two sisters, and I have to admit I ripped this theme off from my aunt herself. She wrote it in a speech she gave for my mother’s birthday many years ago. I can still hear the emotion in her voice as she talked about their sisterly romance. Rest in peace, my aunt. I miss you so much.
*All names have been changed.
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