34: Aunt Jeanne

34: Aunt Jeanne

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Hope & Miracles

Aunt Jeanne

Don’t be dismayed at goodbyes. A farewell is necessary before you can meet again. And meeting again, after moments or lifetime, is certain for those who are friends.

~Richard Bach

Sometimes, if you’re very lucky, you’re blessed with a real-life guardian angel. For me, that angel was my Aunt Jeanne. Only ten years my senior, she was like the perfect big sister. For as long as I can remember, Aunt Jeanne was a vibrant, fun-loving, abiding presence in my life. She was my babysitter when I was a child, the person who helped me navigate the stormy seas of adolescence over tea and angel food cake, and the one who became a treasured friend as I grew into adulthood. She showed me how to put on make-up, shave my legs, and do the Locomotion. A whiz at crossword puzzles, she taught me her secrets. She nursed me through broken romances and fractured friendships, giggled with me over the latest schoolgirl gossip, and shared my frustration when things didn’t go my way. She rejoiced in my accomplishments and propped me up when I failed. Aunt Jeanne was someone I could always rely on, as constant as the North Star. And, like a star, she lit up my life with her special light.

When the phone rang one sun-drenched morning in late spring, I had no way of knowing life was about to take an unwelcome turn. I saw Aunt Jeanne’s name on the caller ID and realized that I hadn’t talked to her in a while.

“Aunt Jeanne! It’s so good to hear from you,” I said, looking forward to one of our “catching up” chats.

“Darling, I have some news. Is this a good time to talk?” Her voice, usually upbeat and breezy, sounded flat. Something knotted in my stomach.

“Sure. It’s always a good time to talk to you.” I waited, trying to mask my sudden apprehension.

“I went to the oncologist today,” she began, and I wanted to plug my ears so I wouldn’t hear what she’d say next.

After a courageous, three-year battle with breast cancer, Aunt Jeanne had developed an inoperable liver tumor. She accepted the diagnosis with grace, assuring me that she’d fight this new battle with her characteristic strength, determination and positive attitude. But she admitted that the prognosis was not good.

A few weeks later, I was on a plane heading for New Jersey.

I spent the next month with Aunt Jeanne. At first, it was like old times as we laughed over the latest family gossip or reminisced about bygone days. Sometimes, I could almost convince myself that she was going to beat this, and everything would go back to normal. But as the insidious disease began to take its toll, our conversations turned to more profound subjects. We talked of the transiency of life and the promise of a better world beyond this one, a world free of sickness and pain. We talked about our children and grandchildren and shared our hopes and dreams for them. During those days, we became more than aunt and niece. We became friends.

Then, unexpectedly, Aunt Jeanne seemed to rally. I decided to fly home to Florida and get my life back in order. My husband, John, had booked us tickets to return to New Jersey in two weeks for our grandson’s birthday, and I planned to spend more time with my aunt then.

My first day home was devoted to the mundane tasks I’d put on hold. I was vacuuming the bedroom when John poked his head in.

“Are you almost finished?” he asked. “We’ve got to get going if you want to make the four o’clock Mass.”

I had completely forgotten what day it was. Being a late-riser, I preferred attending church on Saturday afternoons instead of Sunday mornings. I quickly changed clothes, pulled my hair into a ponytail, and jumped into the car. On the way to church, I fixated on all the things I had to do when I returned home.

With those thoughts whirling in my head, I followed John up the church steps. But the minute I walked through the door, my mind was suddenly whisked clean, as if a cosmic broom had swept away all the clutter, and I was overcome by an uncontrollable desire to light a candle for Aunt Jeanne. I found this unnerving, since I hadn’t lit a candle in church since I was a child. As much as I tried to ignore it, the feeling grew stronger.

As we took our places in the pew, I glanced at my watch. It was almost four o’clock, and Mass would begin in a few minutes. I nudged John.

“I’m going to light a candle,” I whispered, ignoring his raised eyebrows.

Kneeling before the rows of flickering votives, I touched the slim lighting stick to a flame and transferred the flame to an unlit wick. As I watched the ruby glass begin to glow, I was shocked to hear myself whisper, “Lord, please let this light her way home.”

Where did that come from? But as I hurried back to the pew, I had the sinking feeling that I knew.

“What was all that about?” John whispered.

I tried to answer but could only shake my head.

When we arrived home, the answering machine was blinking. I hit the “Play Messages” button, steeling myself for what I expected to hear.

“Hi, Jackie.” My uncle’s voice sounded drained. “I hate to leave this on your machine, but I have a long list of people to call. Jeanne passed away around four o’clock. I was with her, and it was very peaceful. I wanted you to be one of the first to know.”

“I was one of the first to know,” I thought. “Aunt Jeanne made sure of that.”

When I awoke the next morning, my first thought was that this would be the first day I’d spend on the planet without my Aunt Jeanne. But I soon discovered that wasn’t really true. She was with me when I sat down to do a crossword puzzle over my morning tea. She was beside me when I put on the bra she insisted I buy, telling me it was the most comfortable thing she’d ever worn. She was watching over my shoulder as I watered the plant she gave me when I moved to Florida. I heard her laughter in the tinkling of the wind chime she made for me from shells she collected in Sanibel. She was whispering in my ear when I sat down to edit my writing, and I felt her excitement when a summer thunderstorm blew in from the Gulf. When I finally lay down to sleep, I realized that there would never be a day without my Aunt Jeanne. And I know that someday we’ll meet again, sit down over tea and angel food cake, and catch up on all that’s happened since the day she became an angel.

~Jackie Minniti

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