Thursday, June 16, 2011

Blue Pajamas

     When I was nine years old,  my Aunt Virginia presented me with a beautiful pair of blue pajamas for my birthday.  I was a diehard tomboy at the time, spending my days running through the woods in cut off blue jeans and sneakers, climbing trees and pretending I was my brother's brother. I was chunky and awkward and never a delicate porcelain beauty, but somewhere underneath the short hair and skinned up knees, a girly-girl bone was beginning to form, and Aunt Virginia must have known that.  I loved those pajamas so much that on my tenth birthday, she once again presented me with a new pair of blue pajamas, and once again, I was delighted. When she continued the theme on my eleventh birthday, the hint of a tradition was beginning to appear.
      For the next forty years, on every single birthday, my favorite gift came from Aunt Virginia.  I would pick up her beautifully wrapped box, gently shake the package, hold it up to my ear and rattle it around a few times, then proudly proclaim with my birthday ESP, "I'll bet these are blue pajamas!" For anyone not in on the secret, they were amazed when I ripped off the paper and lifted up a pair of blue pajamas. Over the years, she gave me blue pajamas in every style, shade, fabric and pattern known to man. From granny gowns to baby-doll nighties; cotton to flannel; long, short, and in-between; those blue pajamas helped me tick off each passing year. 
      By the time I was in my early twenties, it was not so much the pajamas that I loved as it was the tradition, the annual ritual that Aunt Virginia had continued throughout the years. When I married and had children, the box from Aunt Virginia became their favorite part of my birthday.  As toddlers, they were amazed at the sixth sense their mother possessed, and my uncanny ability to guess the contents of a securely wrapped package never failed to impress. As they matured and grew to understand the true magic of things like Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy, the birthday box from Aunt Virginia fell into the category of "things we believe in because of love."   And we all loved Aunt Virginia.
      Her forty years of diligently shopping for blue pajamas only hinted at the depth of her love for others and her determination to live a righteous life.  As a first-generation Irish-American, she was fierce in her faith, loyal in her love, and generous in her graciousness.  Married for sixty-seven years to a misplaced Wisconsin boy, she ran a tight ship at home and kept Uncle Henry in line. With her razor sharp mind, she never forgot a birthday, appointment, meeting, or important event. She balanced their finances down to the penny, planted every garden under the proper sign, and ran a household tighter than the Queen's Palace. As age crept up on them, she managed their daily medications like a pharmacy, with notes in her perfect penmanship attached to each prescription, with instructions on exactly how and when to take their pills. She was a warrior when it came to overseeing Uncle Henry's diet, measuring every bite and gram that passed his lips, limiting his sweets and snacks, serving only perfectly balanced and apportioned meals. When the doctor restricted his salt intake, she was so diligent in his diet that we swore Aunt Virginia even counted the grains of salt Uncle Henry was allowed to have with each meal.
      Uncle Henry loved to grumble about the short leash she kept him on, but we all knew that leash was more like his life-line. They would fuss and carry on in the way that only people who have endured six decades together are allowed to, and their bickering did nothing more than reveal their fondness for one another. Five years his senior, Aunt Virginia doted on Uncle Henry like a mother hen, and he adored his red-headed, sharp-minded "Ginger."
      At the age of 93, Aunt Virginia spent this last week in her typical fashion. Never one to shun hard work,  she tended to her garden of tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, beans, and squash.  She whipped up a batch of date balls to deliver to  my mother who was in the hospital with a broken hip. She wrapped several birthday presents and meticulously labeled each one, then did the laundry, tidied up the house, and went to a doctor's appointment. On Monday morning, Uncle Henry was being somewhat ornery and she laughingly threatened to place him in a nursing home if he didn't behave.  By lunchtime, he had settled down, so following their usual routine, they drove to Hardees  for a hamburger. She cooked supper that evening, as she did each night, a simple feat, perhaps, but impressive for someone in their nineties. Gardening, baking, visiting, caring, loving-ordinary tasks in the full life of an nonagenarian.   
    When the phone rings at 4 am, you don't expect good news. The moment the call came,  my feet hit the ground before my eyes opened, and I answered after the first ring with a foggy "Hello?"
     "This is Chester Regional Medical Center...." the call began, and I panicked as I ran through a list of possibilities.
    "Who? Who is it?" was all I could get out before they told me it was Aunt Virginia. I threw on some clothes, grabbed my keys, roared through several red lights, and  ran through the double doors of the Emergency Room at 4:15.
     Surrounded by a team of doctors and nurses, with Uncle Henry sitting close by and holding her hand, I could see her freshly permed curls which still held a hint of red.  She was connected to a menagerie of tubes and IV's, an oxygen mask covered her sweet face, and the screen of a monitor recorded her  weakening vital statistics.  I quietly crossed the room to stand on the other side of the bed, where I could hold her free hand and stroke her forehead. I listened as the doctor gravely filled me in on her condition. She had suffered a heart attack earlier in the evening, probably some time after supper. When she finally admitted to Uncle Henry that she needed to go to the hospital, she had insisted on changing from her nightgown into her day clothes before the ambulance arrived. This Irish lass would not be leaving her home improperly attired.  Alert and sharp as ever, she had given the doctor her full medical history upon admission, amazing them all with her keen memory.
       The doctor warned me that her condition was deteriorating, but I laughed and told him he didn't know Aunt Virginia.  Her years may have been many, but her spirit was young and strong, and I clung to the hope that she would open her eyes and say, "Henry, take me back home."   I leaned over to kiss her and to tell her that I was there, that she was not alone, that we all loved her.  A lump filled my throat and a tear slid down my face when I reached out to straighten her sheets-- Aunt Virginia was dressed in a blue  hospital gown.
      It was a profound privilege to stand guard by Aunt Virginia and hold her hand as she slipped into the arms of her Lord.  To be there with her, for her, and by her; to witness the end of ninety-three years of a faithful and beautiful life; to stand sentinel when the angels came to usher her home--it was a keenly powerful and holy moment. Years of memories ran through my mind as I stood there, still not quite grasping the fact that the gentle woman we all loved had left us. But  in the midst of my sorrow and tears, as I held her hand and cried, I had to smile, knowing that Aunt Virginia had gone home to glory wearing blue pajamas.

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