If I am lacking in feminine sensibilities, it’s certainly not due to a lack of female forces in my life. They’ve tried and tried for years to put tutus around my waist, bows in my hair and a spatula in my hand. To no avail, of course. (Still missing Aunt Liz in this picture.)
When I was growing up, I was outrageously fortunate enough to live on the same street as an aunt and her family, an uncle and his family, one set of grandparents, my second and third cousins and a great aunt. And that’s not even counting the endless supply of relatives who lived within a 20 mile radius. Crazy, right? Crazy AWESOME.
When my mom went back to work after I was born, I stayed with my Aunt Karen who happened to be caring for her own bundle of joy, my cousin Nick. Nick and I are exactly seven days apart in age and are pretty tight. The gap is a bit more extreme in our political positions.
I’ve always known that not everyone experienced a childhood like mine, so intertwined with so many extended family members. But as I get older, how deeply grateful I am for this upbringing just seems to magnify year after year. And it makes the thought of losing one of these relatives profoundly heartbreaking.
Though she resides in the muggy heart of Tampa, my Aunt Karen was never meant to live in a big city. Crisp mountain air floats through her lungs in the middle of the sweltering Florida summers. I’m sure the view from a porch atop the Smokies tucks her into a bed smack dab in the middle of bustling North Tampa every night. If you take a trip to Tennessee with her, you better bring your Dramamine and, if you have a bladder the size of mine, a big empty bottle because that car ain’t stopping until she sees countryside and it’s gettin’ there f-a-s-t.
Aunt Karen was diagnosed with breast cancer when I was in high school. I’ll be honest and say that I didn’t fully comprehend what that meant at the time. It was a scary, confusing few months when she (and the majority of our family) spent a lot of time in the hospital, when I wrote out Bible verses for her to have before her surgery, and when she lost her hair and got to play dress up with pretty blonde wigs.
But what I know now was that a woman who helped change my diapers and sing me to sleep and who was the mother to one of my very best friends was in a fight for her life. But what I’ve also discovered about my feisty Aunt Karen is that if you want anyone to be on your side in that kind of a battle, it’s her.
She fought her disease with the same passion and fervor with which she loves her children and her family. She clings to a faith that informs her life in tangible ways that few others can match.
Aunt Karen chooses her causes with unparalleled conviction. Aunt Karen digs in her heels. And Aunt Karen fights. She stands as the kind of unshakable I aspire to, possesses the unwavering strength of character I sometimes forget exists and embodies the exquisite beauty of what it means to be a Survivor.
And she’s pretty silly most of the time. Especially when we were discussing the many possibilities of breast reconstruction.
Nowadays, for several months out of the year, Aunt Karen gets to breathe in that mountain air from her very own front porch that faces—you guessed it—the Smokies. She can snag fantastic deals from country auctions. And she can call you in the middle of the day on a Saturday from a garage sale wondering if you were still looking for a dining room table, because you won’t believe the bargain she’s just wrangled out of these sellers. She can go to bed at 4:30 in the afternoon and we can all make fun of her for it. She can shout her disgust at the Tampa Bay Bucs and leave you in tears with her soprano rendering of “The Lord’s Prayer.” She can implore my cousins to be wise and safe, and she can pinch my husband’s butt as he leans into the refrigerator.
She can do a whole heck of a lot because years ago she came face to face
with a vicious disease that doesn’t ask your family for permission,
with a double mastectomy that removes the cancer cells and redefines your sense of femininity and womanhood all at the same time,
with rounds of chemotherapy that replaces your shiny blonde hair with violent nausea.
And she fought like hell.
And she won.