The Year that Changed My Life
Last January I wrote an email to my dad's sister, my Aunt Joan, who lived in Canada all alone. I found out she was suffering from lung cancer and I felt an obligation to help her. I offered to come out and help take care of her with anything she may need. As a child, I visited her every summer and I hadn't seen her since I graduated from college, about 15 years. My aunt is the one who put me through college, and was always there for me when I was in a jam. I always felt a lot of graditude toward her, but was never in a position to really,truly show her how I felt. I really couldn't believe I hadn't seen her in so long.
In my email I mentioned to her that I knew she was there for her Aunt Lou when she was very sick and that she took care of my grandmother until she died. She had always done a lot for my father as well. Joan also took care of her husband for many years after he had a stroke and was paralyzed and unable to communicate. They never had any children and it was just my father and I left. My father is not healthy, he is morbidly obese, and does not attempt to take care of himself, so he couldn't be there for her. I told Joan that my mother would help with my kids and that she deserved to have someone there for her after all she had done.
A few weeks passed and I recieved a short email from her saying she would like me to come and that how long was up to me. She wanted help selling her condo and finding a place more suitable for her to live. It was an odd email, very short, and I could tell she really needed me, and that it was hard for her to ask for the help. I immediately jumped into action and started planning. I had no idea how long I was going for so I decided to pack up our apartment and put everything in storage. My mother agreed to keep my three girls, ages 16, 13, and 9 at the time, just a sidenote, I was an only child. This was a big deal, because my kids are so active and busy in their sports. I was amazed and beyond appreciative of the friends of mine who stepped up and helped her and how she responded and was there for my aunt as well.
On March 5, with tears gushing down my face I left to the airport. Leaving my kids was incredibly difficult. They are my life and I hadn't been away from them for even a weekend in years. This was going to be an adventure and I had no idea what to expect. I hadn't been to Toronto for 18 years. I was a bit scared.
I arrived after a long day of travel and had to take a cab to her new condo because she wasn't able to drive. We had dinner as soon as I arrived and visited for a bit. This was the first of many meals we shared together and reconnected. It was a little awkward for both of us at first. She wasn't used to having anyone living with her, and I just felt a tremendous amount of guilt for not finding the time to come visit more over the years. It was a real wake up call for me how fast the years can go by. Thinking back about those meals together brings tears to my eyes. Joan was an amazing woman and she was the family historian. She loved kids, was a teacher, and was an avid, I mean avid, dog lover. I enjoyed her stories and she loved hearing all about my girls.
Joan was a very private person and shut her friends out when she found out about her cancer. She emailed her two best friends, but refused to see them. She was an amazingly strong and stubborn woman. I approached things slowly with her and she began to let me in. She was easy for me to get along with and trusted me, and it really made for a good experience. I began interviewing Realtors, which I found on AR, and planning on getting her condo ready for sale. That in itself was a huge undertaking. She moved from a huge home 6 years prior and had brought more furniture than the condo could handle. There were Halloween decorations piled to the ceiling in the guest bathroom, seating for 20 in a small living room, and I hate to say it, she wasn't the best housekeeper. Did I tell you she liked books? Oh yes, the books. I packed up 38 boxes of books from 14 bookcases in her small condo. Preparing the condo to sale took 6 weeks, but I knew if we did it right, she could get it sold quickly and for top dollar. During this time I also began to go out and look for retirement communities for her to move to.
When I got to Canada the March Madness NCAA tournament had begun. I took a while to adjust to the time change. Joan went to bed early and got up late. She also didn't have TV, except in her bedroom. So, I decided to have a little me time and go catch a game at the local sportsbars after Joan went to bed. She was happy for me to get out. When I'm home, my life revolves around the kids and I have no life of my own. It was strange to have nothing to do in the evenings.
So, one evening soon after I arrived in Canada, I met an interesting fellow named Philip. He engaged me in great conversation and loved sports, too. He was also not bad to look at, his killer smile and accent helped, too. Now, I have to tell you, I suck at dating and I have a low tolerance level for guys. They usually irritate me, and I am just done. No one ever lasts more than two weeks. I know that sounds harsh, but I wasn't going to settle again and no one was good enough for my kids and I didn't want to date just to date, I had to be an example to my girls. My girls have made it known for quite some time that they wished that I would meet someone who would make me happy, but my priorities were always them.
Well, Philip was a persistent guy. When I tried to blow him off after my two week period, he wouldn't let me. He kind of scared me because of how great he and I were together and I decided to run because he seemed too good to be true, and you know what they say. Luckily, he didn't let this happen. He broke down my walls and found his way into my heart. He quickly became my best friend. I felt like a kid again.
So, I spent my days taking care of Joan and bonding with her over our meals together and my evenings getting to know Philip. I was so thankful for this as I was missing the kids terribly and I knew my 16 year old was not doing well. That's a whole other story in itself, but in the end, it was the best thing that ever happened to our relationship. Even though, I was happy to be there helping Joan, I felt really guilty for meeting someone and for finding some happiness. I will tell you, Joan always came first. I think that's one thing Philip admired about me.
Back to my adventure. I found Joan a few places that I thought would work and we went and visited each of them. Going out was hard for her as we had to take portable oxygen and it was limited to how much time we would have. She also got very tired easily. She loved the place that had been my first choice and we started the process of getting her health evaluations and approval. Once approved, we put her condo on the market and got a cash offer on the first day. We scheduled her to begin moving slowly 10 days later so I could make sure I had time to move everything out. The first night at her condo without her was so very painful. I had really come to enjoy her company and I already missed her. I continued moving her stuff for the next two weeks to her new place and to storage.
I knew Joan was a bit sad, too. I could tell she enjoyed our time together. I decided that she needed to spend time with the kids and that as soon as school was out, we would all come back to Canada to visit for the summer. This made things for both of us a little easier. On April 27th her condo closed escrow and it was time for me to go back home. My mom needed me to come help with the kids so I decided to drive Joan's car to California and bring it back in June. I thought it would be great to take the girls on a cross country road trip like my dad and I used to do.
Fast forward to June. The girls and I arrived back in Canada. Joan and I had made lots of plans of things to do with the kids and also to bring things from her storage to her place and get her even more set up. I was shocked when I got there at how much she had deteriorated. She wasn't telling me much while I was gone. She was never very honest about what stage her cancer was in or her prognosis. She had told me she had a couple of years, but I knew in my heart, it couldn't be true. I also read her binder, and she had stage 4 cancer. But, I knew she was a fighter and she seemed to always be doing much better than expected so I felt like she had at least 6-12 months or more.
The first day I visited she didn't want me to bring the kids. I went and saw her and she wanted to go to the mall. I was like wow, okay. When we were leaving the lady at the front desk thought I was taking her to the hospital, they knew she hadn't been well. So we went to the mall and she shopped at Talbot's, her favorite store. She wanted to buy white pants. She had never had white pants. Now this was a lady who didn't have to worry about finances. She was more than comfortable, but frugal. She traveled the world more than anyone I have ever known. The white pants thing was odd, but I helped her pick them out and she was very happy. She was very active and enjoyed our outting.
A couple of days later she was up to having the kids come visit and for us to all go to lunch. We went to the Rainforest Cafe and I don't know who had more fun, Joan or my 10 year old. However, I was very concerned about a choking/hard to breathe incident that Joan had. Luckily the kids had gone to the gift shop and didn't witness it, but it really scared me. I realized Joan really wasn't doing well. Another thing was that she wasn't able to really talk anymore. It would hurt her throat and it was more like a whisper. Over the next few days, I noticed the breathing fits kept happening when she tried to talk too much.
It was during these first days back in Canada that I realized, I can't leave her. I made the decision that we would move here and take care of Joan. She needed family. I told Joan of my idea and she welcomed it. We then began looking for homes that would accomodate her needs and the kids and I. During this whole time, Philip was still by my side. He had made several trips to California and met the kids and my mother. Everyone had fell in love with him, just as I had.
My oldest daughter had to go back to California for some college soccer camps and college showcase tournaments in early July. I found some soccer teams for the other two and they began making friends and playing soccer. It was very helpful in helping them transition to a new country. We looked and looked for houses and spent some time with Joan. Our visits were short as she was sleeping so much.
In late July, I got a call while we were at a tournament in Niagra Falls that Joan wasn't doing well. I left Haley with a family we had gotten to know and went to be with Joan. She couldn't hold anything down and was in a lot of pain. The next few days, she really went through hell, she could no longer eat or drink. The thing about end of life care, is they don't try to save you. This was heart wrenching. I knew she was starving and getting dehydrated, it seemed cruel. They told me that this is how the body shuts down and that it could be up to 30 days like this. I knew things were bad, so I sent my other two back to California. I needed to be at Joan's 24/7 and my middle daughter really couldn't bear seeing Joan this way, it broke her heart. I sent them home on a Friday.
The palliative care team provided me with times where I could take a break. I had a lot to take care of because Joan hadn't got all her affairs in order and I didn't feel right pushing too hard to get that done because I didn't want her to feel like I wanted anything from her or that I was trying to be in her business or that I thought she was going to die soon. But, at this point, I had to take control. She was very gracious and cooperative. I also had to have the most unbearable conversation about her passing and wishes. Joan wasn't accepting of her situation and had a goal of finishing a book she was writing, she wasn't going to let this beat her. I can't even tell you how hard that conversation was. We both knew the time was coming.
On Monday, August 6, Joan was not Joan. She was barely conscious in the morning. The nurse visited her and told me her circulatory system was shutting down. It was only a matter of time, expect this to happen in the next 48 hours. I asked what I could do, and she said talk to her, even though she can't talk back. Tell her you love her. Be there with her. So I did that all day. I also, updated her two best friends and decided that they needed to know what was going on, and that if they wanted to see her, they should. I was conflicted about this because I knew how proud Joan was, but I also knew how much her friends loved her and I wanted to let them say goodbye. Eva came immediately when she recieved my email.
When the phone rang, something strange happened with Joan, her eyes kind of opened wide and one didn't close. It was odd. While Eva spent time with her I let Philip know what was going on. He came right over. Eva and I were in the room with Joan and she was still breathing and alive and then I walked Eva to the door. I came back in, and told Philip to come look at her eye. From the time I walked Eva to the door and went right back in to Joan's room, she had passed away. I couldn't believe it. I was devastated I wasn't holding her hand. Philip ran and got Eva, she was barely in the lobby. All I can say it was a long night dealing with losing her having the doctor come and the funeral home. It seemed like a movie. Joan was the first person I was ever close to who had died. I had been acquaintances with a few people who tragically died, but never anyone in my family or a close friend and even with those, I took them hard.
They next few days were eeery and are a blur to me. I had to go see my kids, I needed them, I needed to hug them, kiss them and tell them how much I loved them. So I went home and got them all settled to start school the next week. I had to go back to Canada the last week in August to get Joan moved out of the retirement home. It was terrible. Canada was just not the same without Joan. Thank God for Philip. I don't know if I could have done it without him. We drove Joan's car and the most valuable of her things back to California.
I forgot to tell you that Philip proposed to me on August 9th. During the months before he had talked to me and fished to see if I would be willing to marry him, but he formally asked me that morning. I was very surprised and very happy, even though I was so sad about Joan. I had her to thank for bringing me to Canada to meet the man of my dreams.
Fast forward to September 6. Philip was in California with me and I had been very nauseous. I attributed it to being stress related because of living at my mom's with my 3 kids, losing my aunt, and trying to restart my life here in California. Well, Philip kept teasing me saying I was pregnant, mind you, he had made it very known he wanted us to have kids. I was like, okay, if it happens great, but I was almost 40 and didn't truly see that as something that would really happen. I didn't even know if was physically possible for me. I got tired of his remarks and took and test and guess what, he was right!!! Oh Boy!!!
So, here I am in January. I am 6 months pregnant with a baby boy we will name Jonah, after my Aunt Joan. We have purchased a beautiful, perfect house. My 3 kids have never been happier. My oldest got a scholarship to play soccer at SDSU after almost falling off the deep end her Junior year and just got a 4.0. I am in love with an amazing man who loves me like I never thought possible. He is in my corner, supportive, loving, encouraging, funny, super smart, and just perfect. He loves my girls and they love him. I feel at peace for the first time in my life. For the first time in my life, I can say I am happy and feel it from the bottom of my feet to the top of my head. I actually feel guilty sometimes for feeling so happy. I am truly motivated and I am looking forward to this new adventure and to getting married, having my family, and a baby boy.
I never would have imagined that the email I sent last January would change my life forever. I think of Joan everyday, multiple times a day. I owe her soooo much and I am sooo glad I was able to be there for her. She was an amazing woman who I strive to make proud. I talk to her. When I feel the wind, I feel her giving me a hug.
I love you Aunt Joan!!!!