My Aunt Lois passed away from pancreatic cancer last week, so naturally she has been on my mind.
Aunt Lois wasn’t much a computer user, but in the last few months she did get on Facebook. I was very grateful for that because I had been meaning to reply to her letters by hand, and I wasn’t quite getting around to it. So I was glad to have a chance to be able to message back and forth with her. Towards the end, she couldn’t sleep much, so she had a lot of time on her hands and one of the things she did with it was go back and read through my blog. I think most of it was new to her. I am so glad that this blog was here for her to go through; in a way it justifies the entire enterprise. Even though I don’t blog anymore, I used to spend a lot of time on it; having it here for her to go through when she needed it and relive a lot of moments really makes all the effort worth it.
One of the things she talked to me about was how much she enjoyed the post I made when my Uncle Lenny died. I remember at the time when I was writing that, I was worried people would find it in poor taste. It certainly isn’t the nicest memorial anybody ever wrote about somebody. But I remember feeling very strongly at the time that it was true and that Uncle Lenny would have appreciated it, and wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. Rereading it now, as I just did, I can see why Aunt Lois appreciated it. In fact, it occurs to me how similar Uncle Lenny and Aunt Lois really were. I never really thought much about it before. In any case, I think her appreciation of that post gives me some license to write one about her now, and just like with that post, I think Aunt Lois would be less concerned with what people thought of her and her life and her choices than she would be with someone speaking the truth, speaking with conviction, and “telling it like it is”.
Every time I talked to Aunt Lois in the past few months I couldn’t help but mention again at how impressed I was with her choice not to receive treatment for her cancer. I remember her saying for years that if she ever got cancer with a low chance of survival, she would refuse treatment and instead enjoy her remaining days without the fog of chemotherapy. Seriously, I don’t even remember how it came up, but she always maintained she wouldn’t. So when she did end up getting pancreatic cancer, I can’t say I was surprised when she decided not undergo chemotherapy. My stepsister did pursue chemotherapy for her pancreatic cancer and I can tell you, it’s a rough ride. And in the end, she didn’t get many more days than Aunt Lois anyway.
But that being said, I’m still impressed that Aunt Lois stuck to her guns about it. And to be totally honest, I was a little glad, too; not because I didn’t want her to get treatment, but because I understood how important it was to her, and how much it represented who she was as a person. To have her end her life on someone else’s terms just felt like it would have been such a betrayal of who she was. I have so much respect for the fact that, even as she was looking death in the eyes, she stayed true to her core self.
That’s not to say she didn’t make changes in her life: ways that she chose to spend her time, people she chose to forgive, opportunities that she decided to take that maybe she wouldn’t have otherwise. But she did it in a way that was herself, with her chin up. I find that inspiring.
And if one makes the choice not go pursue treatment, it occurs to me that this all went about as well as she could have wanted. She had more time than the doctors predicted, and she made use of every minute of that time. One of the last entries she wrote in her journal said that this was, “the best year of [her] life”. What more could anybody ask for?
You wouldn’t think that Aunt Lois and I had a lot in common, certainly not a lot of overlap in interests. I remember one time we were coming to Wisconsin and Grandma’s house was all booked up, so we asked if we could stay at her house instead. This must have been at least 15 years ago, because I think it was before we had kids. We ended up staying up late and talking, and hours into the night Aunt Lois confessed that she was really nervous to have us over because she thought we wouldn’t have anything to say to each other. And she was saying it in kind of amazement, because of course we DID have a lot to talk about, and I think she realized, in retrospect, that it was a ridiculous thing to think. And after she had that realization, I think it changed things between us a little bit. Although my strongest memories of her will always be of chatting at Grandma’s, playing cards (3 and 13!) and Scrabble, camping at Waupaca, and watching Packer games, I think where we really connected was over writing. She told me about poetry she had written that she had never shared and told me her greatest ambition in life was to publish a poetry collection. That’s something I never knew until that moment, and this from someone whom I had known my entire life.
Although I don’t consider myself much of a poet, I do absolutely love writing. I guess most people who didn’t know Aunt Lois well probably wouldn’t have realized how much she loved poetry. If you knew some facets of her life, none of them would scream at you “this person loves poetry!” But she loved it deep down in her BONES and I think she recognized in me a kindred spirit. When she wrote me to ask me to read the poem she wrote for her funeral, she said that she knew I “respect[ed] the family poems”. If you aren’t in our family or didn’t know Aunt Lois well, you might not realize how much that statement, that sentiment, meant to her. I do hold deep respect for the family poems, she knew I did, she knew on some level, in the end, that we were the same. I hope she knew how much I respected the way she lived her life.
I said at the end of Lenny’s post that the “world lost a true original”. Could any less be said for Aunt Lois? Certainly I’ve never seen anybody specify a “tailgate themed” funeral, nor include “shots of RumChata” and “Black Sabbath at the highest possible volume” included in their last wishes.
I had a Mountain Dew yesterday in your honor Aunt Lois, for the first time in at least 25 years.
And it tasted pretty damn good.