My mother grew up in the Appalachians – a remote town buried in the same mountains John Denver crooned about as “Almost Heaven”. The youngest of eleven, she was eager to spread her wings and leave the wilderness by near any means necessary. Funny – now her daughter considers these mountains the closest thing to home she’s known, and often tries to fly back.
The focus of my West Virginia trips early in life was the excitement found in visiting my Aunt Joyce. Aunt Joyce was an absolute firecracker, gifted at so many things – best at bringing laughs to all around her. We’d lose her hiking, only to relocate her by the sound of her Tarzan yodel bouncing off the trees (right along with her body), as she clumsily tried to swing from grape vines. A drive was rarely made down the rocky dirt roads without her loud and emphasized complaints of her “boobs a bouncin’ ”. Aunt Joyce was… a hoot.
I saved my pennies while entering Grad School to meet my Uncle George and Aunt Joyce in beautiful Oahu, my first-ever vacation. It was a lovely, unforgettable trip, complete with shaved ice, snorkeling and hiking all about. But about the only thing that could excite Aunt Joyce on this trip was the shaved ice (and, don’t get me wrong, she loooooooved that!). But, strangely, she often retired to her hotel room while the rest of us explored, expressing a general disinterest in the trip that did weigh on my mind.
It wasn’t long after that Aunt Joyce was diagnosed with a powerful combination of breast and lung cancer — something one would almost never know from the outside, lest the toll of hair loss and physical changes the treatment brings. This woman fought, and she kept hold of her right to keep smiling and laughing every day of her life.
That Christmas my sister and I went to see her, my intentions being to basically help throw Christmas at her home, as she’d likely be too sick to cook or keep up. Silly, me. Aunt Joyce, after comically donning her latest wig to cover her near-bald head, showed off all the clothes she was sewing for the neighborhood people, sent off a bunch of deserts she’d been baking to a bunch of fellow church-goers and wouldn’t rest until dinner was on the table each night, no matter how much I “fussed at her”. She finally stared me down one night, and gave me the “talkin’ to” I’ll never forget.
“I have to accomplish something,” she told me. “I learned early on that in my every day, I’d only feel myself and feel complete if I could go to sleep knowing I’d made a difference that day. Done something for someone that day. Each one of us should always be accomplishing something. I have to.”
It was this philosophy that made her an integral part of every life she touched. Heck, I think the Universe even knew it had to keep her around a bit longer, as her very young granddaughter, Carly, sent up a prayer at the table.
“God, please, please, please, please, please, please, please don’t let my grandma die. I really really really need her,” she prayed.
I think this bought Aunt Joyce an extra 9 months. At my aunt’s next visit to the doctor, though she’d been stage 4 only shortly before, there was no sign of the cancer at all. Unexplained by any of the professionals that had been working with her.
However, about a year later she passed on. At the news, I skipped work, ditched school and fled to the mountains as quickly as I could.
Her son Greg stood at the front of the church. “I’m going to do something that is a bit unorthodox, here. I’d like to ask you all to join me in a tribute to my mom. If she ever helped you with a problem you didn’t ever see an end to, will you please stand?”
Over half the church stood. I stood, next to my sobbing uncle.
“If she ever made food for you when you were in need, will you please stand.”
“If she ever made you clothing.”
“Helped you with your kids…”
People rose and rose. By the end the entire church was standing. It was… beautiful. Everyone was crying, mostly out of gratitude for the life my aunt had lived.
What created this memory? My aunt stated it so plainly. She had impacted all these people, she did this much good, because every day lived she would: “accomplish something”.
Miss you, Aunt Joyce.