I’m a crier – I cry at movies; I cry when I read; the old McDonald’s and Kodak commercials always brought tears to my eyes. So it’s not a big deal to see my eyes welling up with tears, but there’s one subject, the mention of one person (other than my own mom and dad), that always makes me cry even after 40-some years. That’s my cousin Evelyn. Evelyn was married to one of my cousins when I was just a little girl. They lived nearby so we saw them often…and I adored her! Evelyn was young, beautiful and so kind. For me, a little girl growing up without sisters, she was the epitome of what I would have asked for in an older sister.
When Evelyn became pregnant with their second child, we were all excited – until we learned that there was no pregnancy. What was believed to be a pregnancy was actually cancer. They say, “So and so fought a valiant fight,” I’m not sure what constitutes a valiant fight, but Evelyn certainly fought a graceful fight. Throughout her treatments, which required her to live off-and-on in a different city, she always seemed so cheerful, so bright. I knew she had cancer; I knew she was very sick, but I never think of her as having anything other than a smile on her face. When we both ended up at one of my aunt’s for a weekend (that’s where Evelyn stayed when she was out-of-town), my aunt told me that I’d have to share Evelyn’s bedroom. I was thrilled to have the one-on-one time with Evelyn. We had a lovely time. She played with my hair and we talked. When it was time to go to bed, Evelyn looked at me seriously and warned me that she would not be wearing her wig to bed. She didn’t want me to be scared if I woke up in the middle of the night to find a bald lady lying next to me. I hadn’t even realized that she was wearing a wig, but it didn’t matter – with hair or without, she was still beautiful to me.
One evening my mom and dad were preparing to go visit Evelyn when she was staying at a local hospital. I asked my mom to give Evelyn a hug from me. I still remember the dagger that went through my heart when my mom gently replied, “Honey, she won’t even know we’re there.” My naïve 12-year-old brain had never grasped the idea that Evelyn would not survive this illness, that her condition was terminal. She died a few days later and a piece of my heart went with her while my brain matured overnight. I suddenly saw all the signs, understood all the words – all those clues that my former 12-year-old self didn’t notice, but that the somewhat hardened new 12-year-old would never again miss.
I didn’t go to Evelyn’s funeral. Instead I volunteered to be the babysitter for all of the little ones in my family so that the adults would be free to attend the funeral. I remember my mom asking me if I was sure that was what I wanted to do. She knew how much Evelyn meant to me, but I assured her it was okay. Helping with the little ones was where I thought I belonged. Consequently, I never really grieved Evelyn’s death. I’m not sure, at that point in my life, I even knew what grieving meant. I just went on, sad, but bolstered by the vision I had of Evelyn, what she’d meant to me and what I would carry with me from her for the rest of my life.
That year, at Christmas, Evelyn’s husband brought by a gift for me – a gift he’d found in their closet after Evelyn had died. The gift was marked that it was to go to me for Christmas. It was Neil Diamond’s Gold album featuring the song Sweet Caroline. I had loved that song before receiving this gift from the grave, but cherished it even more afterwards. Years later, my husband and I attended a Neil Diamond concert with a group of friends. It was a great concert and I was enjoying it immensely. Then the opening chords to Sweet Caroline started and suddenly that little 12-year-old girl who had never grieved returned to me and I found myself overcome with emotion. I sobbed through the song with my husband’s arm tight around me as he whispered to our concerned friends that I would be okay.