I had many losses as a child and was an orphan of sorts—my mother’s being placed in a psychiatric hospital when I was born and where she remained for 13 years; my father’s death when I was two; my caretaking grandpa’s death when I was seven; and my aunt Mary’s placement on a psychiatric unit when I was 12. Aunt Margie had her own set of losses. Her mother died when she was seven and her father died when she was 17. Yet she still was a caretaker and a nurturer. Aunt Margie began taking care of me at a young age, walking me to school at 15 years, before she went to high school herself.
As adults, we conversed about cooking. Aunt Margie was a nurturer, and one way that she nurtured was thorough cooking. I loved to hear her tips—she had learned them over many years while she had become an extraordinary cook. She was eager and enthusiastic to talk about cooking and full of knowledge.
Aunt Margie carried on the tradition of the Hungarian cooking taught by Grandma and Grandpa and passed on by my mother, Aunt Molly and Aunt Julia. So, for example, she had reminded me of how to make egg dumplings, stuffed cabbage, cabbage and noodles, chicken paprikash and Grandpa’s chicken and beef soup. And, she had passed on Aunt Molly’s famous and fabulous cheese cake recipe. Of course, Uncle Bernie now helped her with the cooking, so he deserves some credit for these scrumptious meals too.
My favorite recipe of Aunt Margie’s is for chicken and beef vegetable soup because I associate it with Grandpa. I can see him cooking it over the stove in our kitchen on Monroe, and it evoked warm and caring memories.
Aunt Margie’s health had been failing for two years. I kept in touch with her by phone on a weekly basis. We talked about casual things including recipes. She discussed her aches and pains but no serious talk about the heavy matters of living and dying. No one discussed those things in my family for as long as I can remember. As a child, when I came home from school and was told Grandpa died, no one really talked to me. I remember standing on the wide ledge of the second floor laundry chute with the door pulled in, crying by myself. In those days, no one talked about important things. Aunt Margie was of that thinking.
Hospice said Aunt Margie had only a few days to a week to live—she had been declining for quite a while. I drove to Cleveland to be with her. Aunt Margie had a respirator covering her nose and received periodic morphine shots to keep her comfortable and alleviate the pain. She was so slight and fragile-looking as she lay in the bed. I was at her bed side with her husband, Uncle Bernie, her two sons, Bernie and Bob, and her two grand children, Natalie and Maria. It was unclear to me whether I would be comfortable with this experience. As a teen and young adult, I felt scared in a funeral home. I’m not sure why. It may have been because of my many losses in my childhood. Fear of abandonment was very strong with me.
I surprised myself as I began talking to Aunt Margie. Although I wasn’t sure if she could hear me, I talked to her about all of my childhood memories and my cooking memories. I told her I loved her. She died peacefully, and I was glad to be there to say goodbye. The talking time lead to a quiet time to experience our farewell. I was pleased to be a part of this solemnity to honor her life.
One year ago, I volunteered to work with Family Hospice using art with children and adolescents who were dealing with imminent or recent loss. At the last minute, I got scared and backed out. I had suffered so many losses as a child and adolescent that I was afraid hospice work would just stir up troubling memories better left at rest.
However, after being with Aunt Margie at her death, I realized that life experience and therapy had brought me to another place. I could handle hospice, I believed. I came back from Cleveland and called Family Hospice to ask if they would reconsider accepting me as a volunteer. I was welcomed back. I will begin my volunteer work by doing art with children and adolescents at three full day Camp Healing Heart events starting June 2.
When I was growing up, no one ever talked about uncomfortable or unpleasant happenings in my family. Therefore, I never talked about all of my losses. It took years of therapy as an adult to deal with these issues of loss and abandonment. Through art, I hope to facilitate the communication of feelings around the personal losses of these children and adolescents’ as they grow and develop in healthy ways.