Sunday, March 24, 2013

Losing a Sister-Cousin and Maybe Gaining a Message?

A week ago today, my cousin Karen died.   She died, as obituaries so often starkly state, "after a long, courageous battle with cancer".   This is a profound loss for her children, her father who is still alive, her extended family, her close friends and for me.  I think of Karen as a sister-cousin.  We only had brothers. 
We grew up in the same suburban neighborhood, her house was walking distance, one street up.  She was three years older than me, so up until last Sunday, she knew me for my entire life.   There are cousins that I rarely or never see due to barriers of age, language and geography. There are some I see only on special occasions, like weddings, graduations and funerals. Not Karen.
We went to the same grade school and high school; and both had our first jobs as waitresses at the Jewish Home for the Aged.  Yet sometime in young adulthood, our paths diverged as we were both busy with combinations of advanced education, school, careers and husbands and kids. 
Then slowly our lives began to converge again the past decade, over some mostly sad shared experiences, most notably with losses of mothers, my dad, Karen's husband (also from cancer) and the unexpected responsibility of figuring out care giving and housing for our never married Aunt Mary. 
Karen became deeply religious during that time period.  She spoke openly of her faith experiences, and built an ecumenical faith community straddling her Catholic parish and the United Methodist church where, for decades, she worked as the Director of its pre-school.  An unusual aspect of her obituary was that it listed her as a member of both St. Therese Parish and the Homestead Park United Methodist Church.  She planned her own funeral Mass and it combined aspects and people from these two faith communities.
Karen's struggle with cancer was painful from the beginning and the process of managing it limited her mobility, since the medications precluded her from driving.  She relied on a circle of family and friends to take her to work (which she continued to do until the day before she was admitted to the inpatient hospice), to chemotherapy and doctors' appointments and to family and other social events.
Sometime after Christmas 2012, Karen knew that her time was limited.  One of her wishes was to once again visit her daughter in Philadelphia to see her play hockey.  It was my privilege to accompany her on the train from Pittsburgh over Super Bowl weekend for a final trip before the last trip that we all have to make someday.  We got to see Emily play hockey, to visit my brother, go to Mass together for the last time in Drexel Hill and to talk for hours about our shared family history and experiences from childhood through our adult lives.  
At the hospice early one morning before any other visitors arrived, she asked me to pray with her and I did.  She spoke of being comforted by the voices and messages from two people close to her who had recently died and about seeing patterns that she interpreted as the hand of God.  I wanted to ask her one last thing, but I couldn't say it out loud.  I wanted to ask her to let me know after she died to let me know that she was OK. 
Karen died last Sunday morning, right around noon.  Her wake and funeral were crowded, a tribute to the many lives she touched.  The day after her funeral, I boarded a plane to Boston to help my daughter look for an apartment.  My connecting flight was canceled, so I had to take a cab and schlep my luggage to meet her for our appointment with a real estate agent. 
I left my suitcase in the foyer of one of the buildings as we looked at an apartment many flights up.  When I returned to retrieve my luggage, two cardboard boxes were there that had not been just minutes before.  On the side of one of the boxes in large black letters was printed the word 'HARTZ', Karen's last name.
I looked at Clare; she looked at me.  Is this my sign?  I could read a lot into this.  She's in transit?  She's arrived home?  Or is this just a coincidence? 
I took actual comfort from seeing that cardboard box with those letters.  And I don't believe in coincidences.