Right after Christmas, I received a telephone call from a gentleman claiming to be a family friend. He had tried to get in touch with my aunt multiple times, but with no luck. Had something happened to her?
Well, yes. I explained that she was suffering from the side effects of cancer and renal failure, and she was under the care of Hospice nurses.
He then explained that he was driving to Charleston with a vase of flowers in the seat next to him. The flowers were a birthday gift to my aunt…from his father. And they were to be delivered in person.
When the family friend reached our house, he handed me a large arrangement of roses and accent greenery.
“Now tell me why you didn’t call a florist to deliver them,” I began. ”That’s quite a request by your father, and quite a gesture for my aunt.”
He sat back and smiled. “My dad has sent your aunt flowers for as long as I can remember. Years and years. He never forgets her birthday. But now that he’s in a nursing home, he asked that I deliver them.”
I never knew my aunt had a special friendship like this, and certainly not one that spanned 30 years. It wasn’t a real romance. It wasn’t even a traditional companionship. It was an admiration based on respect. One might call this gentleman her biggest fan.
“They’ve always checked on each other,” he added. “And my dad says that after everything that your aunt has been through, she is an inspiration to him. He appreciates her determination and it gives him hope,” he said.
I understand this. My aunt is a tough old bird, as they say. She was born prematurely in 1929 and wasn’t expected to live through the night. Three days later, she was still fighting. Years later, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and then ovarian and uterine cancer. After that, she lost a kidney from two years of chemotherapy and cobalt treatments. Yet she never, ever gave up.
As a former coworker once explained, my aunt would take chemotherapy treatments in Richmond, Virginia every other week, but she drove herself to and from, with nausea so intense that she’d have to pull the car over several times in an hour. Yet her greatest hour might have been when she interviewed for a job immediately following surgery.
“She still had her left arm in a sling from the mastectomy and lymph node removal,” I recall this woman saying. “She had applied for a secretarial position and they made her take a timed typing test. So there she was typing with one hand, as fast as she could.
She finished the test well after all the other applicants had handed in their work, but she completed the assignment. They hired her not because of her skills, but because of her determination,” she said.
My aunt has suffered enough adversities to bury the world’s strongest man. She suffered multiple miscarriages, kidney stone attacks, two bouts of cancer, the death of her husband and sister, and to some extent — her sense of home. Since I was born, she’s bought and sold 15 houses, relocating from Charleston to Lewisburg at least 5 of those times. But she never gave in. She just kept moving.
“She means so much to so many people,” the family friend said. ”She’s always kind and always helpful. She remembers everyone and everything.”
That she does. Even in a morphine-induced haze, I was instructed to get a gift for Maryn’s 7th birthday. And then I had to try to catch “the two yellow kittens” running around under her bed.
It’s a strange thing to think about how our children see us. We’re their parents — Mom and Dad — but they never really get to know us, as we are or as we were…as Katy and Mike. Our kids know us from their childhood and other ages and stages, but they don’t often get to meet the girls and guys we used to be. It’s a shame, really, because they’ll never fully understand what turned us into their parents. Who we are today. Why we are the way we are. And that’s so important. These details and stories explain so much.
On Thursday morning, I walked over to my aunt’s house to sort through the mail. Behind the door was a box from Holl’s Chocolates, shipped from a now recognizable address. I called our family friend to acknowledge the gift on my aunt’s behalf.
“Oh…and Dad never forgets Valentine’s Day, either.”