At this time, eight years ago, (can it possibly be that many years?) I was called home so that I might have the opportunity to say goodbye to my Aunt Beckie.
Sweet little, spunky, zesty, vivacious, hot-headed, quirky, poetic Beckie. The woman who taught me about tea parties and the joy of staying in pajamas all day long. The rule breaker who helped me paint my fingernails red (when mom had forbidden it) and insert earrings in my ears (when I was not yet at the age when earrings were meant to be allowed). Beckie was the ear on the other end of the phone advising about boys or consoling the tears that they brought on. She could set me straight with a simple glance, and the tone in her voice when she said my name always let me know where I stood with her. She taught me how to make blueberry pies from scratch and how to appreciate Chef Boy R' Dee pizzas from a box. (Though I still debate the value of that one!) Without judgement, Beckie was there to help me clean up life messes that I made. I grew by watching Beckie reflect on her mistakes, express her love, and celebrate her faith. Her hugs were home, her laughter the sound I equate with pure joy. The body of that tiny little red-head, made even tinier when compromised by Lymphoma, housed a mammoth sized, spirited soul.
The diagnosis came in June of 2002, shortly after my parents repatriated to the states following a long stretch of time overseas. It was obvious that the gods were looking out for Beckie when my parents were placed back on home soil. The central player in the discovery of my aunt's Lymphoma, my mother was was also the primary care taker during all of the treatments. By watching this woman's amazingly natural, untrained nursing skills, I gained a whole new respect for my already admired mom. Her level of organization, compassion, and sharp thinking were awe inspiring. While others fell apart emotionally, (namely, ME) my mother maintained steel strong composure.
Taxi driver, cook, nurse-made, knitting buddy and best friend, my mother kept copious notes on Beckie's treatments, and often helped doctors and nurses keep better records of Beckie's progress and status. Unfortunately, the gallant efforts of all who surrounded Beckie couldn't out-whit the aggressive Lymphoma. After a failed bone marrow transplant, she was sent home to be with family.
The last two weeks of her life were some of the saddest, most painful, and yet beautiful two weeks of my life. I recall laughing harder than I ever have from jokes she told during her lucid moments. The less lucid ones brought on crying with a sorrow so deep I couldn't even create noise to ride on the wake of my sobs. All the while, I watched my mother gracefully sit vigil, changing the bed sheets; cleaning out the drip bags connected all over Beckie's tiny frame; calling in everyone she thought Beckie might wish to see; doing everything she possibly could to make Beckie's last days magical. Beckie held on far longer than anyone thought she would. Each day she faded away from us a bit more. Each day, my mother held her hand and stood by her side, gently guiding Beckie on her journey to another place.
My grandmother, whom had somewhat of a difficult relationship with Beckie, came to be near her daughter as she passed. And so there my mother was, taking care of her ailing mother and her dying sister. In a cruel trick of fate, my Grandmother unexpectedly, dramatically, past away a few days before my Aunt did. My love for my mother grew even deeper as I watched her stand strong through something that would have shattered any normal human being.
In Beckie's last days, I was called back to work. Making a decision I will never allow myself to make again, I chose the security of my job in New York over family, and left my Aunt's side in Ohio two days before she departed from this world. On our last day together, I was helping my mother change Beckie's sheets. I held Beckie's tiny frame towards me as my mother smoothed the sheets on the opposite side of the bed. Just when it was time to turn Beckie the other way, she grabbed me tightly to her, and held me close for several minutes. In that moment, I wanted so desperately to tell her what she meant to me. To tell her how much I considered her a second mother. To tell her how much she taught me, not only through the joyful way that she lived life, but in the powerful way that she met death, as well. Though I know she knew- I know she could feel it- I couldn't bring myself to speak the words; they choked too tightly in my throat and chest. And so, as she held me close, I willed the thoughts into her mind.
On December 19, 2003, Beckie took her last breaths and found peace from her cancer. Surrounded by loved ones, she gave us all relief from the agony she endured. True to her nature, Beckie allowed her passing to serve as an opportunity for learning important life lessons.
From her journey through cancer, Beckie helped me to see how incredibly strong and amazing my mother is. I already knew she was an incredible gal, I just don't think I knew how incredible until this time.
From Beckie's unwavering faith in God and deep love for life, I learned to open my heart and embrace what was undeniably there: a loving and compassionate God. Too many ethereal things occurred for me to have any doubts about the presence of a powerful, greater being.
From the choked words never said, I learned to (try to) speak my love freely and openly, striving to leave no room for anyone to wonder how I feel for them. I have been blessed with an amazing biological family and chosen family of friends whom I love endlessly. I hope they have felt this love, and that I have spoken it out loud enough for them to know what they mean to me.
From Beckie's sense of humor, even on- especially on- her last days, I learned that laughter should be embraced whenever it can be found. No moment, no matter how painful, should be bereft of joy. And while I often take things way too seriously, Beckie's lingering spirit reminds me to find the joy in the darkest of days.
Finally, from the value she placed on family, from the family she married into, from the support family lent throughout her ordeal, and from the presence of family members gathered in the end, I learned, in a far deeper way than I ever knew, that the ones you love matter most. No job should ever over-ride this.
So as we pass closer to the anniversary of Beckie's death, may it be known that she was a great teacher whose lessons still carry on. There isn't a day that goes by on which I don't talk to her in my head, think of her with fondness, and express gratitude to her for all that she gave us.
This passage started out because, this morning, I scheduled events for December 19, a date that always stands out on the calendar. Then I read this article about "The Top Five Regrets", as told by people about to die. It got me to wonder how Beckie might have responded to the question, and made me think about the five things I learned through her death. After reading my post, I realize that this article is also a tribute to my mother, the woman whom I don't tell nearly enough how much I deeply love and admire her. Here it is in writing, Mom, you amaze and inspire me. I love you to infinity. You are an empowering, caring, brave sister, mother, and friend. As we pass through this season in which painful memories are brought closer to home, may you feel embraced by all of us who have been deeply touched by your remarkable spirit.
Yours in Loving and Remembering,
Daughter of Beth
Niece of Beckie
Erin Michelle Threlfall
Theatre Artist, Activist, and Educator, Erin is the mother of a budding genius in his 7th year of study. Erin and her little man, Edem, have a plan to investigate world theatre and influence education one continent at a time. Ghana, South Korea, Togo and Bali have been checked off the list of places to live; these days they call Brooklyn home.