Saturday, April 15, 2017

Aunt Merry

Merry Jo in 2008
Two weeks ago today, I woke to the heartbreaking news that my beautiful and beloved Aunt Merry--my mother's only living sibling--had passed away. This wasn't especially surprising since we knew she was extremely ill, but it was gut-wrenchingly sudden--she was diagnosed with cancer just six weeks before.

Aunt Merry's 80th Birthday
As some of my friends might remember, back in December my Aunt Merry came for a visit with my cousins, and we had the amazing blessing of celebrating her 80th birthday with her. She was in a terrible amount of pain throughout their trip, from what was thought to be stress fractures and pinched nerves. After arriving home to Houston and getting in to see a specialist and having lots of tests done, they determined she had metastatic breast cancer that had spread to her liver and almost every bone in her body. Within days, she was receiving hospice care. While it was certainly hard to come to grips with losing someone so quickly, I am incredibly thankful that my sweet aunt is no longer in such horrific pain. I'm thankful that she is now in the arms of Jesus, of her husband Gerald, and of my amazing (and terribly missed) Grandma Seaman. I am also incredibly thankful we had that time with her in when she visited in December.

Merry Jo on her 80th with Mom
Since I grew up in Kansas and my Aunt Merry lived in Houston, as a child I only saw her once every couple of years--so we obviously didn't have an extremely close relationship back then. In the last ten years, however, my aunt became an incredibly important part of my life. When my mom was being treated for breast cancer in 2006, she immediately started showing signs of cognitive impairment. I began taking care of Mom's medical affairs, so Aunt Merry and I began talking more frequently about all of Mom's health concerns. In these last few years, especially since we moved Mom to Lawrence, my dear aunt was such an incredible support to me. She always expressed her love for me when we talked, but she also showed her love by her actions. She called regularly to check in on Mom, but she was just as concerned about my health and well-being. She allowed me to vent when I needed to, listened without judgment, prayed for us continually, and never told me what I should do--even when I wanted her to. She cared for Mom for over a week on two separate occasions when Chad and I needed a break. We talked about our churches, our faith, our struggles, and about what God was teaching us through those challenges. In short, she gave me the support that my own mother was no longer able to give.

Mom and Merry Jo in the mid-50s
While she was being an amazing aunt and mother-figure to me, she continued to be a wonderful older sister to my mom. While most of the people who were closest to Mom before her illness started acting as though she was already gone, Aunt Merry was one of the few exceptions. She wrote cards and letters, she sent presents, and she continued to call Mom regularly just to check in. Even when Mom could no longer have a conversation, Merry Jo would call for a quick hello. She always told Mom how good it was to hear her voice, even if the call lasted only a minute. Aunt Merry was one of just a handful of people who still took an interest in Mom's life, and my mom absolutely adored her. From the time she was a little girl and throughout adulthood, Mom idolized her older sister. Merry Jo was the person she cared about most in this world. I was a constant reminder of that reverence, since when I was born I was given the name Kimberly Jo.

Mom and her sister in 2008
Everyone who knew my aunt will tell you she was elegant and classy--always so perfectly put together. As gorgeous as she was, she was as beautiful on the inside as she was on the outside. She was loving and loyal, caring and strong. She was a godly woman who was passionate about her love for Jesus, her church, and the prison ministry she was actively involved in. Her voice, mannerisms and appearance were so much like my mom's, but in every other way she reminded me of my precious grandmother. She was strong, stoic and reserved like Grandma Seaman, with the same faith, loyalty, and love for her family. Like Grandma, Aunt Merry rarely said an unkind word about anyone and also had little use for drama. The similarities were so strong, there were times we were on the phone that I actually had to stop myself from calling her "grandma." I think that's why her death is extra heartbreaking for me: it's like losing Grandma plus my mom all over again. Aunt Merry was the perfect combination of the two most important women in my life--the women who made me who I am.

At the Christmas Parade in December
Making this loss even more difficult is the disturbing fact that we haven't told Mom her sister is gone. I know this sounds so horrible initially--it did to me as well. In fact, when we first found out about Aunt Merry's cancer, my primary thought was when and how to tell Mom to help her comprehend and then remember. However, after talking with professionals, reading great articles on the subject (like this one), and reaching out to people in my caregiver support group who'd been through similar situations, I eventually came to understand the reality. Telling Mom devastating news that she is unable to process and unable to remember would actually be cruel and unfair. Although not telling Mom feels terribly wrong in my heart, I know in my mind it's the best thing for her. Mom can keep the few memories she has of her sister happy and untainted by grief and trauma--and what a blessing that I can help her preserve the memories of Merry Jo's most recent visits through all the pictures I have of our adventures!

Since I was unable to travel to my aunt's funeral last week, grieving and closure have been difficult, but for me, writing about her has been helpful. Thank you for letting me share all the reasons my dear aunt will be greatly missed, by me and by her four children, her thirteen grandchildren and her thirteen great-grandchildren. Thank you so much to all of you who reached out to offer condolences after her passing. Thank you for understanding why there's no need to offer those condolences to my sweet mother as well. Thank you for allowing me to honor this wonderful woman who was such a blessing in my life. I'm so honored to be her namesake.
 A damaged but treasured picture of Aunt Merry, Grandma and me in 1999