I was sitting on the subway in D.C. when the email came through: Aunt Alice had passed peacefully in her sleep a few hours before. I wasn’t surprised, per se, for the last time I had seen her a few months prior, it was clear that our sweet Aunt Alice was weak and tired and dwindling in spirit. Sure, she was still the same great auntie I had always known and loved, and yet, I suppose she wasn’t. She was 96, after all, and had led a full and lovely life. She deserved to be tired.
Aunt Alice always had a special place in the hearts of the Swearingen cousins. Though she was one of the many siblings of our grandma, she wasn’t just any old run of the mill sibling. No, she was the carbon copy of our Grandma Kathryn. There was really no denying it. It was her laugh, her touch, her smile, her everything. Alice loved to tell a story how, one day while out running errands, someone in town looked down at her sandaled feet and said, “Why Alice, you even have Kathryn’s feet!” It’s true. She even had Kathryn’s feet. She had Kathryn’s everything.
Having lost our Grandma Kathryn much too soon more than thirty years ago, we quickly attached ourselves to Aunt Alice to keep the memory of our grandma alive. And you know what? It worked. We reveled in her ability to tell a story in the funniest way that maybe took a few gratuitous detours along the way. We basked in the way she could laugh heartily, most frequently at herself. We welcomed the way that she gave so freely of her affection. It was all there. It was all Grandma Kathryn.
About three or four years ago, my sister and I made our annual pilgrimage to Morton, Illinois to see Aunt Alice and other assorted family members. Aunt Alice asked us to go with her for her daily trip to the nursing home to see her sister Babe, who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s many years prior. On the way there, Aunt Alice told us that someone once asked her, “Why do you go see Babe every day? It’s not like she knows you do it.” To which Alice softly replied, “Yes, but I know.”
And that stuck with me. That’s the kind of family I come from. The kind that sticks together no matter what. The kind that overlooks the challenges and celebrates the togetherness at every opportunity. A family of siblings who all lived in the same small town for their whole lives and were each other’s most important social connection. “Didn’t somebody in this family have a secret?” I once asked Aunt Alice. “Oh, I suppose so” she said with a quick chuckle, “…but not for very long!” This family’s unique brand of togetherness and transparency led to an accountability that doesn’t exist for every family. It taught us how to conduct ourselves in the world and with each other. It taught us that family may not be all you have, but family is the most important thing you have. It taught us that, even if she doesn’t know it, you still go visit your sister with Alzheimer’s in the nursing home faithfully every day. Because you know.
That evening after I learned of her passing, I went out to dinner with a colleague and we decided to walk back to the hotel afterwards. Along the way, we happened upon the National Cathedral. It is an incredible piece of architecture and we eventually found our way inside. Immediately upon entering, we heard someone at the front of the church playing the flute. They weren’t just playing the flute, though. They were playing “Amazing Grace.” A little stunned, but then again not, I plopped myself down on a pew and said a prayer for my sweet Aunt Alice who had taught me so much. My prayer, really, was mostly to say thanks. I lit a candle in her honor and made my way back to my colleague. He had been admiring all of the stained glass, but was perplexed as to why one panel was illuminated so much more brightly than the others. We went outside to investigate, and as we turned the corner we stopped cold in our tracks. There before us was biggest, brightest full moon we had ever seen. And just to the right of that, a cloud formation that looked like an angel. We grabbed each others arms and I said something to the effect of, “Oh wow, I think we are having a moment here.” A moment, indeed. A perfectly serendipitous moment to remember a remarkable woman from a remarkable family.