How to be an Undertaker

Our family said goodbye to two remarkable women this past December: My grandmother and my aunt died within two weeks of each other.

Although the proximity of these events, along with their timing – just before Christmas – felt particularly unfair, it was, perhaps, statistically unsurprising. It turns out that the death rate spikes during the winter months, likely due to the prevalence of seasonal illness and the increased stress that colder weather places on the immune system. 

My grandmother, at 104 years old, enjoyed a sharp mind and relatively good health right up until the end, and had been able to remain in her home thanks to the diligent care of her nearby children. My aunt, at 78 years old, had fought for three years with health issues related to a breast cancer diagnosis and treatment, buoyed by the love and support of family, friends, and neighbors. Both women figure prominently in some of my happiest childhood memories. They were warm, loving, incredibly funny, and they showed up: both were still sending my children birthday cards right up until they died. They were also tough: Both were single mothers for a time. In raising a combined seven children to adulthood, my grandmother and my aunt each endured more than their fair share of tragedy. 

How do you write about two entire lives? Perhaps the best I can do is to tell you that when her daughter-in-law told her that her beloved Boston Celtics had played well in a recent game, my grandmother – literally on her deathbed and barely conscious – mustered enough strength to gasp out, “Wow….Wow.” And my aunt insisted that the upbeat Beatles song, “When I’m Sixty-Four,” be played as the processional at her funeral. 

The circumstances surrounding their deaths were different. My grandmother was my father’s mother; my aunt was my mother’s sister. I was able to say goodbye to my grandmother, but not to my aunt. I was unable to attend my grandmother’s funeral in person, but I took my four oldest children to my aunt’s services.

Click here to continue reading this week’s “Faith in Vermont” column in The Addison Independent.

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