My aunt passed away April 11 after approximately six months of liver failure due to non-alcoholic cirrhosis. Not long after the diagnosis, her kidneys started failing. Dialysis ensued. She was in the process of jumping through all the bureaucratic hoops to get on the donor list when her conditioned grew grave. Friday April 6, she went into the hospital for the last time. I went back to Indiana for her funeral last week, and though I didn't speak at her service, I wrote the following that night in quiet, tearful solitude. I'm posting it here because I need to know someone saw it. Comments are disabled. Please consider becoming an organ donor. - J
Funerals are hard.
No shit, right?
You have a party, and the one person you want to be there can’t make it.
I stood outside the funeral home and the reality of it all started to become palpable. As if I’d frozen the weight of “Debbie’s gone” behind some layer that melted away when I got out of the car at Flanner Buchannan. Over the past week, I’d been letting a trickle of grief through. I admit it. And on the trip, I’d been focusing on seeing family. So, standing there by my dad’s car, I started thinking about the rough day ahead.
At least I’ll get to see Debb- no…. no I won’t.
At least I’ll get to talk to Cath—no, she’s gone, too.
And oh, shit, friends, that’s when it became real. I’ve never been to a family function without my Aunt Debbie being present. Her laugh was just as much a staple as turkey at Thanksgiving. How can we be getting together and not have her there? And this corpse, this bundle of flesh and chemicals and makeup that was supposed to be her….it wasn’t her.
She was there, though. In the stories people told. In the memories they cherished. In their hugs and tears. In the space between sniffles and sobs.
Debbie meant a lot to many people. And her loss will be felt deeply. A kind and shining heart has left the world.
I didn’t speak at my aunt’s funeral today, but it wasn’t for a lack of wanting to. In the moment, I told myself it was because I hadn’t prepared anything ahead of time, and a eulogy or casket-side chat is not something one wants to improvise, methinks. I also convinced myself that to just stand up and go after someone else’s remarks would be some upstaging act, or that it would be rude to my family somehow.
None of that is accurate. Or if it is, it’s not complete.
I didn’t speak because I didn’t think what I had to say would be appreciated by those gathered to honor Debbie Wyman.
It’s not that it was offensive or cruel in some way. I wasn’t going to stand up there and bitch, moan or otherwise air any laundry—dirty or otherwise. It had more to do with the fact that the things I had to say were about a different woman than the one my cousins and aunts were talking about. And it had to do with a topic that is somewhat taboo in my family.
My aunt and I shared more than just a middle name. Were she sorted into Hogwarts, Debbie Lynn Wyman would be a solid Hufflepuff. She cared deeply about others. If someone needed help, she would find a way to provide it. She would make every gathering a welcoming one with her food, her laughter and her easy-going nature. Debbie and I also share a strong disregard for concepts like shame or dignity. If doing a thing would have made someone laugh, or made someone’s life easier, what is a bit of embarrassment next to that? If you’ve ever heard a “Jamie Will Do It” story, then you have Debbie to thank—at least partially. She planted some of the seeds in me that bloomed into a woman who strives to live fearlessly. She lived giving zero fucks about what anyone had to say. All of her concern was saved for other people.
But we also shared something quite unique in our family: a desire to know our roots.
My grandfather—Debbie’s father—was adopted. The arrangement was not a legal one but an agreement between friends. Debbie went looking for answers, probably before I was born, or just after. I know very little about her expedition into our heritage. But I know that she did everything the old way: knocking on doors and talking to people. There wasn’t an internet then. No Ancestry.com or database. No Facebook or easily searchable census records. She literally went looking for answers.
Now, as I said, this subject in our family is somewhat taboo. I’m not sure who decided that, but, by the time I learned there was anything to know, Debbie had already abandoned her search, saying that she’d “been told” to drop it. I don’t know who told her that or why. I have suspicions, but the people who know are best reached via Ouija board.
But I cared. I wanted to know. I had questions. No one else in the family seemed to give a shit. No one else but Debbie. When I’ve done deep dives into researching my family tree, it’s been Debbie that’s actually responded with genuine interest. Not just, “That’s nice,” but asking me to keep her in the loop with what I found. A few months ago, I discovered more than we could’ve hoped. That was right after she went into the hospital with some dire symptoms. I spoke with her on the phone when she was still an inpatient. She was medicated to the gills, and I didn’t want to disturb her, so I just said, “When you get home, call me. I have some new info for you, and a question or two.”
Okay, so I had a whole page of questions.
That conversation never happened.
She doesn’t know the name of the ship our great-greats were on when they came to America from Sicily more than a hundred years ago. She doesn’t know that her grandmother lived and died just a few miles away. She didn’t get to see anything I brought back from a trip I have yet to take.
And I have a page of unanswered questions.
I feel alone. In a room full of family I felt like the last of my kind. There’s no one else to care. Just me to tend this flame and keep a history that may not matter to another soul.
I’ve always said that funerals are interesting because you discover that you knew someone in a completely different way than others. And this service was no exception. While I agreed with those who spoke of Debbie’s raucous laughter and kindness, her nurturing nature and golden heart, Debbie always seemed to me to be seeking something. Meaning? Understanding? Roots? Family? God? For years I thought of my Crazy Aunt Debbie as someone who was genuinely happy, but who lived with a hole she longed to fill. Her faith sustained her in that regard, I think.
Maybe it’s something that comes with being the oldest grandchild, the first to leave the kids’ table. Around the same time you learn the truth about Santa Claus, you also start to see behind the self-assured confidence in the adults you know. You start to peek behind the curtain. What I saw when I looked at Debbie was someone like me: comfortable, happy, but still searching.
I haven’t been around much over the past 13-20 years. I went to college. I moved away. Lives happened. So, the woman I knew then was not the same person being talked about today. Not entirely. And that’s okay. That’s normal, natural and otherwise how it should be.
My comforts are that Debbie is now with her mother and her sister. Her faith taught her that after death comes paradise, sitting at the right hand of her Lord in peace. While we had a difference of opinion on the matter, I hope that wherever Debbie is now, she’s fulfilled. I hope that she has the answers she sought in life and that she feels whole. I pray that she feels the golden love she gave her family for all of her days. It is my sincerest wish that Debbie is truly at peace.
After the funeral, when only a few people lingered at the home, I took a few moments to myself beside the casket. The hours of exposure to the elements had already taken a bit of a toll on Debbie’s body in repose. Without her smile, her face seemed so wrong.
I thanked her. Not for palmed fifties at Christmas, or gifts, but for trips to the movies. For modeling what it means to be the perfect Crazy Aunt. (Ash, I’ve got you covered, boo.) For carrying a torch that is now mine alone. I thanked her for being my aunt.
There’s no unfinished business there. No words unspoken.
But damn is there a hole.