My Aunt Marta, my mom’s beloved sister and the mother of my four incredible cousins, passed away yesterday. She was 87 and had suffered with late stage Alzheimer’s for a couple of years. Even so, she was always sweet, smiling, loving and gentle.
My cousin Kyle looked after Marta for many years, but was 110% attentive these past two, while the disease robbed her of so much. He never complained. He regarded it as an honor and a gift to do so. They were lucky to have had each other. Dying is an intimate sacrament, whether it takes place quickly or over the course of years.
Looking back at my childhood relationship with Marta, I recall how much fun she was. No matter what was happening in her life, which we learned later as adults wasn’t always rainbows and moon beams, she was joyful around the children—her four and me. I cannot remember young Marta, model-beautiful like Grace Kelly, without a broad smile across her lovely face.
We sat around at my cousin Melanie’s last night, reminiscing, crying, laughing and sharing. We’re all adults, some with children, one with a grandchild, and we’ve been through the wars—bloodied, battered and resilient. We’ve cried on each other’s shoulders and been there to listen when life steamrolled a dream or destroyed what we’d planned.
Last night each of us recalled a time, or many times, we’d given in to our worries, unsure of how to proceed, unsure we’d even survive. When I turned to Marta for advice or just an ear, she would give me a big hug and say, “It’ll all work out, Pammer.” And it always did.
I wonder now whether Marta had some preternatural ability to see the future, or if it was just strong conviction, like, if I believe hard enough that things will be okay for Pam, then things will be okay for Pam. I wish I had that gift/magic/virtue. It would be a very good thing to be able to tell someone who was hurting, afraid, lonely or desperate, with a conviction so strong as to make it believable and real, “Hey, it’s gonna work out just fine.”
Of her many virtues, one especially near and dear to my heart was Marta’s innermost desire to see other people happy. First and foremost came her children, after that it was the rest of the world, from family and friends to total strangers. Marta felt things deeply, and wherever it is that joy, happiness and zen come from, Marta possessed an endless font and was willing to share it every chance she got.
People have been writing and calling my cousins to say what a tremendous impact Marta had on their lives. Some say she was more “mom” than their own mothers. She was my second mom—the person I could trust with my secrets when I couldn’t talk to my own mother. She never let me down. She never judged. She never ratted me out. “It’ll all work out, Pammer.” And it always did.
Marta and my mom grew up very poor, the children of a Czech immigrant whose husband died when the girls were very small. Grandma worked several jobs to make ends meet, so it was literally the girls against the world. They leaned on each other, carried each other and supported each other without question for 87 years. My mom feels like she’s lost a part of herself—knowing Marta and their relationship, she likely feels it was the best part. Marta was like that.
In her eyes, her children could do no wrong, yet they all worked hard to please her because “mom’s smile” was a reminder of all they did right. What a gift to your children—unconditional love and acceptance, but it didn’t end there. It extended to anyone who knew Marta. Being a light, she only saw the light in people. Being love—that’s what she beheld.
I’d like to be that way; uncritical, nonjudgmental, radiating light without cynicism or question. How would that make people feel, not so much about me, but about themselves? I know I felt wrapped in approval—a state of grace that made me want to do better/be better—when Marta talked with me about deep things, important things, silly things and things I can’t even remember any more.
When I am gone, will I have left a mark as indelible and holy as Marta has left on the people who remain behind? It is the most divine, uncorrupt ambition I can imagine—to open my eyes and heart to the light inside of people, to refuse to lose focus in their darkness. I don’t think it was an effort for Marta. It seemed to just be there, natural—always on the surface. But it’s worth emulating because she made people happy, and at the end of the day what could be better than that?
We are grieving, sorrowful and slightly lost right now; a rudder gone missing with the wind coming up. “It’ll all work out, Pammer.” Not today it won’t.
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