I was twelve years old. I woke up early and got myself dressed for school. I even remember what I was wearing. A white T-Shirt underneath flower printed cloth overalls.
I scrunched my permed hair and lathered it with gel because God knows I didn’t want those spirals to frizz out midday. I put on my white Keds and I walked downstairs for breakfast. It was early and the house was still. The frigid winter air made the hair on my arms stand tall as I bounded into the kitchen.
Mom was standing at the kitchen sink staring out the window. I knew something was wrong. The air felt like sorrow.
“What’s wrong?” I asked quietly. Mom turned to me, her eyes and nose red. I walked over to her.
“I got a call last night,” she said with a trembly voice. “Aunt Joy is in the hospital. They don’t think she will live.” And with that my mom broke down. I will never forget that moment. My mom’s head on my shoulder. For the first time she needed me.
I went to school with a heavy heart that day and a sense of dread. When I got off the bus I saw Dad’s car in the driveway. At that moment I knew, but I didn’t want it to be true. Dad was waiting for me in the kitchen and when I walked in the door he engulfed me in a tight embrace.
“Where’s Mom?” I asked.
“She is on a plane to South Carolina,” Dad said softly. He stroked my hair.
“How is Aunt Joy?” I can still feel the sense of loss when I think of that moment.
Dad paused. “She passed away,” he said.
It was February 4, 1991. Twenty years ago. It is a moment that defined and shaped my young life. It’s the moment when death became real and life became precious. It was a time when I realized that nothing is guaranteed. Someone can go in for a routine procedure and end up gone…sometimes without explanation.
The days that followed are some of the happiest and most sorrowful of my life. I am blessed with an extended family that has a depth of love, grace and heritage that is hard to match. For an entire week I was surrounded by the people who love me most and for whom I feel the deepest love. Because I was still so young, the time together with my cousins is filled with fun memories. Again, I believe that is God’s grace in protecting my still developing heart.
The reason, however, for our gathering was deeply sorrowful. There are moments of that week that are burned deeply in my memory and, quite honestly, they’re too painful to record on such a public forum. Partly because they are tucked away in places that are just mine and partly because many of them involve the pain I witnessed in others and the stories aren’t really mine to share. They are moments that I wish I could forget. One of the blessings of being a writer is the ability to recall in detail emotions and settings.
It’s also a curse…
As tough as some of those moments are to think about, they are also moments that God used to show me what grace is. My Aunt Joy’s death was not a momentary blip but was the catalyst for how God would mold and shape me as I grew. And now, as an adult, I can still look at that day twenty years ago and see God’s grace in my life. Aunt Joy’s death set into motion a whole host of trials to be overcome and brought about joy and triumph that wouldn’t have been seen otherwise.
Her death affected all of us. It shaped and defined our entire family, all in different ways. Some, like her three children, were affected much more deeply. Others, like her siblings, still feel the sting of her death. But all of us can look back on that time and say God is good and He was there.
Today I remember.