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2021 Didn't Start as Planned


Stone statue of angel in cemetery, wings spread, seen frm behind
Photo by Susan Mark
My Aunt MaryJane's death didn't feel real until the next morning. It didn't even process. My brother called, and I wanted to be supportive, but I still hadn't felt her death. It wasn't until the next morning that I cried.

Like many, I was never so glad to take one calendar off the wall and put up a new one on January 1. The year of 2020 seemed cursed. We never yelled BINGO, but we had enough unfortunate squares on our card that we were in the running. 

2021 actually started out gloriously on January 1 with a long cross-country ski on that rarest of Wyoming days: no wind. The next day my mother* called to let me know Aunt MaryJane had just passed away. 

MaryJane was funny. Sometimes it was without meaning to (eg. the time she set the microwave on fire), yet she laughed so easily at herself that you still ended up laughing with her and not at her. Chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia left her flattened a fair amount of time, but she used her limited stores of energy to show up for life, by God. She was loving and quirky and I enjoyed talking with her.

A few years ago, she was diagnosed with Stage 3 fallopian tube cancer. After her initial 11-hour surgery, one of my brothers** texted us with the update that she was out of surgery and recovering. Then he listed all the body parts and pieces they took out, leaving me wondering if they left anything in that woman's abdominal cavity. 

She spent months in and out of the hospital, with tubes and holes in her body that meant she couldn't take a shower. We talked of how she should throw a party when she was finally allowed one. Sometimes her hopeful attitude faltered. I told her she was allowed to get discouraged. No one has to keep up a positive front all the time.

I wrote her letters then, long ones handwritten on sheets of notebook paper. I'm a writer. I can never figure out how to constrain myself to the polite proportions of a note card. Letters are all I can think of to do when someone I care about is in crisis three time zones away.

We didn't hold our annual family gathering in December in Arizona this year because of the pandemic, so I didn't see her in 2020. I assumed we'd get together in post-vaccination December 2021. Despite the fatigue and fibro, despite the cancer that was nibbling at her again, there was nothing indicating she was in imminent danger of death.

Had I known she would be gone so soon, would I have gone to see her? I don't know. There would have been too many other people I would have put at risk from my travels. I would have, however, made it a point to text and call more, to fire up my Zoom account and see her face. After the worst of the cancer situation had passed, I fell out of the habit of keeping in touch. In some ways, it was my own denial that anything was wrong, a way of convincing myself that she was fine.

I don't get a do-over. None of us do.

I do get to take the lessons from this, though. Laugh. Keep in touch. And dammit, show up for life while you've got it.


*One of four women I consider to be my mothers, actually. I have a complex family that requires a Venn Diagram.

**I started with seven brothers and still have six, in two separate families. Did I mention the Venn Diagram?


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