Here's grief again.
It started with a phone call from my brother. I wished him a happy birthday and he returned my greeting with a sullen voice. "I guess you haven't heard yet", "What?" I answered.
He returned my question with the news that my favorite aunt, and come to think of it, my only surviving aunt was dead.
"What? WHAT?! What?!!" I stammered.
Only weeks earlier I had received news that my mother had suffered a stroke, so I was expecting him to say something about her. But this time it was her twin. Her alter ego. Her best friend.
They were yin and yang. Opposites in many ways, but when they were together they were a site to behold. My mom was the driver, Judy picked the restaurant, unless Joni objected to the cuisine. They could talk for hours about the past, their kids, their grandkids. They’d giggle about each other. Mom would drag her out shopping and Judy would dutifully go along, just wanting some time with her beloved sister.
These women didn’t grow up easy. They were born in 1945, premature, each weighing close to two pounds. There were no PICU units back then, they were stuck under the warm lights together and expected to grow.
Grow they did. I only know the gory details that they’ve share with me. It involves a kind and boisterous father full of red hair who worked for the railroad and a hardworking, fast talking mother who worked as the voice of Roto-Rooter most of life.
Third in line after an older sister from their mother’s first marriage and an older brother who was driven to succeed, these young girls added what I imagine would be trauma, love and joy to an already complicated house.
These girls would grow, not resembling each other in the least, they were dressed alike for years as twins. They had separate jobs. I only know my mom was the one sent to collect my grandfather from the bar when he’d reached this absolute limit according to my grandmother. I imagine Judy was home helping with dinner or smoothing over the tension of the alcoholic household. Their identities were cast at a very young age, their roles in life defined by alcoholism.
They grew up, they both acquired jobs at Prudential as typists, but as Judy once told me later, she never cared for it.
I don’t know who was married first, but within a year of each other, they were on their way to starting families of their own. Living 30 minutes apart didn’t seem to difficult.
They also became mothers within a year of each other, both having sons. The sisters had another child within a year of each other (that’s where I come into the story). That’s where their lives start to diverge.
Both had married into alcoholism. I’m cannot tell you if the signs were there for them to exercise caution, but I can tell you they gravitated to what they thought was normal, and comfortable. It took my mom eleven years to decide to leave. There is much more to the story that maybe I’ll share someday, but not today.
But Judy stayed with her husband. She had a daughter, six years younger than me, whom I adored as a child. A girl cousin to play with and dress up! There were always rumblings about Judy’s husband and his drinking. He was the uncle at holidays that always took it a little too far. At seven years old I remember my mom wondering about their future. Then, there was four! Aunt Judy was pregnant again. I remember the surprise from my mom, another baby!
Her third boy seemed different, or maybe its because I was older. He was light, funny, a blessed distraction whom the family celebrated.
I remember going to their house frequently as a child. I remember so many things fondly.
I remember fondue parties, Judy always in the kitchen, standing behind the red countertops preparing cheesy meals and reveling in her hosting abilities at the annual family reunions. I remember her feather light blond hair always being brushed. I remember sitting in the way back of her Country Squire wood-paneled station wagon going to McDonald’s in the Valley West shopping center for lunch. I remember playing in the backyard of their house in prestigious West Bloomington till after dark, and hearing her yell all her kids’ names in succession, to make things easier. I remember her crazy Old English Sheepdog, Tigger. Matted fur and no manners. The best was when she’d yell for Tigger to come in the house, and the cousins would always think the neighbors heard another word that started with N. I remember feeling something at her house that I missed sometimes at my house. I felt special. No matter what was going on in her life, no matter what the source to chaos filled her brain at any given moment, she had the ability to make me feel special, loved and safe.
I remember when she finally got the guts to stand out on her own. I was older, I watched her. She took her kiddos and left. I barely know any of the details, only that it was time for her to leave and bring her kids with her. Bristol Village seemed to give her a new life, a sense of possibility. Here the twins were in tune again. Trying to make it and start over. Free from the bullshit.
Judy thrived and struggled all at the same time. She ended up getting her house back. It needed to be gutted. Cleansed of the past to start with a clean slate. My brother came to the rescue. He brought his giant hammer and got to work. Dumpsters were filled, kids were working, the house was coming back to life, and so were the inhabitants. Little did Judy know, as much as my brother helped her, she helped him right back. She gave him purpose, unconditional love, and a sense of belonging that was missing in our household.
As the years went by, Judy found a new career as a nursing assistant at a care facility for seniors. I couldn’t think of a more perfect job for someone with so much love to give, that is until she became a grandmother.
Her daughter gave birth to twin boys. Premature, just like her, and just like her, they survived and thrived on all the love given to them from their grandma Judy. She took over caring for the twins, so her daughter could go back to work. Those boys kept the light in Judy’s eyes and the unconditional love flowing. Field trips and playdates, she was there. Illnesses and accidents, she was there. Mundane days of routines, she was there. And when their little brother came along, there she was, best friend to number three. No questions asked. I always felt like part of Judy never really grew up and that’s why she was so great with kids. She understood them, and they understood her.
As I got older I didn’t see her as much, my second son was discovered to have many disabilities, and I was caught up in the life-changing whirlwind that is my life now. Of course, I regret now not seeing her more often and silently shoving $20 bucks in her purse whenever I had a chance and she wasn’t looking. But what comforts me is if I were to tell her this now, I know exactly what she would say. “Oh Honey, it’s okay, I understand. You have so much on your plate. You know me and my friends at church pray for Dermot every day, I love you Suzy”.
It sounds that in her last few years she devoted much of her life to her church and the rest of her life to her family. She never turned any of her children away when they needed her. I don’t think it was possible for her to say no. Her love was that strong. Her sense of forgiveness was remarkable. Honoring her husband’s memory after he past away too early and being the rock and the soft-landing spot for all her children to land.
If I had one wish for my aunt Judy, it would have been for her to be more loving and kind to herself. I wish she would have realized how loved she was, and how important she was to so many people. And, I wish I would have told her this when she was alive.
Rest in Peace Judy Mertz. Your spirit lives on through every life you’ve ever touched and every heart that feels broken by your passing.
(Disclaimer to my family: This is my memory of Judy, the facts may or may not be accurate, but it’s my truth)