There wasn't much time to absorb the news that my Aunt Bonnie had passed. I had been somewhat fearful that it could happen due to her most recent health scares, yet it isn't easy to finagle traveling nearly 1000 miles upon receiving dire news. In some situations, though, you just find yourself overcome with a gnawing sensation at the core of your being that you just have to be there and then try to figure it out. So drive I did, as many of us did, to pay tribute to one uniquely amazing lady.
My concern for Mom was certainly one of the primary reasons I needed to be there. Mom has Alzheimer's disease and while she thankfully hasn't experienced the truly wretched ravages of this disease, her memory is fairly spotty. I knew that the news of her youngest sister's passing would be devastating; in some ways more so than my father's death. As my mother's mental faculties have deteriorated, she repeats stories quite often; sometimes several times in the course of one short visit. In the past couple of years, one story has been prevalent: that when Mom was ten years old and Bonnie was born, my grandmother gave Bonnie to her to raise because she was so worn out at that point. Mom's stories have grown more far-fetched due to the Alzheimer's but they always evolve from a kernel of truth. Mom did have a hand in raising Bonnie and Bonnie followed Mom to my hometown of St. Marys when she and Dad moved there. Through Mom and Dad, Bonnie would meet her future husband Larry and soon Bonnie was settled in near her older sister where she would raise her family. Since, Mom and Bonnie remained tight through the years. As I've written before, I always knew when Mom was talking to Bonnie on the phone when I heard her breathless laughter.
Bonnie's daughters Debbie and Dayle Ann would be the ones to come to Mom in the nursing home and break it to her that their mother, her sister, had passed away. I sat with Mom every day during this trip and she frequently and heartbreakingly kept forgetting Bonnie had died and I would gently remind her. Fresh tears would come each time and each time, she would retell the story of Grandma giving her Bonnie to raise. I knew she found comfort in the story and so, I simply held her hand and listened again and again.
The setting of the funeral home has become unsettling in its familiarity. The aroma of the gorgeous florals, the sad music floating ethereally by and the family members standing stiffly; waiting to receive the respects that the rest of us struggle to pay with the right words or correct gestures. It continues to feel too familiar, both as the one paying respects and the one receiving them. Larry Joe and the girls stood strong for their Mom, as expected, but Uncle Larry seemed lost without her. Larry has always been right at her side as she always had been for him. "In sickness and in health" has often been said but Bonnie and Larry truly lived those words. He sat in a chair beside her casket and seemed so frail when he looked into our eyes and said, "I lost my buddy".
There were bright moments, as there should be in any time where Aunt Bonnie would be spoken of. We shared stories that had us cackling as hard as they would have Bonnie. The revelation for myself at the funeral home would be these flickering home movies on the wall near the casket. Suddenly, there was an image of my cousin Joe who was killed in Vietnam and watching it felt like a long-lost dream had been triggered in the back of my brain. Then, there was my grandmother Agatha lifting her skit and doing a little booty shake and acting utterly goofy. I had told people for years how hilarious she could be and there she was on film acting wild. Then on the film came along a curly-haired infant in a stroller...turns out that was me. For years, I've told people that I regretted that there was no video of our childhood and now, all these years later, it turns out there was. I could have watched those home movies all day.
The service itself was Bonnie to a tee, complete with gospel music and humor. Pastor Kelly, who was Bonnie's pastor and had spent considerable time with the family during Bonnie's last days officiated the service brilliantly. He read scripture from her own Bible and pointed out the many keepsakes strewn through it, including a calendar page that she had that represented the day she was first released from the hospital twenty-five years ago. Pastor Kelly became choked up himself when describing the moment that all three of Bonnie's granddaughters surrounded her hospital bed. Following the service, we entered our cars, the funeral flags were attached and we took our place in the somber crawl of cars to the grave-site. The day had been depressingly steel-gray and rain-soaked but just like the day of Dad's funeral, the downpours stopped in time for the brief graveside service. We all caught our breaths when Larry placed his hand on the casket as we were leaving.
We gathered at Bonnie's church for the meal that would follow the memorial. As Pastor Kelly pointed out, Bonnie cooked for so many of these post-funeral meals. Indeed, here I was again, walking the length of the buffet tables looking for something that wasn't there: those magic noodles. After photographing Bonnie's Bible in the pews upstairs, I joined my cousins for another one of those soul-comforting church basement meals of scalloped potatoes and broccoli casserole and country ham. I loved seeing my cousins again but continued to chafe over the fact that the reason I'm seeing them is for yet another funeral.
Upstairs, I had gathered the Rinehart cousins together for a photo. There was Jerry and his wife Marylou up from Florida and Jerry's sister Julie down from New York, representing their parents Albert and Carrie, who also live in Florida. There was myself, in from Kansas City, and my sister Shirley who is a recent transplant from Florida and who now lives in St. Marys, overseeing my mother's care. We surrounded Bonnie's children and clung to them, surrounding them as best we could with familial love, as they did for me when my sister Mona and father had passed. When the final photo was taken, something cracked us up and we all laughed. Not only was it exactly as Bonnie would have wanted, but it was comforting to hear her kids laugh....just like their Mom.
The next day, I brought my iPad to Mom and showed her the photos taken of the cousins. She tearfully chuckled over the photo of us laughing. Looking at it again, I remembered a conversation that I had just had with my friend Connie. Connie has a terrific ability to bring life into perspective and while what she told me was not exactly a new idea, sometimes you just need to hear things at a certain time for them to sink in. She said that she had been attending so many funerals that it was bringing her down but then her thinking changed: she realized that it was our turn; our time to help those who brought us into this world. The ones who raised us and nurtured us and taught us now needed us to help them. For some of my friends, that time started too early, but it had indeed started and continued to be our time. So, I looked at the photo of the cousins again and realized, once and for all, it was indeed our time to help them, even if its to simply be with them as they pass from our lives and to then pay tribute to them once they are gone.
And by helping each other through it, help them we will.
The following video is of Vince Gill's song "Go Rest High On That Mountain". Its a song I added to my blog playlist when Dad died and the song that began Aunt Bonnie's memorial service.