Instead, she went back to bed, and in the morning, dressed herself nicely, drawing on her eyebrows and fixing her hair, then allowed one of her friends, her angels she calls them, to drive her to the hospital. She walked in serenely and was admitted. The tests showed she'd had a heart attack, which was why she'd fallen. Her enzymes were all out of whack. When she spoke to her daughter and granddaughter from her hospital bed on Saturday night, she sounded bright and cheerful, the usual sparkle was in her voice, and they believed she was on the mend.
On Sunday morning, one of her angels came to visit her in the hospital. Aunt Grace said to her, "My darling, I'm dying. I am in such pain." Her friend started to call for a nurse, but Aunt Grace stopped her. She said, "Just hold my hand." Her friend held Aunt Grace's hand in hers, and they just stayed like that for a bit until Aunt Grace took a deep breath, a moan hidden under it, and like that she departed.
This one hits particularly hard. Aunt Grace was the last of the nine Stiebel siblings, the one whose voice sounded so like my mother's that even their children couldn't tell them apart on the phone. She was perfectly named, graceful and gracious, with eyes that twinkled with a deep resilient knowledge that nothing in this life should be taken too seriously, at least not seriously enough to dampen the fuel of our existence, which she believed was joy.
Now the nine are all back together and she is reunited with her beloved Ken. I am trying to imagine them rejoicing on the other side and draw comfort from that. But the world seems so much the poorer now. One of our brightest lights has crossed the horizon and we ache from missing her. Fly with the angels dear Aunt Grace. You were that rarest of souls, a woman who knew how to make her own joy, no matter what might be happening around her. Others might have buckled at some of the challenges she faced. Instead she kept her attention on life's gifts, the greatest of which was her family, and of course, her angels. She delighted in those around her as she recited poems from her schoolgirl days, or offered a well-told joke, or simply held us in her clear green gaze, which to me seemed animated always by some ancient understanding of love.
That's Grace on the far right. Her mother, my grandmother, is pregnant with the ninth child. Aunt Grace always joked that when she first saw this photo, she looked at herself and thought, "Oh Grace, you're going to have to learn to do your own hair." Her mother's hair was straight, and her older sister Winnie, charged with combing the younger girls' hair, had a curly rather than a tightly coiled hair texture, with the result that she gave them, as Grace described it, muffin heads.
Aunt Grace indeed learned how to do her own hair, and when we were growing up, nothing made her nieces feel more special than when Aunt Grace had a turn with combing and styling our hair. She made us look positively radiant. But what I remember most is that she also made it fun. As we sat before her, our arms draped over her knees, she'd comb out our tangles while leading us in song rounds—Kookaburroa sits in the old gum tree/ Merry merry king of the bush is he—that song in particular, laughing when we got to the chorus—Laugh, Kookaburra, laugh, Kookaburra/ Gay your life must be. Oh how we all loved her. She and the rest of my dearly departed are why I choose to believe in an afterlife, as the thought that I will see them again is how I'm getting through.