July 11, 2013

Eulogy For Helen Bates

Gate to Auntie Honey's garden. July 5th, 2013. 

I could always smell Auntie Honey's kitchen before I even got up the green-painted wood stairs that led to the door. Spices and baking and hot tea. As a kid the smells meant cookies and conversation. As an adult, they meant a kind of time travel, where years went by but certain things remained constant.

She was the woman who let me rest on her couch when I was sent home from kindergarten with a concussion. She gave us free run of her raspberry canes out by Uncle Bob's wood shop during summer, or let us rummage in her time-warp basement for toys that were older than we could imagine. She became a surrogate mother to my own father, after his own parents closed that door.

I knew a bit about her life in Melville, in Toronto, the train rides back home to take care of sick family members. I knew her middle name was Stanley, even though it translated into something else in Polish. She wasn't really my aunt, but I'd never felt like anything but family with her. Especially in that kitchen - with its smells. Cloves and nutmeg, oatmeal cookies, clean linens.

Two nights before she died, I sat at that same kitchen table once again. She had been released from the hospital into the care of her children. The latest hospital visit over a heart attack none of us knew about until well after the fact. Until a doctor ran blood work and told us it had already happened. Auntie Honey didn't like having a fuss made about her self - even though she spent a lot of time fussing about the well being of others. But here she was back in her kitchen, dressed in comfy clothes, her face a mix of concern and weariness. Perhaps apprehension. Her kids seated nearby, chatting softly. We kept the conversation light.

It was my second visit that day. On my first visit, I arrived in the afternoon. I sat in the back yard overlooking her little fenced-in garden, the dead willow tree that still held an old swing in its branches. She was not there; she had gone inside to use the bathroom. So I chatted with Ken and Pat about her health, her home, how time can slow down and speed up. When we went in to check on her, we found her asleep in her living room chair. Her knees drawn to her chest, her neck resting on two fingers as though she were checking her own pulse. A pose so child-like it was hard to take it in. We revert to infancy in our old age - of this I am sure.

When I returned later that evening, we all sat at the table and reminisced about older times, we laughed about childhood, people here and gone, the cold shock of swimming in the town's rivers. Four times Auntie Honey asked how I was doing, how my life was. Each query posited as if the question had not been brought up only moments before. She was forgetful - but not unaware. She spoke with clarity about her home, her garden, her love of chocolate cookies. She reached over often to pat my cheek, grab my leg or wrist.

When she rose from the table to close the door to the basement, she did so with purpose - and perhaps a bit of show that she was still here. This place, this small wood-paneled world of her home, with her bedroom dresser covered in knick-knacks, and her fridge covered in pictures and magnets, was still connected to her. And she with it. The visit was memorable, beautiful even. The kind that eases the heart into a certain knowing - in this case, an understanding of mortality. Or maybe just a sad acceptance.

Two nights later she died in her sleep, at her son's house. The sadness at the news a cold bloom of grief in the belly, a wringing of hands at yet another void that does not get filled, that only lodges itself in the chest, in that cavity of the heart that always has room for more.

Sadness, doubt, grief, joy - and memory. Always memory - which I have here now, miles away. That last night in her kitchen, amidst people I love. Where my daughter saw her own artwork adorning Auntie Honey's walls, where glasses of wine were poured and toasted and consumed.

Where gentle laughter floated over the surface of the table, to mingle around us in premature wake.

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