When I was very small, she pulled me in close and we snuggled and sang and told stories between tickles and giggles and screeches of delight. She taught me to swim, gave me my first Cabbage Patch dolls, and showed me how to use a curling iron. She bought me my first pair of "big-girl" shoes and my first bikini. With her, I learned how to sign, listened to stories of teaching children, and found the meaning of compassion. Each visit was more significant than the last, as each year I became a little more aware of just how special my Aunt Billie was.
As a teenager, our family moved overseas and a number of years went by before I saw my aunt again. When I finally made it back to her home, I was greeted once again with bearhugs and happy tears. We stayed up until the birds began singing their morning song, announcing the arrival of the sun. I shared the story of my life, stories no one else could be trusted with. It didn't matter that time had slipped by; she was still my person. She always will be.
Her children became like my own niece and nephews, and as my family grew our visits became louder and messier and filled with silliness. This is happiness to the utmost degree, family sleeping on couches and floors, cramming into too-small cars and giggling into the starlit hours while sharing stories and pictures and memories. I watched her pull my own children in close and snuggle and sing and tell stories between tickles and giggles and screeches of delight and I smiled because I knew she loved them every bit as fiercely as she loved me.
Eventually their traditional family vacation grew to include us, and we now spend two weeks each July on a road trip that takes us from Texas to Michigan and back, with a few pit stops along the way. We spend all year anticipating summer vacation, if only for this reason. Nearly a week of the trip is dedicated to The Ranch, where we spend our days tubing down a river with a cold beverage in hand and nothing but blue sky and warm sun to occupy our time. When the sun slips beyond our view and the the nights grow cold, we slip on jackets and jeans and surround the campfire. Everything about this trip is Aunt Billie; from the chili we all clamor for to the "shhhh!" that we can hear through the night when our laughter becomes too loud. Aunt Billie is in the river, too -- she taught my boys how to navigate the ice cold waters when they were little, and she's my favorite person to hitch a ride with as we slowly rock our way back to camp. The ranch is Aunt Billie. Without one, there is no reason for the other.
This year Aunt Billie won't be at the river. This year Aunt Billie has exchanged her tube for a hospital bed, her cold beverage for an IV bag, and instead of gathering by the campfire with family each night, she will spend her evenings in Bed 1 under the careful eye of the hospital staff at Good Samaritan. This year Aunt Billie has an auto-immune disorder that the doctors haven't quite figured out yet, and it is a thief that has launched a sneak attack on our family, robbing us of a precious resource we scarcely have enough of as it is: time.
This year Aunt Billie has demanded that we go to the ranch without her, not sit at her bedside and look pitiful. But I don't know how to slip down the river without hearing her laughter ringing through the trees or sit by the fire without her giving us the look and telling us it's time for bed -- even though I'm nearly 40 years old! Without her, a part of the ranch has been severed away. Because she is my person, and she always will be.
|Aunt Billie, Uncle Craig, and a motley crew of kids that love them both!|