we can be, be and be better, for they existed

When my cousin, Caitlyn, and I were three, her family moved to a new house. The story goes that our mothers were busy packing up everything in the kitchen, and since we were busy being three and in the way, they gave us a big box. They told us to pack all of Katie’s toys in the box and not to come down until it was done. I’m sure they figured we’d get sidetracked playing and give them their much sought after time alone to actually get work done packing.

They didn’t count on us shoving all of Katie’s toys in that box, dragging it out of her room, and then giving it one big shove all the way down the stairs. I don’t remember the conversation that went on between us, but I imagine it went something along the lines of “This is a great idea,”. That’s the way things have always been between us, and we’ve been together from the start.

Not just Katie and I, but both of our families. My uncle Steve, aunt Michele, Caitlyn and her older sister, Megan; and me and my mom. For my entire life, we’ve been one big family, doing family dinners, watching movies, going to the park and on vacations.

I’ve spent days typing and retyping, trying to find the best words I could to express what’s happened to me and my family, and I just…can’t. There aren’t eloquent or beautiful words for what’s happened. There is just the truth, that my aunt Michele died late last Monday night/Tuesday morning, and now we are all broken.

She’d been suffering from MS for 22 years, which caused a myriad of symptoms that robbed so much from her. We all watched her struggle with so many things that so many of us take for granted every day. This disease stole her health and vitality; it stole her mobility; many times it left her in terrible pain. I’ve never lost anybody who I was very close to before. I mean, I’ve lost people I cared about, but never anyone I spoke to on a near daily basis. Michele was truly like a second mom to me, my uncle Steve is like a dad and Megan and Caitlyn are like my sisters. I grew up with them. Michele peeled my grapes for me as a baby, she and my mom took us all to the park, to the beach, to museums, movies and libraries. She is an important figure in almost every memory I have of my childhood.

I used to spend the night every weekend over there growing up, and I remember every night she would go downstairs in the family room, watch some TV, and have a beer, just one. She’d tuck us in, give us a kiss, and trace a little cross on our foreheads. I can still hear her say “love you very much” in my ear. In the morning, I always got up first and I would go downstairs and sit with her while she had her morning coffee and have some poptarts, and she always made sure she bought my favorite kind.

As time went on, my cousins and I grew up. I no longer spent every weekend over there. I made sure to make time to see Michele as much as possible with the busy schedules of work and college, and I tried to go over and see her at least once a week, every other week if things were crazy. She loved hearing my work stories about crazy customers and my coworkers. She championed everything I did and tried for. If I did a great job on a paper, she cheered for me; if I didn’t pass a class, she told me she had a hard time with it, too, and mistakes were never permanent. She listened to me rant and rave about the little things that drove me nuts, and offered her two cents which always seemed to put things in perspective. If I got myself something or if something good happened to me, she told me I deserved it. That, especially, is something I’ll always remember that meant so much to me. I don’t always think the nicest things about myself, but she was always telling me how smart, kind, loving, funny, and important I am, and from her, it just seemed to mean a little bit more. We swapped stories about books and movies, often trading recommendations and watching TV together. Sometimes it occurs to me how much I really cherish the adult relationship we had, over the one I had as a child. She was a tremendous source of joy and comfort to me.

As her health declined, slowly but steadily, it got so hard to see her have to go through so many difficult and often painful medical procedures, all in the name of fixing symptoms that were making life so hard for her. When she first started to really decline, back about 8 or so years ago, my uncle quit his job to take care of her because it just wasn’t feasible to do anything else. He stuck through everything with her and took such excellent care of her. Times were so hard, emotionally, physically, and financially, and he never did anything but pull himself up and take care of his family, take care of her. It will always be one of the most inspiring things I’ve ever seen, and I don’t know how I could properly tell him how much I look up to him.

The last moments with Michele that I had were so incredibly hard. On Monday the 3rd, when Katie called me and said it wouldn’t be long, I went over and sat with them for hours, often with Michele. She looked so tiny on that hospital bed, and it was so hard to see her that way, in the worst she’d ever been. She couldn’t speak. She couldn’t breathe properly. She was in so much pain we couldn’t touch her for some of the time I was there. But when Katie and I told her we loved her, she whispered “thanks, guys,” with what little energy she had left. I’ve been told the last things she said were “Steve, give me a kiss,” to my uncle. She passed away that night.

In so many ways, it still doesn’t feel real. Her last few months were mostly spent in hospitals and rehab centers, so to an extent it still feels like she’s in one of those places, waiting for us to come see her. It will hit me at random times, and then I am left scrabbling with what to do. I will never get another good morning text from her. I’ll never watch the Gone Girl movie with her (we both loved the books). I’ll never be able to make her laugh again. If I think too hard about it, it will overwhelm me. And I just am so sad and sorry for my cousins and uncle. They are so devastated.

I tell myself she’s not suffering any more. She’s not in any pain, and she held on so long for us. But most often I tell myself that I’m hurting so badly, my family is hurting so badly right now, because we had someone so wonderful in our lives, someone we loved so deeply and who loved us so deeply that when she died, she took a piece of us with her. And we are so lucky for that. So very, very lucky. I’ve made a pact with myself that for every sad, terrible moment when I miss her so much I want to break down, I will think of one happy memory with her and my family. It works sometimes.

This past Thanksgiving, Michele was facing a surgery that she was really nervous and upset about. Megan was cooking dinner, and she invited my mom and I over to eat with them. We went back and forth; we were both feeling lazy and were strongly considering just spending Thanksgiving at home. We ended up going over there and eating dinner, and it was so lovely and so nice. It was like the old days; it was just the six of us. No boyfriends, no other family members. Just us. Having dinner together like it had been for so long. It meant so much to Michele, and to us. I am so beyond grateful for that last Thanksgiving together. I will never, ever forget it.

Or her.

And when great souls die,
after a period peace blooms,
slowly and always
irregularly. Spaces fill
with a kind of
soothing electric vibration.
Our senses, restored, never
to be the same, whisper to us.
They existed. They existed.
We can be. Be and be
better. For they existed. –Maya Angelou


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