My ‘Aunt Sister’

Today, I spoke at my great-aunt’s funeral. It was tough, but was definitely something I needed to do. I wanted to share what I wrote with you. Perhaps, in some way, it can be helpful to others:

In 1922, the cost of a first-class stamp was two cents. In January of that year, doctors first used insulin to treat diabetes. The U.S. Geological Survey said America’s oil supply would run out in 20 years. With February came a new pope and radio technology to the White House. The Supreme Court upheld women’s right to vote, too. In March, the Navy’s first aircraft carrier was commissioned and an airplane landed at the U.S. Capitol for the first time ever. In April, Annie Oakley set a women’s record by shooting and breaking 100 clay targets in a row. In May, the Lincoln Memorial was dedicated and some guy named Walt Disney incorporated his first film company.

But we are here today because of something that happened in September. In fact, many of you are quite literally here today — on this Earth today — because of something that happened on a Saturday in 1922. On September 16th, my Aunt Sister was born. I call her “Aunt Sister” NOT because our family got a little too…friendly… with each other back then, but because she is my grandma’s sister and my grandma always called her “sister.” So I grew up calling her “Aunt Sister.”

And she is in good company. Charles Schulz, creator of the Peanuts comic strip was born the same year. So were Betty White, Judy Garland, Bea Arthur and even Doris Day…depending on who you ask. If you don’t count the year, she shares a birthday with BB King, Nick Jonas and — my personal favorite — J.C. Penney.

When Aunt Sister was a child, she was sick all the time. In fact, doctors told her family on three separate occasions that she wouldn’t survive the night. She lived to be 92. I think this is a good time to mention that Aunt Sister was stubborn. She knew what she liked and what she didn’t. She wasn’t a huge fan of pets or pizza. Yes to okra. No to Chinese food. Yes to squash, but only if you put about a pound of butter in it. No wonder she was always so overweight. Green and brown weren’t her colors, but pink…that hit the spot. She liked her water as cold as possible and when she’d make her coffee, she’d brew it, pour it out of the coffee pot and into a cup and put it into the microwave to heat it up. And I longed to see her wear jeans — just once. That never happened.

Aunt Sister also knew what she loved. And this is where I should mention the love of her life — my Uncle Elmer. I believe they were married for…uh…like 226 years or something like that. Anyway, one of my favorite photos of the two of them is from a few years ago. Uncle Elmer is in his typical white t-shirt and khaki pants in his recliner. And Aunt Sister is in her typical blouse and skirt, sitting on his lap. His arm is around her waist. A slight grin on Aunt Sister’s face. Remove the color — and a few of the wrinkles — and maybe add some hair to Uncle Elmer — and you’d think the photo was taken decades ago.

When Uncle Elmer took a turn for the worst a couple years ago, Aunt Sister barely left his side. In fact, one of the most heartbreaking photos I’ve seen was of them — in his hospice room — she was holding his hand as he slept on what would end up being the last night they’d spend together — here, at least. When I entered the room, shortly after Uncle Elmer had passed, I walked to Aunt Sister and hugged her. She continued to cry and repeatedly said things like, “how am I going to live without him” and “I just keep praying to God to take me, too.” That was more than two years ago. Did I mention Aunt Sister was also strong — and brave?

Aunt Sister was also cold. Like, literally cold. As strong as her relationship was to Uncle Elmer, I think she also had a pretty great relationship with her sweater collection. She always had a sweater. The night before she passed, we were looking at cruise photos from 10 years ago. In one of the photos sits Aunt Sister — outside in the caribbean in June…in a sweater. I’m pretty sure she had backup sweaters for her backup sweater.

At least as much as her sweaters, Aunt Sister loved the rest of her family. Ok, maybe more than her sweaters. In all seriousness, she adored her brothers and sister, her kids, her grandkids, her great-grandkids. Especially in the last two years, I never saw her smile more than when there were little kids running around, occasionally stopping to sit in her lap or hug or kiss her and say “I love you.” She loved fully and she was loved fully.

Aunt Sister was like another grandma to me. In fact, in many ways, she and my Grandma were the best mother figures I could ever ask for. And Grandma still is. If I had to pick one thing that Aunt Sister taught me over the years, it’s how to love and love fully. I’m reminded of First Corinthians 13, verses one through three:

“If I speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy but don’t love, I’m nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate. If I speak God’s Word with power, revealing all his mysteries and making everything plain as day, and if I have faith to say to a mountain, ‘Jump,’ and it jumps, but I don’t love, I’m nothing. If I give all I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love.”

At about 9:45 the night before she passed away, I said my goodbyes for the night. We said we loved each other. I told her I’d see her tomorrow, put my hand on hers and said something about her being a pretty lady. And I left. At 6:15 the next morning, so did she.

Those of us who have had to stare death in the face, whether directly indirectly…we know the miracle that is life. Without death, we can’t fully appreciate life. And still — even with it — it can be tough to consistently and fully appreciate life.

The night before that, I sat with Aunt Sister as she cried, longing to be reunited with Uncle Elmer. She said she’s cried herself to sleep each night since he died. Whenever she would come home from anywhere, all she wanted to do was tell him about her day. And she couldn’t. Now, she can.

With a few exceptions, today’s service is just like Uncle Elmer’s. In fact, Aunt Sandra, Aunt Gail and Aunt Cheryl even picked the same verse to be printed on the programs — and it was totally coincidental. So — as it should be — until the very end — Aunt Sister showed me — showed us all — how to love. And that’s why — while she may not be physically with us anymore — I will always have her here with me. That’s the beauty of the heart.

So don’t let yours break for too long. Because Aunt Sister is no longer in pain. And she’s with so many of her loved ones that have gone before her, including Uncle Elmer. I know I’ll see her again. And when that time comes, I know exactly how to find her — she’ll be the one in the sweater.

Will you pray with me?

God, our life is a fleeting shadow that does not endure. Our years pass quickly and our days are few and full of trouble. We thank you that Aunt Sister no longer has to suffer pain or fear — grappling with death, fighting for life; and that — for her — limitations are ended, weakness is overcome, and death itself is conquered.

We thank you for the 92 amazing years we had with Aunt Sister. And while we feel pain right now, we rejoice in the faith that she has gone to be with you, for in your presence is the fullness of joy and at your right hand are pleasures forevermore. Bless those who cared for Aunt Sister, especially our family, doctors, nurses and technicians. Guide physicians and researchers in their search to discover the way of health and healing. Grant that by their vision and courage we may understand the world better — and better be able to help those in need.

Father — you pursue us with untiring love and dispel the shadow of death with the bright dawn of life. Give us courage. Be our refuge and strength. Reassure us of your continuing love and lift us from the depths of grief into the peace and light of your presence. Your Son — our Lord Jesus Christ — by dying has destroyed our death, and by rising, restored our life. Come alongside your people now, remind us of your eternal presence and give us your comfort and strength.

Amen.
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