There are losses of loved ones in our lives which time does not diminish. The pain of loss remains sharp; the joy of a life well-lived remains vibrant.
Aunt Barbie has been gone 12 years now, but time has not dimmed her shining spirit for me in the least. Caught in a way between two generations, Aunt Barbie was only 4 when my parents married, and proved too sweetly shy to walk down the aisle as the flower girl.
The baby of my mother’s family, Barbie had nieces and nephews who were only a few years younger than she was. For those of us who followed a few years later, Aunt Barbie became the cool aunt we wanted to emulate.
Spending an afternoon with her was the greatest. I will never forget the spring day she came home from high school to find me, still a pre-schooler, spending the day at my grandparents’ house. She scooped me up and carried me to her car with a whoop of laughter and joy.
We drove to the grocery store on the edge of town and she bought me my own little bottle of Coke, then whipped around the park, the windows down, the radio playing Motown, the two of us laughing and singing along. The day remains ingrained in my memory as one of the best ever.
Standing in the shadow of Aunt Barbie’s brightness was just the coolest gift of my childhood. She lit up with a sparkle that no one else I’ve ever known quite possessed. She was tiny, she was a bit fragile, but it only added to her Peter Pan quality of never, ever growing up.
It wasn’t until years later that I realized this aunt who I thought lived such a charmed life had actually suffered more than words could convey.
It was her positive attitude, her cheery disposition and her desire to make everyone around her happy that led us all to want to live a life just like hers.
A serious case of rheumatic fever as a young child kept her out of school for a full year and left her heart damaged for life. She remembered as a young child feeling such pain all over that it hurt to even have the blankets touch her feet and legs.
Her father built a raised wooden bar which he placed near the foot of the bed to hold the covers off of her swollen feet and legs. Years later, when my own daughter suffered this same type of pain from a blood disorder, Aunt Barbie held Caroline on her lap and softly said, “I know exactly what it feels like. I promise it will get better.”
How Barbie remained so sweetly stoic remains a mystery to me. She faced two open heart surgeries while still so young, the loss of her only brother and her parents, the death of a long and happy marriage, and through it all, never lost her sweet spunk.
When my husband and I visited her in the hospital, her chest having been cracked wide open just two days earlier, she smiled and said, “Wanna arm wrestle me for this great food?” as she pointed to a tray of bland nothingness sitting on her bedside cart.
I had forever adored this aunt who invited me at age 7 to come spend a few days with her as she and Uncle Donnie brought their first baby, Jamie Bruce, home from the hospital.
A few years later, I was thrilled to be asked again when little Michelle was born. I felt so big as I fixed Aunt Barbie tea and toast and served her in bed as she let me hold the new baby. I felt like the luckiest little girl alive.
When family picnics were scheduled, I would hear the aunts talking about what new recipe they planned to bring. I remember once asking Aunt Barbie what she was going to fix. She said, “Let’s see….I just might whip up….ummmmmm…..oh, a whole big bunch of potato chips in a bag!” prompting giggles over her silliness and her lack of cooking skills.
I still smile every time I use a cookbook that she gave to me, inscribed with, “I hope you grow up to be a great cook just like your Aunt Barbie!”
After having suffered heart trouble all of her life, we were stunned to learn that this dear aunt had been diagnosed with cancer in her 40s. She said, “It’s for the best that it happened to me instead of somebody else. I’m really used to not feeling all that good.”
After surgery and chemotherapy, we held our breath that this sweet and resilient aunt would get through it. For a year, and then two, Aunt Barbie continued to enjoy her children, her young grandchildren, her job. The sparkle remained strong, and we were all so hopeful.
When the news turned bad, the heartbreak was crushing. Near the end, I remember our conversation about the birthday party her co-workers held for her.
“It was sort of, I don’t know, happy and sad. Nobody said it, but I think they are all sort of figuring out this will probably be my last birthday,” she said to me.
She had turned 49 on that November birthday. Through the worst of her days, she never complained. She lived too far away for regular visits, but I called her often, and her chipper voice always lifted me, leaving me hopeful. She was trying so hard to ease our worries.
“I’m not afraid of dying,” she said as I curled up beside her in her bed one day. “I just feel so bad to know you all are going to be sad. I don’t want to make you so sad.”
She sweetly said she worried most about her children, wishing she could remain for them.
On the Good Friday in April that Aunt Barbie was laid to rest, it felt like the world would never, ever be the same. There was a sorrow that goes beyond loss. We all had lost our happy, childlike beacon. We had lost our Peter Pan and Tinker Bell all rolled in to one beautiful, smiling, vibrant soul.
Aunt Barbie has been on my mind especially strong of late. This is the time of year that we lost her, but it occurred to me that another reason I am filled with her memory is this: I am about to celebrate my 49th birthday in just a few days.
I am about to enter the rest of my life — the days and weeks and months that my dear aunt never got to experience. I feel as though I am living the rest of my life for both of us now.
She remains forever young, forever sparkling with that ever-present smile. She remains forever missed.