Many in the online community got the news a week ago, August 18. My precious Aunt Helene died earlier that day. While her health was diminishing slowly, her sudden death came as a huge surprise to us. I am having such a difficult time coping, and I have never felt such searing, raw emotional pain.
I carry this unbearable grief with me because she was more than my aunt to my brother and me: she was our parent, too. I do not say this flippantly. I loved her as a daughter loves a mother, and I told her so, and she told me she loved me as a daughter.
My Aunt Helene had no biological children. She had my brother and me. And we had her. Of all the people in life who could’ve been our third parent, we were so fortunate to have her in our lives. She was one of the most amazing people ever to grace this Earth. It’s so difficult to capture the essence that is my aunt — I won’t say that was my aunt — because she forever exists in my forever-broken heart.
So I figured I’d take a break from crying and the weariness that accompanies deep grief to list many random things — a mere microcosm of the infinite things — that made my aunt so wonderful, beautiful, special, and endearing to me. She was funny, sweet, kind, insightful, intelligent, and loving. She was a petite, thin woman. Despite her diminutive size, she had the greatest heart I’ve ever known, and she loved unconditionally.
The following are just some of the experiences I remember, mostly between her and me. They are not listed in any order of importance.
1. She was the first one who ever polished my nails and taught me how much fun that could be. Girly activities were the norm as I was growing up.
2. She taught me the importance of self-esteem and self-respect; she had such a huge influence over me that I can easily say she made me the person I am today.
3. She was a great listener. She always inquired and listened as to how my brother’s and my lives were going. She knew everything about us and took great joy in us.
4. When I was a child, she and I had frequent sleepovers at my grandma’s (my aunt’s mother’s) house and we stayed in the same pull-out couch-bed, watching TV, laughing, and having fun.
5. In her younger days, Helene was a world traveler; she always got us souvenirs. She constantly thought of us. We were the light of her life.
6. Born, raised, and living in Manhattan, NY, Helene was trendy. She LOVED the city, and nothing surprised her. She was accepting of all people. And she was never a snob about living in a trendy part of town, (even if it was a rent-controlled public housing apartment). She wore cute clothes, and I always admired her flair for fashion.
7. We loved our walks to Greenwich Village, just to experience this part of the city over and over again.
8. When I was married and had no money, she bought me lots of cute work outfits and casual clothes. She was by no means rich, but she made sure what money she did have was spent on me and that I was well-dressed. She rarely spent money on herself, but when it came to me, money was no object.
9. She called everyone “hon” and “doll,” and I treasured when she addressed me in this way.
10. Everyone loved her, except my ex-husband. Helene told him off privately, as she saw he was neglecting me. She told him, “Beth doesn’t look good, and I don’t like it. You’d better get a job and start working.” Bravo, Aunt Helene.
11. She loved spicy food. She’d add Tabasco sauce to already-spicy dishes, and she’d love it, even when her face turned quite red.
12. She knew a woman from work who was about to become homeless. My aunt took her and her teenage daughter into her apartment so they would have a home until they got back on their feet.
13. Helene allowed her friend’s adult daughter to live with her for years so she could get back on her feet.
14. She attended my very first book launch (I had an essay published in an anthology in 2007), and she was so proud of me.
15. To get physically ready for the said book launch, she and I put on makeup and dressed to the nines at her apartment with an Alicia Keys CD playing in the background. I will never forget that wonderful evening and how important she made me feel.
16. I wanted to buy an autograph pen for that book launch, so she took me to a cool pen place in her neighborhood. She proudly told the salesman, “This is my niece, the author, and we are looking for a pen so she could do a book signing,” and in the next breath, to indicate it should be reasonably priced, she continued, “But she’s not that kind of author, so we don’t want to go too expensive, hon.” I still have that pen, still sign books with it, and I treasure it.
17. She had a unique, fun, and colorful way of speaking, saying “fabu” for fabulous and “No can do, hon” if she felt she couldn’t do something.
18. She loved taking pictures — of everything. When I gave my brother a special baseball, a post on which I will share at another time, my aunt took a zillion shots of the baseball, me presenting the baseball to my brother, and then my brother looking at it. Kind of goofy, but she was always fun.
19. She doted on her grand nephews and niece and was loved by them in return. She got to watch 19-year-old Ben grow up into a wonderful adult. When Ben was a baby, she marveled at his growing vocabulary, obsessively listing each new word he said. When he was a kid, each time he would visit (which was often), she would hide a small present for him in the same drawer, one that was part of a clock. She loved four-year-old Daniel and waxed poetic about him. She loved 9-year-old Ari and encouraged her in ballet.
20. Helene was horribly afraid of cats. She’d say, “When I look at a cat, hon, I see a lion.” And she surely did. I had a cat when I was a kid, and Helene would come over and immediately cling to the walls when my cat appeared.
21. Despite her feelings toward cats, she empathized wholly and completely and sincerely when my cat Cosette died.
22. I went through chemotherapy and radiation physically alone, but I now realize I was never alone. Helene called me constantly to see how I was and to give me advice. She survived breast cancer, so she knew how to help me. Even if she never had had breast cancer, she would’ve known how to help me.
23. Whatever was important to me and my brother and our children was important to her.
24. She helped me get through my divorce by keeping me busy and making me feel special and loved. She was astonished at how I seemed to blossom so quickly from being released from a horrific marriage. “Well, doll,” she said to me repeatedly and proudly, “since you got divorced, you did a 360-degree turn from where you were.”
25. When I was getting diagnosed with breast cancer and called her up suffocatingly crying, telling her I was convinced I would die, she always managed to calm me down by telling me I would be OK. She convinced me to reach out to the American Cancer Society and Gilda’s Club Chicago. While my parents rejected me and refused to talk about cancer, Helene held onto me emotionally and listened to my fears.
26. She supported my adopting a child and gave rave reviews about me to a social worker at my adoption agency, attesting to my fitness to be a mother. Apparently, the social worker was impressed with all her praise about me.
27. When I was dealing with the effects of chemotherapy, Helene gave me one of the best, most thoughtful gifts: a professional massage. After eating Chinese food together for lunch before the scheduled massage, I got really sick and was in pain, so I no longer wanted the massage. Helene coaxed me to go through with it anyway, even for five minutes rather than the hour she paid for. When the masseuse worked on me, I felt the pain leave my body. Post-massage, when I entered the waiting room where my aunt was, she said, “You were so pale before, doll, but now you have color!”
28. She loved all her friends. And she loved all my friends, and she knew all about them through me. She even got to meet a few. And they loved her too.
29. When I had a scare five years post mastectomy and an MRI indicated a mass in the same breast that had had cancer once before, my aunt flew in to stay with me a few days in Chicago — putting her fear of cats aside to be at my side. Her love for me transcended her fear of cats.
30. She cried to a good friend when I was wheeled into the room where the lumpectomy/biopsy procedure would take place on the mass found in my MRI. Though she stayed happy in front of me, she told my friend, “This fuckin cancer!” and sobbed. A few days later, my aunt literally jumped for joy when the doctor told me the mass was benign.
31. She loved jewelry soooo much! Her favorite TV channel? Anything featuring jewelry. Her reason was simple: “Jewelry makes me happy. There’s no war, bloodshed, or sadness with a jewelry channel.”
32. I got my ears pierced as an adult. My pro-jewelry aunt was trying to convince me to get it done for as long as I can remember. When I finally decided to get my ears pierced, she accompanied me. After the piercing, she gave me a kiss and a lollypop usually given to kids. We giggled.
33. When my cat threw up a furball while I was recovering from my bilateral mastectomy and DIEP flap reconstruction, Helene — the hater of all things feline — cleaned it up, as I couldn’t yet bend. She mumbled under her breath “That sonofabitch!” but I smiled, thinking the whole scene funny.
34. When a good friend visited me as I laid in bed recovering, I related to her how Helene cleaned up Cosette’s furball, and then I started laughing hysterically. I couldn’t stop. Although I was laughing at an unpleasant predicament involving my aunt, Helene later told me she felt happy hearing me laugh for the first time in a long time.
35. When I had my bilateral mastectomy and DIEP flap reconstruction, Helene and my brother flew out to be with me. My brother and aunt were there during my hospital stay, and they took great pains to paint and to set up my future baby’s room. Helene stayed for five weeks, living with me and my cat! She got used to Cosette, but she always felt trepidation around her. And she had to endure that cold Chicago winter, and the snowstorm that took place the night before my surgery. The winds were brutal, causing my aunt to say, “What is this place, doll?” She was much more acclimated to the more moderate-but-still-cold climes of Manhattan.
When I was finally home from the hospital, Helene changed my dressings regularly, helped me measure fluid from and empty those horrible Jackson-Pratt drains, accompanied me to my doctors’ appointments, bathed me, lotioned me up, and put me to bed. After she bathed me one night, I cried, saying to her, “I can’t even take care of myself. How am I going to take care of a baby?” And she answered quickly and optimistically, “By the time you get your baby, you will be in much better shape.” And she was right.
To this day, we never told my parents about this intense surgery or Helene staying to take care of me. They historically have not been supportive with my health issues, and they would not have helped me through this crisis. It’s a shame, but it’s true. Besides, Helene was my confidante, the keeper of all my secrets.
So this list gives you a taste of what Helene was like. I cannot believe she’s gone. And though I have pictures, I’m afraid I’ll one day forget what she looked like. I will miss her infectious laugh and the various expressions on her face. I will miss her kind green eyes and so wish to hear her voice, particularly when she would greet me on the phone and say, “Hi Beth!” with all of her enthusiasm, even when she was not feeling her best. I will miss picking up the phone or telling her in person the latest things going on in my life and all about Ari.
The other day I stumbled upon several voicemails from Helene.
Amazingly, I had saved them.
I miss her so much, and the grief is never-ending. My heart is torn apart. I know I am lucky to have had her in my life for so long, but I selfishly and greedily want her around for many more years.
The pain and loss I feel is unbearable and immeasurable.
Back to crying.
How have you dealt with grief?
Feel free to share how you lost a special someone in your life.
What do you recommend to help me better cope with the loss of my beloved aunt?
Tags: bereavement, breast cancer, cancer, cancer and divorce, death, death of a loved one, divorce, grief, loss of a loved one