Long live the Queen. Queen of the fairies, that is.
I’ve been missing from here, I know. At the end of January, we received the devastating news that my beloved aunt had ovarian cancer. The word “aunt” is so incomplete because this woman was so much more than my father’s sister, and I’m not sure I can adequately describe what a powerhouse of love, happiness, caring, adventurousness she was. And then she had the audacity to die three weeks after her diagnosis. My sister and I raced across the Atlantic on the first flight when we got the call that things were going very badly. We touched down in Gatwick airport in London, England, desperate to hold her hand one more time. To see that sparkle in her eyes that used to light up a room, to hear her voice again. The minute the wheels touched the ground, I turned on my cell phone (I know, I know, but this was an emergency) and texted my brother that we had touched down. We still had another 6 hours to go before getting to the final destination in Ireland, but I needed to update the family so that we could feel included. The only response back was “call me please.” I turned to my sister, fear gripping my heart, and told her I think she’s gone, I think we’re too late. I called my brother straight away and he asked me where I was. I told him we were still on the plane, and he responded calmly that I should call him when we got off the plane.
That’s when the despair really gripped us. The plane couldn’t get to the gate fast enough. We were seated in the back too so we had to wait for everyone to get off. We ran down the gangplank and the second we exited the door, I called him back, only able to say “we’re off the plane” when he answered. And then the worst news in the world was given. This woman I revered, this woman who showed me what love was as a child, had died ten minutes ago. My heart shattered into little pieces in that airport and I sobbed uncontrollably. My sister saw instantly what had happened and I could hear her heart breaking too. It felt wrong that the world didn’t stop spinning. How were all these people walking around me not falling down in grief? Didn’t they realize the universe was incomplete now? How did time continue on because there shouldn’t be a world where that magnificent woman isn’t in it. The only thing I could think was W.H. Auden’s poem “Funeral Blues.”
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.
Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.
He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.
The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.
We sobbed for the next several hours as we transferred to Heathrow airport, waiting for the last flight home. We had missed her. We had missed it. Missed death. I had desperately wanted to be there for her when she died, just as she was there for me all through my life. I had wanted to soothe her, assure her that she was loved as much as she had loved us. She needed to know how much I appreciated her and what she had done. How she had changed my life when we were in the worst of times and made it not only better, she made our time with her magical. My darling aunt was 82 years old when she died, but her secret was that she was really Peter Pan. She loved fairies and butterflies, adventures and discoveries. She never grew up and as children, she was a magnet to us. A magnet of happiness and wonder, security and love. As adults, we appreciated her lack of adultness, watching in awe as she still marvelled at the world, at nature, and was able to still always smile, always give a hug, always touching our hands or arms in a silent gesture of love. No matter what the situation, she was able to see a positive and move forward. Help all those around her and persevere. She worshipped the wonderment of children, and invested heavily in keeping their dreams alive. When my niece was seven years old, she walked up my aunt’s garden with my aunt, and found a fairy house. Still believing in fairies, my aunt encouraged her to write a letter to them and my niece left it in their little house. The next day, my niece checked on that fairy house and saw that, not only had her letter been received, the fairies had written back! That was the woman she was.
Her house is covered in pictures and statues of fairies and gnomes since she was an avid gardener. She loved belly dancing, playing the piano, singing, dressing up in costumes, making the most out of life. A woman so wonderful that when she retired, the partner of the firm she worked at (boring accountants no less!) sent out a memo to the entire company announcing her retirement, titling the piece “Greenfingered Bellydancer To Quit.” Click on the picture to see the full memo.
I walked through that house last week, Friday to be exact, knowing it was more than likely the last time I’d ever set foot in that house, that the symbol of security and love encompassing my childhood would be gone, knowing that I’d never hear that melodious voice again or see that gleaming smile. My heart broke apart all over again.
However, the oddest thing happened while I was there for her funeral. I learned that she had told our cousin the day before she died, the day before our arrival, that she didn’t want my sister and I to see her “like this,” and while I felt slightly robbed of the opportunity to see her again in person, I understand what she did was completely out of love. Her final, biggest gesture of love was letting herself die. She let herself slip away into the other world before we arrived so that we could always remember that vibrant, larger-than-life lady. And she was a pure lady. Our family gathered, we shared stories of our aunt and laughed wonderfully. Even in death, she was still making us smile. We laughed, we drank, we reminisced, we connected, we smiled, and only occasionally did we let ourselves mourn because in keeping with her style, one would never be morose.
Last night, I lay in bed thinking about her, and the gift she had given us. Because she was truly a gift. While we had missed her death, we were there for the most important part – her life. We were blessed to be a part of it. And while my heart feels like it’s broken, I realized that she had created that heart, taught it how to love, made it bigger and stronger than anyone else ever could and for that I am truly grateful. In 2002, I wrote her a card thanking her for being so wonderful to me, teaching me how to love and for showing me such love throughout my life. In 2012, I wrote another card to thank her for teaching me how to be a mother, because even though she didn’t have any biological children, she showed me how a mother loves a child. I thanked her, telling her every time she told me I was a good mother, she should know that she and my grandmother were the ones to show me what a good mother was. As I looked through her papers last week, I found both those cards that she had kept forever. I was stunned.
Her heart was far bigger than her tiny little statuesque figure would make you believe. It makes me want to keep her legacy alive. To show my children the love and patience she showed me. To not get caught up in the minor details of daily life and to embrace it instead. As my sister said in her eulogy for my aunt, the journey was as important as the destination. That’s what we are all on, a journey. We can chose how we react, chose how live our lives, chose what is important. We can do it with a smile on our faces and appreciate the simplest of things around us. To not conform to the societal expectations given a certain age, and to simply live life to the fullest. To love unconditionally. To be happy. To appreciate the world around us. Appreciate the people around us. Therein lies the key.
As a friend put it perfectly, everyone needs a Rita in their life. And more importantly, everyone needs to BE a Rita in someone’s life.