“We have something we need to tell you guys,” my Dad told us as our family of six was gathering around the table for supper.
The words themselves weren’t that unusual, but there was something about his tone that night that caught our attention. He and mom went on to tell us that our Aunt Tina had been diagnosed with cancer and then gave us space to ask all of our questions, to cry with them, and to pray together.
I was ten when she passed away. I don’t know what ten-year olds can process about terminal disease or death, but I remember seeing my super-hero, strongest-woman-I-know mom cry and that wasn’t a common thing. I remember seeing my tall, safe, and steady dad cry too and that was an even less common thing. Aunt Tina's daughters Anna and Karen are close to me in age, and at one point I remember asking my parents, “does this mean that Anna and Karen might not have a mom forever?” and having my mom cry and pull me in for a long hug when she told me that, sadly, yes, this kind of sickness meant that they might lose their mom. The first memory I have of crying myself to sleep came that same evening because I couldn’t imagine - and never wanted to have to - a world without my mom and my heart hurt more than I knew how to handle thinking that my cousins might have to. When Aunt Tina did pass away and Mom flew out to Ontario for the funeral, I remember crawling into my Dad’s lap and talking with him about death and heaven and what everyone meant when they said that she wasn’t sick anymore and that we’d all see her again. Death was a distant and almost vague concept, but also now palpably real.
For most of our family, Aunt Tina’s life ending at what felt like far-too-soon-a-date was the first taste of disease hitting home. Cancer became an irreversible part of our family’s story: my mom lost her big sister, my Opa and Oma buried one of their children, my Uncle John lost his wife and my cousins - at heartbreakingly young ages - lost their mom. The Geleynse family with nine siblings now had eight siblings in every photo and that loss echoed and stung for a long while.
She died in 2000. Which is already 15 years ago now. But, loss isn't something you can quickly balm or ever erase entirely. On looking back, my incredible cousin Karen also wrote this: “The experience of cancer, her death, the years following - how does one share about it? It left a lot of questions, but it also made us mature more quickly than others our age. It increased my capacity for grief and despair, but, I'm discovering, by the grace of God also my capacity for joy and hope. It's impossible to live through an experience like that and remain unchanged.”
Death changes us. For better or worse, loss marks us and changes us forever. And yet, I love that the beauty of lives lived well and fully echoes beyond any dates or details written in an obituary.
As much as Aunt Tina's death was the first loss for our family, hers was also the first deeply personal example that the people we are and the stories we live echo far beyond our time here.
I grew up hearing stories of Aunt Tina and became quite accustomed to moments in high school when my mom would remark, "sometimes you remind me so much of Tine!" - almost always in reference to my early-bird habits and when I'd already be well-into my day's to-do-list by 9am or off on another one of my solo outdoor adventures. Since she died when I was so young and I consequently never got to know Aunt Tina that well, I loved those comparisons. I loved hearing about her little blue Toyota pick-up, and I loved how dearly my mom, her siblings, and my Oma and Opa would speak of her.
Memories are a complicated thing really: both in the scope of their beauty and their pain. They're bittersweet when accompanied with the sting of loss, but laced with an almost unexplainable glimpse of what made a person who they were and why having them in our lives mattered. We tell stories of who these people were because their lives mattered and we want their lives and personalities and influence to live on somehow. We carry and call to mind mental photographs of moments and smells and expressions in our minds, where time almost seems frozen somehow.
Of her sister, my mom wrote this: "Tine (as she was called at home) was born in the Netherlands, the 4th child in a family of 9, and the middle of 3 girls. Being that I was only 3 years younger, we spent our childhood entangled in each other’s lives both as sisters and friends. I remember countless hours spent playing“house”, “school” or “hospital”, our dolls in turn being our children, students, or patients. Sharing a bedroom lent to multiple late night whispered conversations, giggling, and even singing in hushed tones together. It was also the trigger for some sibling fights, usually over how tidy (or not) I kept my side. Hers was always in order, with bed made, and everything organized and in its right place. She approached life that way: if there was something that had to be done, you just did it. She was an early riser, preferring to see sunrises over sunsets, and definitely a classic morning person. Her independent spirit, and love of adventure were apparent in her solo camping trips to wherever her little blue Toyota pickup would take her."
Similarly, when writing about her mom, my cousin Karen, who was only ten when she lost her mom, wrote this: "Much of what I remember now comes from a combination of what I've heard from others, mixed with my own memories. I've heard I look a lot like her and am decisive and practical like she was. I'm also told she had an independent streak and would go camping alone before she got married."
Across the board, however, the common themes that always emerged when our family would speak of Aunt Tina was her heart for those in need and what it was like just being around her. As Karen said it, "what made her her was how she interacted with others." She spent time volunteering with a disaster relief program with CRWRC and later pursued a career in nursing. She loved her work as a home-care nurse visiting people, but long after she was done working there she continued to visit people and make time for them. Bringing meals to neighbours or helping at the Lighthouse in downtown Toronto were integral to who she was, and what she felt was important. Between her smile that was constantly "comforting and inviting" and her "uncanny way of sending a card or letter to you exactly when you needed one," her life echoes with the compassion and selflessness with which she lived.
"What I remember most [about my Mom] is what it felt like to be near her: snuggling beside her on the couch while she read us stories; sitting beside her in church playing with her ring during the sermon; or choosing to play in the kitchen so I could be near her while she prepared dinner. It was the sense of security, the sense of her love that drew me in. So that's what I miss about her too - her presence."
Aunt Tina's biggest dream was to be a wife and mother; to have a family and home of her own. So, when was diagnosed with cancer my mom told me that "she argued with God about the wisdom of giving her a loving husband and four little children, only to not let her see them grow up." But, despite the honesty and hurt, she never lost faith. "She had an authenticity and boldness in her relationship with her Lord that was noteworthy. During her journey with cancer and the associated chemo and radiation treatments, she constantly spoke of the source of her strength and comfort coming from the fact that her future was not dependent on her holding on to God, but rather Him holding firmly and faithfully onto her."
So - here's to you, beautiful Aunt Tina. To all the ways you lived so well. To your adventurous spirit and compassionate heart, your love and care for your family, & your steady faith faith in the God who always.always.always. holds tightly to us - no matter what life brings our way. //
Throughout Project Hope, I'll be running a race for each one of my family members that we've lost to cancer - 9 running races in total - and taking part in the Love Does Bike Tour in May 2016: to celebrate how crazy beautiful life is, to honour those that we’ve lost to cancer, to mark that cancer and death and injuries and sickness aren't the end of the story, & to support the incredible work of Restore International in Uganda, India, Nepal, Somalia, and Iraq. To find out more about the project: click here, and/or how you can get involved/support this goal: click here.