I watch as a woman I dearly treasure is overtaken by the stronghold of dementia, and I resign to the fact that none of us has control or the ability to change this course. Repeated stories and angry outbursts, followed by confusion—this has become the norm for this strong, kind, and loving lady. While these are not the actions of the aunt who has impacted my life so significantly, it’s where she finds herself in the twilight of her life.
But my heart doesn’t stay where she is today. Instead, it leads me to the actions throughout her life. The deep and constant investment she made in mine. These will always be part of my treasured memories, keeping residence in my heart. She was a woman I needed and, without fail, was there for me when I did. Her life held true purpose.
I grew up in a home with a challenging mother. That could be an understatement. At times she would be fun, helpful, adventurous. But often, she was angry and bitter, feeling life didn’t turn out as she had hoped. She repeatedly sought to blame those around her for life’s disappointment, leaving us trying to either appease or push back.
Through these years, I was not unaffected by her emotions, nor was I passive in my confrontation. Oil and water, yes, that was the two of us. It was well known in the family that there was turmoil, a minefield of emotions between this mother and daughter: her displeasure, my rebellion. Many family members were wise to give us a wide berth—but not my aunt.
She willingly entered the turmoil to be what I needed.
She knew me. She saw my opposition toward anything my mother said. Weekends came and I slipped out with my friends. I felt that nothing I did pleased my mother. So, I would choose to do what met her disapproval. My acts and her reactions led to nothing more than a perfect storm.
Even then, my aunt saw me as more than my actions, than my constant defiant stance buried in this angry teenager. And she loved me even when I wasn’t sure I loved myself. Her favorite phrase is, “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” Willing to overlook so much of what I would do because, for her, most things were small stuff.
She saw what others did not, believing in me even when everything I did said she shouldn’t…
A year after I landed my driver’s license, I convinced my parents I could drive the 136 miles from my small Indiana town to the college town that was my aunt and uncle’s home. Under the guise of just visiting them, I was meeting a need I desperately had, to release enough of what was building in me to avoid destruction.
I think for my mother, it was easier when I wasn’t home. My confrontational nature with her insecure anger was not a combination that made for a peaceful home. So, it was not a difficult ask to load my car and go.
My aunt would greet me on her doorstep with a huge smile and a ready laugh. She took me into her home as if it was my own. She knew I needed someone to accept me, fully and completely, with all my flaws, oddities, and confusion. She offered me unconditional love, with a warm embrace, never reminding me of what I had done wrong. Always telling me she was proud of me when I knew full well, she didn’t have a lot of reason to be.
She embraced all of me without hesitation, treasuring me as part of her life.
I can’t even remember everything we did on these visits. It wasn’t a grand plan or exciting adventure. Simply being in the company of this precious lady was all I wanted. She gave that willingly. I found myself joining in her laughter, relaxing on her couch, asking her to teach me whatever her current interest was. Crocheting, cooking, it didn’t matter that I didn’t care to learn those things.
What she really gave was the absence of conflict. A place without the disapproval, sharp words, and hurtful comments. Simple companionship without expectations. She gave that in spades.
It took years and many life turns for me to work it out. In time, I left behind my animosity and became someone I thought she could be proud of. But in my often-confusing actions and choices in those years, many in my family questioned me, understandably so. Not every decision I made was sound.
Yet my aunt would say with that ever-present smile, “Darlene will be fine.” I don’t know how she could have been so confident because I wasn’t, nor were others who knew me well. But when I saw her confidence, I sometimes believed it could be true. That one day, I would work it out to be the woman God created me to be. And when I found my way, she would be there, without hesitation, saying to all who questioned, “I told you so.”
She stood up for me when I couldn’t stand for myself.
Over the years she became more than an aunt; she became my friend. As I entered the world of adulthood, I got to know this lady who meant the world to me in a different way. Our conversations became more honest, sharing lives rather than her just investing into mine. I learned more about her challenges. I realized she too had her own conflicts and insecurities. She didn’t live a perfect or uncomplicated life, but what she did was got up every day to do it all over again.
She wasn’t stopped by things that may have halted others. That smile was always available even when there was little to smile about. And she invested in me even when she may have needed some to invest in her. It was knowing this about her that made me love her more.
She was not perfect, but perfect for me.
I doubt that she realized what she was providing me when I was growing up. Nor would she have considered it a great action, a life purpose. But in hindsight, her efforts were filled with purpose, creating a significant impact in the life of this confused girl.
She did this while raising her children, dealing with the challenges of managing life that we all experience. I’m sure she had demands on her time and many relationships to which she could give her attention. But it was mine in which she chose to invest.
She didn’t go wide in what she offered; she chose to go deep.
If we are looking for our lives to have a true purpose, it isn’t the number of followers one has on Instagram. It isn’t in the books written, speeches made, or careers you have conquered. It’s by going deep into the life of one; how we care for others. You can lack education, finesse, even preparation or understanding of what is needed. It is choosing to become women of strength and compassion, then willing to share that with another.
Like my aunt’s life shows, it takes simple actions to impact the life of another.
Be willing to enter the turmoil when it is there; you are needed.
See what others may not, believing in someone even when they doubt themselves.
Fully embrace, physically and emotionally, so they know you offer unconditional love.
Be that safe place, a refuge away from conflict.
Stand in the stead of one who can’t stand for themself.
Accept that you will never be perfect, but you will be perfect for the one who needs you.
I needed that. We all need that.
And we all need to be that.
How we care for others reveals our true purpose.
I am much of what I am today because of this lady. This is the legacy of this lady I love. It is not where she finds herself at the end of life, but the indelible impact she had on mine.
But for now, her memory will fade, and the caretaking of this fine woman will increase. But there will come a day when her last breath is taken. On that day she will be made whole again. And when it comes, our God in heaven will be standing on His doorstep to greet her with His own huge smile and ready laugh, saying, “Welcome home, my child, welcome home.”
Unsure of your impact? Check out this podcast episode: As Life Changes We Ask, What Defines Me? – 156