This morning began with a series of text messages. Texting is not my preferred mode of communication, and I don’t use it often, so when a series of “dings” occurred in rapid succession, it was a sure sign that something was amiss. Indeed, My Aunt Fran went to heaven this morning.
I sent a short message of condolence to my cousin and read the same from other cousins as they came across my screen. I brewed a cup of coffee and sat in the quiet living room, not quite sure how to feel.
I grew up with many loving aunts and uncles, but Aunt Fran was a favorite. She taught Sunday School and Children’s Church. She had a room in her basement full of little toys that she would give out as rewards for good behavior. For many years, she regularly cut my hair while I sat on a chair in her basement and she even allowed us to roller skate on the concrete floor. Sometimes Fran would “kidnap” me for a day. Friendly’s Ice Cream Parlor was a short walk from her home, and we would go together and she would buy me a sundae that was so big that I couldn’t finish it. Aunt Fran bought me my very first tea set, long gone now, but I remember it well.
Aunt Fran was a talented story teller. Whether the story was from the Bible or from her youth, Fran had a rare talent for making even the ordinary exciting. I particularly remember her re-telling of the story of David and Goliath. She played each role, picking up smooth stones and putting them into a pouch for her imaginary slingshot, and then carefully fitting each one into the pouch to slay the giant. A day with Aunt Fran was magical.
Mom and Fran were constant companions during the years that they shared at the Apostolic Christian Rest Home in Mansfield. Each had her own small apartment just across the street the other. Fran couldn’t see, and Mom had a hard time walking. Mom was Fran’s eyes, and Fran was Mom’s legs. They were a good team. They complemented each other; they needed each other. Even when Mom’s illness had progressed to the point where she could no longer truly care for herself, she wouldn’t leave Fran.
When cooking a big meal became too much for Mom several years ago, I began cooking Christmas dinner and transporting it to Mansfield, where we would serve up a feast in Mom’s small apartment. We always invited Aunt Fran, and she always came down the hall, usually bearing gifts, which were often treasures from her own apartment that she no longer used for herself. I use one such gift – a cast iron skillet – daily, and the lamp made of pink Himalayan salt glows in my study.
In the final year or so that Mom and Fran spent together, Fran’s hearing was failing, and her mind wasn’t working as before. Last Fall, I was staying a few days with Mom prior to bringing her home with me because Mom had grown too weak to get herself in and out of bed. She became very sick the night before we were to leave for my home, and I had to call an ambulance. I called Fran’s apartment, too, but there was no answer. Although I asked other family to let Fran know what had happened, she was convinced that I had stolen Mom away in the middle of the night without even letting them say goodbye. No amount of persuasion by myself or others involved could ever convince Fran that I had, in fact, wanted her to know what was happening and even had tried to reach her. As far as I know, Fran never forgave me. I had never known Fran to be angry, but angry she was. That night, I not only knew I was going to lose Mom, I lost my Franny, too.
Forgiveness is a lesson that took me more than 50 years to understand. I’m doing much better with it, but I still struggle with forgiveness regularly. It’s easier to understand it than to master it.
I struggle often to let go of the hurt that I cause myself with other people’s words and deeds so that I can just love them – unconditionally – regardless of if they apologize or even feel bad for their “wrongdoing.”
I struggle to forgive myself for the times that I fail – whether it’s the dumb thing I did in second grade, or one of the times that I failed so completely that people I love won’t forgive me even though I’ve apologized. I struggle to let go of that pain, too, and just love them – unconditionally – regardless of if they return that love or even acknowledge my existence.
When I am having those particular struggles -the ones where I struggle to forgive myself – I slip into a mindset where nothing I do is good enough. I don’t write because “who else would ever want to see it.” I don’t post pictures of my knitting or of my teacups because “people will just think I’m looking for attention.” I don’t play the piano because I’m rusty and I make a lot of mistakes, and I struggle to get on the treadmill because I’m slower than I was in 2016. Forgiveness is the key to happiness, if you ask me, because letting go of pain frees up so much energy to just enjoy life and to just enjoy living.
This morning I forgave Fran for being angry with me, and I forgave myself for not foreseeing that my failure to reach her myself would cause hurt so deep that it would destroy a 50-year bond. I allowed myself to weep, and to imagine Fran and Mom, reunited. I believe that Fran, moments after her death, was restored to perfect health with perfect hearing and a sharp mind, and that she understood perfectly when Mom told her that I had, in fact, tried to phone her.
I made it to the office this morning a little late, but pretty much on time. All day, my memories have kept spilling out my eyes and down my cheeks. I’m not one given to loud crying generally, but my eyes have grown very leaky since I reached “a particular age.” It’s one of many reasons why I don’t bother with makeup.
When I arrived at the office, my mail was piled on my desk. On the top of the pile was an envelope with a handwritten address. A bright red cardinal appeared on the postage stamp in the upper right corner – a lone pop of color on a black and white document. It’s said that the sighting of a cardinal is a message from a loved one in Heaven. I saw a post to that effect on Facebook yesterday, so it must be true!
I looked at the return address and saw Dalton, Ohio 44618. Home! No matter how long I am in Vermilion, which I love, my heart screams “home” when I think of Wayne County. In the envelope was a beautiful letter from a beautiful lady who has always been special. We haven’t seen or talked in more than 30 years, but today, just when I needed a lift, her letter landed on my desk on a morning when I was down, not only because my aunt died, but because the stubborn needle on the scale just won’t budge no matter how strictly I diet or how many miles I run right now.
She shared some of her memories of my parents which I had forgotten about, but which flooded back. She told me how much she’s enjoyed reading the little blog posts that I share. She talked about my writing about struggles and transparency and told me that I make a difference. She put a smile on my face.
I keep coming back to that cardinal on the stamp, and the idea of a message from a loved one in Heaven. The letter left Dalton, Ohio, a mere 50 or so miles away, on November 28th and arrived here on December 4, a day when I wasn’t in the office. I didn’t personally receive the letter until I got to my desk on December 5- six days after the letter left “home.”. The pony express would have been faster! That dear lady closed her letter with “God’s grace and blessing on [my] journey.” In God’s perfect time, a letter landed on my desk at least 4 days late, carrying with it a message of love and hope and friendship. I feel like it also carried with it a message of forgiveness from Fran, and perhaps a “hi, I miss you,” from Mom, stuck to the letter with the glue on the cardinal stamp.
My friend from back home had no idea what I would be struggling with on THIS day on the day that she mailed the pretty Christmas card with the beautiful letter inside. She simply listened to the call she felt to reconnect. In doing so, she made a difference. In this day of instant messages and texts and emails, it is such a thrill to open a card or letter and read a message meant just for *ME*. Had she emailed, instead, I never would have received the message with the red cardinal at just the moment that I needed it.
It is possible to smile through tears. I know, because I’m doing it right now.