I usually find the words to celebrate the life of someone who has departed this world. I draw great inspiration in their stories and love sharing them with the world. Today I find myself struggling to even accept that my beloved Aunt Valeria has died at the age of one hundred two. She has been a constant presence in my life for all of my seventy two years and a source of comfort and joy that has sustained me through the most difficult times of my life. While I celebrate her release from the pain that has been her companion for many years now I will miss knowing that she is just down the road from me with her impish giggle and her sweet smile.
Aunt Valeria was the oldest daughter in a family of eight children who very early in life happily accepted the responsibilities of helping her mother with the care of all of her siblings. In particular she always looked after my mother even after they were both grown. The two of them talked on the phone every single day, sometimes for hours at a time, especially when my mama was afflicted with the rollercoaster of emotions associated with her mental illness.
I always loved going to my Aunt Valeria’s home when I was a child. She welcomed us with open arms and offered us old fashioned cookies made with raisins that I only learned to appreciate when I became an adult. She had married when she was only sixteen years old and she and her husband moved to the home where she would live until she had to move to a nursing facility because of the fractures in her bones caused by osteoporosis. She unexplainably had a twin bed in her dining room and as a child I always believed it was there in case I ever needed a place to live. I had no doubt that she would take me in a heartbeat and so I never worried about being orphaned.
On the day my father died when I was eight Aunt Valeria was the first person to arrive to care for my mother and me and my brothers. She had the horrible task of telling me that my father had died. Somehow it was right that it was her and I have always loved her for being the one who was with me in my moment of unbounded grief. There was always something so gentle and stalwart about her that made me feel as loved and secure as with my mother.
Aunt Valeria enjoyed following Bishop Fulton Sheen’s television program and if we happened to arrive at her home when she was watching we had to sit quietly while she solemnly took in his guidance. She was a very spiritual woman without making a big show of her faith and I liked that about her. She also had a playful side to her that I saw in the copies of Confidential magazine that often lay on her coffee table. I knew better than to openly browse through the stories of stars and the rich and famous but I surely snuck a peek when nobody was looking.
Aunt Valeria was a woman of simple and frugal tastes who seemed to need very few luxuries. Instead she was devoted to her husband, Dale, her three children and her faith. When my Uncle Dale became critically ill with emphysema she spent her days caring for him without complaint for many years. My mother always said that her sister had earned a place in heaven with all of her good works and I do believe that is so.
As a child we did so many things with my Aunt Valeria. I fondly remember going to see the movie Oklahoma with her and my cousin Ingrid. We were all dressed up for the occasion and together we delighted in the music. Of course Aunt Valeria had some stories about the actors and actresses from her magazine reading that made me enjoy the occasion even more.
After Aunt Valeria went to St. Dominic’s Nursing Home my mother and I often visited her. She always made me feel so good about myself, telling me how young and pretty I looked. She also kept my mother relaxed and centered even when Mama was suffering from her bipolar disorder. Aunt Valeria had a calming effect on her that nobody else was able to duplicate.
After my mother died my husband and I continued to visit Aunt Valeria. Her hearing began to go so we took a little whiteboard with us to “talk” with her. She always asked if I thought I would go to heaven when I died and I assured her that I felt pretty good about that happening. Then she would joke and say that she was too mean to get there. Of course I knew that nothing was further from the truth and I insisted that if she could not get into heaven then nobody could. We would have a good laugh over that. She had a delightful sense of humor.
When the pandemic isolated her from us I missed seeing her and bringing her Snickers bars and Hershey’s Kisses. The staff told us that it did not matter what she ate because other than her inability to walk and hear she was in perfect health. I sometimes stopped to get her potato salad and barbecue because she had once mentioned that the food where she lived was so bland. She would gobble those delicacies down with a gusto that belied her age while fending off the other residents who wanted to share her goodies. She would explain to them that they did not have permission for such things in their diet.
On our last visit I told her that one of the nurses thought that I was her daughter and had commented that she and I looked just alike. With her usual jocularity she laughed and said,”Poor girl!” We giggled together and I felt as though I just wanted to be with her forever like the little girl that she had always loved. I could not imagine a world without her.
The pandemic came and everything changed. During the outbreak she actually contracted the dreaded Covid-19 virus and became so ill that doctors told the family that her death was imminent. We all prayed that she would make it and as we expected she rallied with the same kind of strength that she has exhibited for all of her life. I cried to think of her being so alone and maybe not even able to understand why nobody was coming to visit her. I missed her every single day.
My Aunt Valeria died last week. Her passing was quiet and peaceful. She was one hundred two years old. She had finally been able to visit in person with her son and daughter for her birthday in May. I suppose that she had been steeling herself for that moment for a year and half and once it occurred she knew that it was okay to let herself go. I have not seen her since 2019, but her goodness and love are tucked away forever in my heart. I know that she is finally in heaven and freed from the confines of her wheelchair and rolling bed. I can hear her delighted giggle as she is reunited with her husband, her parents and her siblings. I know that they are happy to see her as well. I really think she is the newest saint and nobody will ever convince me otherwise.
Until we meet again, Aunt Valeria, enjoy your time in heaven. You earned that crown in every act of kindness and sacrifice that you so generously gave us all.