Saturday, February 8, 2014

Lessons from Gloria

My beautiful godmother & Aunt Gloria
For as long as I remember, the same photograph has hung in my grandparents' kitchen. It's a picture of my Aunt Gloria river rafting with my Uncle Archie and their friends. 

My aunt was born adventurous and daring and fun, and it must have scared my grandmother to death. But like all of us, I think even my grandmother admired her daughter's seize-the-moment attitude toward life.

A year ago, Gloria died from brain cancer. But she's still challenging me to be brave, to take chances, to have fun, to be fully myself and not be afraid to show that to others. 

Encouraging people to be brave was kind of her specialty. 

She taught mobility to the blind. As in, "Here, let me show you how to navigate this dark world. Let me show you what's possible." 

Her clients included the young and old, people who recently lost their sight and kids leaving the safety of their home for the first time. She taught them how to get across town, how to order lunch in a restaurant, how to live an independent life. 

For those of us with good vision, she helped us see things in a new way. 
Her best college friend, Annie, says, "Glo would never tell you what to do, but she'd help you think about it differently." 

Gloria loved the water and being outdoors. She was a talented musician and had a gift for making everything fun. Picnics were added to long car rides. Beer tasting was added to vacation days.

She laughed easily, and people wanted to be around her, probably because she wanted to be around them. She made everyone feel important and special and that they truly had something to offer.

Even when she was running around, trying to do too many things at once and carry on multiple conversations, she seemed relaxed about life. Every day living was something to be enjoyed. 

My aunt and her family lived in the countryside outside Spokane, Washington. We didn't get to see them as often as we wanted, but our time together always made an impression. 

As kids, my sister and I told everyone how our Aunt Gloria tried to get out of the boat during a ride at Disneyland. She wanted to show us how on her high school senior trip she stepped out of the boat onto a rock and then jumped into the next boat, occupied by a friend who was riding solo. Only on our trip, Uncle Archie was the one riding behind us. As soon as he saw his wife stand up, he hollered, "Glo, sit back down." The demonstration was over, but a lesson was learned. You don't have to follow every rule. You can bend some. You can break others. 

My aunt was deeply prayerful and honest, and she had a sense of humor about God. I told her once that I hadn't understood the wedding feast at Cana. Her Italian response, "Christina, what's there not to understand? It's my favorite miracle. Jesus turned water into wine!"

About a year before her diagnosis, she started a morning routine that began at 5 a.m. She would workout on the treadmill and stationary bike while reading the Mass readings for the day, followed by her prayers and a novena to Mother Teresa, which we're pretty sure was said on a rotating basis for almost everyone she knew. 

She had lost weight, gave up alcohol and was arguably in the best spiritual and physical shape of her life. It was as if she was training for a battle she didn't know she would have to fight.

In the summer of 2011, my aunt started acting unlike herself. She said odd things, and one day she seemed to not know whether her youngest daughter wore glasses and she couldn't correctly answer a simple multiplication question. Archie took her to the doctor. It was a Friday. The experts said the tumor in her brain was so big had he waited until Monday, she would have died over the weekend.

Instead, she underwent the first of two brain surgeries and began a year and a half journey that included multiple rounds of chemo and radiation. The prognosis was bleak from the start. The cancer was aggressive and terminal. 

Gloria fought and fought and never admitted the cancer would eventually kill her. She went on living and even working because she was completely passionate about her job and her life. After more than 30 years of marriage, it was obvious she and Archie were still in love. A mom of two, Gloria's youngest daughter, Lindsey, had just graduated high school, and her oldest daughter, Elena, was married and wanting to start a family of her own. There's no doubt Gloria planned to be here for another 40 years. 

But we were on borrowed time. She could have died that weekend the tumor was first discovered. Instead we had the chance to watch her be brave a little longer. Of course, it wasn't long enough.  

At the start of 2013, she and Archie zip lined in Hawaii. Then on January 16th, the day before her 58th birthday, doctors said the cancer was no longer treatable, and she had a matter of weeks to live. 

Family members in California and Florida bought plane tickets to Spokane. These really weren't goodbye visits as much as they were let-me-sit-next-to-you-for-awhile visits.

She would nap, and we would nap. And we would bake, and she would eat. We all wore our pajamas.

Archie would sit holding her hand for hours, and Elena and Lindsey were often found asleep by her side. They were angels and warriors. Lindsey shared that during Gloria's MRIs, they would hold her hands and sing the Divine Chaplet to her.  

In the last weeks, my then 93-year-old grandfather made the trip from Sunnyvale to see his daughter. He blew her kisses and said, "Sweetheart, I've known you your whole life, since you were a little girl and would dance around." He asked to see her smile.

Four of my aunt's high school friends from California arrived as a surprise on Friday, February 1st. These were just a few of the famous CSAC women. (In high school, someone called them a "conceited smart-ass clique" and instead of being insulted the secret sorority of the CSAC was born. Adventures included impersonating nuns, and they lovingly nicknamed each other Sister Mary So and So. After the cancer, Gloria became Sister Mary Hole-In-Her-Head.) 

They rushed into the house carrying presents and singing "Happy Birthday" to Gloria. They brought bags of food on the plane, including two loaves of homemade pumpkin bread, homemade cookies, and homemade chex mix. One of them literally packed 15 pounds of fresh picked mandarins instead of clothes for the weekend. They were so loud and Gloria could barely speak, and I appreciated how, even though their hearts were breaking, they carried on as if this was just another one of their fun adventures, a birthday surprise for their dear Glo.

After visiting for four days, John and I left on Saturday, February 2. We never actually said goodbye. We said I love you, and I asked her to pray for the baby. I was 10 weeks pregnant and had only just shared the news. I knew this had been one of Gloria's prayers for me, and I felt blessed that she was able to "meet" Gianna, if only through the ultrasound photo I brought on the plane. 

My brother Joseph and my sister Nicole and her family were with Gloria on her last day. Nicole played the piano and helped Gloria hold her 6-month-old great-niece, Cecilia. Gloria listened to Cece coo as Nicole fed her, and Gloria would open her eyes and smile.

Sometime after everyone had gone to bed, Gloria passed away in her sleep in the early hours of February 8, 2013. 

My parents and brother Jimmy were set to arrive in Spokane that afternoon. I was very concerned that my dad hadn't seen his sister. But he said he went to bed about midnight, and she came to him in a dream. He said she looked wonderful and she told him, "Life is good here." He said he knew she was in a different place, and he wasn't surprised when the phone rang shortly before 4 a.m. with the news she had died. 

At the time, I was sure Gloria meant life is good in heaven. But the more I think about the way she lived, the more I think she also meant life is good here on earth. Life is good and don't be afraid to live it. 


Linda February 8, 2014 at 2:24 PM  

Beautifully said Christina. Thank you for this wonderful memory. Thinking of Gloria today & always.
Hugs, Goose (CSAC)

Debby Barbero February 8, 2014 at 3:52 PM  
This comment has been removed by the author.
Debby Barbero February 8, 2014 at 3:52 PM  

Wow! That was amazing...just like your Aunt. She's in our hearts forever. Our last visit a year ago was like any other afternoon we spent in high school, laughing, watching old movies and treasuring every second.
Sister Mary Klein
Lifetime member CSAC

Archie Messer February 8, 2014 at 7:55 PM  

Thank You Christina, it meant a lot to me to see those words. She was your Godmother and was so proud when you became Lindsey's. It doesn't seem possible that she has been gone from this realm for a year already. She is busy looking after us and doing things for us each day. I wish she could be here but she is in a better place.

Love you

Uncle Archie

Doni Chamberlain,  February 8, 2014 at 10:59 PM  

I'm so sorry for the loss of your glorious Gloria. What a beautiful, moving piece you've written about her, Christina. Thank you for sharing her with us.

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