Monday, April 11, 2011

Remembering Aunt Teresa


 A year or so old, at a park with Aunt Teresa

I can't remember a time without Aunt Teresa.  My grandparents moved Teresa and my great-grandmother in with them the year I was born.  Great-Grandma's health was beginning to fail and she could no longer care for Teresa the way she needed to.  Teresa, you see, was developmentally disabled with the perpetual mind of an 8 year old.

When I hear the phrase "child-like enthusiasm" I immediately think of Aunt Teresa.  She loved kittens, stuffed animals, and weddings, especially brides.  She loved to sing and celebrate her birthday.  She almost always had a bow in her hair.  Her chore in my grandparents' home was to do the dishes and she did this cheerfully. She faithfully attended Mass with my grandparents and enjoyed being helpful. You couldn't help but feel loved when Teresa greeted you at the door.

I could always count on Teresa when I wanted to find kittens in the barn.
That's me on the left with a growing out perm and pink glasses circa 6th grade with Teresa and my second cousin Michelle

This is not to say that she was perfect.  Teresa would get upset if she didn't get her way.  She didn't always obey or understand what was expected of her.  Her feelings would get hurt, especially if she heard someone refer to her as "retarded."  That word, even used as slang, angers me to this day.

Wherever my grandparents went, there would be Teresa.  Every so often, Grandpa and Grandma would find someone to stay with Teresa.  But for the most part, Teresa was at every family gathering and event my grandparents attended.  She was a big part of our lives.

Dancing at Jon and Heather's wedding in 2000

As she had always been there, I never thought of a time where Teresa would no longer be with us.  While I knew Teresa and my grandparents were getting older, I could never bring myself to think of the inevitable. 

Teresa was diagnosed with a brain tumor in July 2006.  The original prognosis was for 3 to 4 months.  Proving that a prognosis is little more than an educated guess, Teresa lived for 9 months. During that time, the hospice I worked for took care of Aunt Teresa, thus paving the way for when my Grandma would need their care, less than two months after Teresa died.

Grandma's death overshadowed our family's loss of Teresa.  I still don't understand how I managed to deal with two losses so close together, even four years later.

I do know this.  Teresa's death prepared me to lose my Grandma, though we had no way of knowing Grandma was sick at the time.  In those 9 months, I visited my grandparents more than usual, helping out with Teresa's care or sitting with her for awhile so Grandpa and Grandma could eat an uninterrupted meal.  When Teresa wanted me to sleep over, I did, even though it meant braving a snowstorm.  That night after Teresa was tucked in bed, Grandma and I chatted for awhile as we watched TV.  I have so many more precious memories with my Grandma because of Teresa's convalescence.  I have no regrets.

I was with Aunt Teresa on this day 4 years ago when she took her last breath.  The night before, Grandma had told Teresa she would be OK, alluding to their inside joke that Grandma would be lost without Teresa.  Shortly thereafter, Teresa slipped into a comatose state.  I left work early when I learned Teresa was actively dying.  I made it in time to gather for prayers and then she slipped away. 

Death is shocking, even when you're prepared for it.  Even when we've grieved a loss, we can still be surprised by our ability to forget they are gone or our reaction to something they would have loved.

Sometimes when I drive to Grandpa's house, I expect Aunt Teresa will open the door.  I think I will hear her familiar laugh as she says my name and pulls me inside for a hug.  She was always there.
 
Teresa, a month or two after diagnosis

It's been four years.  Today I remember Teresa with her hairbows, her enthusiasm, and the love she had for her "favorite" great-niece.

4 comments:

  1. What a beautiful story.

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  2. I am proud to share a name with someone so special. It angers me that doctors try to talk families into aborting babies with mental disabilities. To me it is very apparent that those with mental disabilities love better than we do. They don't sweat the small stuff and the ones I have known impact the God's kingdom more than I ever could!

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  3. Thanks, Maureen and Teresa!

    Teresa, my great-aunt was born to a large German Catholic family in a time where women didn't know much about the babies they'd be having. You're right that we have much to learn from those the world considers the least of these.

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  4. leigh,

    what a precious homage.

    and what a challenge it must have been to lose two women you loved so much, so close together.

    this is so beautiful.

    xo

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