Aunt Celeste, my mom, and me.
The three of us shared a house together.
We were a team.
We were buddies.
Every year on Halloween, we’d turn our house into a witch’s cottage and dress up as the three witches of ‘The Cape’, which is the nickname for our neighborhood.
We’d have our simple little three-person Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners at home, or — if no one felt like cooking — we’d venture out to Denny’s for the holidays instead of heading up to Orange County to be with the rest of our family.
The three of us usually went on vacation together, and as much as we’d get on each other’s nerves sometimes, it was just part of the package.
One of us would always stay in the hospital with the other, no matter how long.
We went to a chemo together.
We were our own kind of family unit, and we supported each other in every way.
Then, we lost Celeste.
As much as it still hurts and I can’t bear to enter her bedroom without falling apart and losing my shit…
I am thankful she died when she did.
Let me explain…
Celeste had been in an ongoing war with her own body for the past few years. This most recent battle took her.
She died on February 1st, 2020.
In the days that followed, we were kept very busy planning her viewing, funeral service, and burial — and I’m very grateful for all of it.
The funeral was important to her.
Like what’s happening to so many families right now, we wouldn’t have been permitted to give my aunt her final farewell had she passed away later on in the same month.
Her funeral was so important to her; just to have all of her family and friends be there was important.
The event was such a blessing and we are so comforted that we were still able to do that for her.
My heart breaks for all of the folks dying, the families, and the friends who are going through something like this right now during the pandemic, or because of it.
Celeste had much of her funeral already planned out.
It’s something she had filed away many, many years ago.
She had all of her choir music — and who would be singing it — already decided.
She had the stone for her grave marker picked out (the same stone used for her mother’s grave). She had the scripture and the pastors chosen.
She knew what she wanted, and she wrote it all down.
I am grateful.
The night of the viewing was held at the mortuary.
One room was a designated dining room, equipped with several round tables covered in crisp black tablecloths and matching chairs.
Against the wall was a long buffet table filled with trays of snacks and sweets we had made the night before.
Along another wall a giant screen displayed a video, playing an endless loop of photographs showing our Celeste in happier times.
The only problem was that the tables — and actually the whole room — just seemed so bare…and dark.
We were there to celebrate her life. We needed to zhuzh it up.
If we wanted anything personal or specialized, it was up to us.
I had no money, but I wanted the decor and the tables to still look like they were meant for Celeste.
I was able to make some quick flower arrangements and decorations using nothing but dollar-store items.
Blue flowers, plates, and napkins were specifically chosen for my dear auntie.
Blue and green were always her favorite colors.
Even her bathroom is painted blue and green. (Yep).
We had a blue M&M’s bucket filled with little individual packets of her favorite candies, in her two favorite colors, with Celeste’s picture, name, and dates of her birth and death printed on them.
She would have absolutely loved it.
Celeste loved and saved anything with her name printed on it.
In the room next door, my Aunt lied in a shiny dark blue casket with silver trim and hardware.
She was in the front of the room under a stone-encased alcove, with several candle stands and wreaths of flowers from her friends and family.
One huge flower arrangement had been sent from her softball league.
In the middle of the arrangement sat a shiny lime-green softball with loving words to Celeste written on it from all of her teammates.
Later on, we placed that ball in the casket.
It’ll be with her forever.
My mother and I had picked out Celeste’s favorite teal-colored dress for her to wear.
We’d given the mortuary director a couple of trinkets to be placed on her person as they dressed and prepared my aunt for her final rest: a pin of a winged angel swinging a baseball bat, another pin of a music note, and her gold crucifix necklace.
I walked up alone to view my aunt for the first time.
It had taken me a while to muster up the nerve.
As I looked inside her casket, something wasn’t quite right.
I could barely see through my teary eyes, but then, I noticed it.
We had forgotten her glasses.
She needed her glasses.
All I could think of was the “My Girl” scene when Vada caused a big dramatic ruckus at Thomas J’s funeral because he, too, needed his glasses. I didn’t make a scene, though.
I just felt guilty and sad that my aunt wouldn’t be able to see very well in her next chapter.
As if I was a little girl again, my mother hugged me and reassured me that Celeste didn’t need glasses in Heaven.
The next day was her funeral.
It was held at her church, where she was a member and part of the choir for forty years.
It was a beautiful service.
Everyone who came to honor her at the church was able to see where my aunt spent so much of her time.
I haven’t been to many churches, but this one was absolutely gorgeous.
It felt like we were sitting in the pews of a painting.
The place was packed, and the folks left to stand were spilling outside of the giant carved wooden doors.
I knew my aunt had a lot of friends, but I had no idea just how many lives she had touched.
Every priest, pastor, and member of that congregation came. Many spoke.
I am grateful.
During his sermon, one of the Pastors had to stop mid-sentence.
He became choked up and teary-eyed while speaking about Celeste.
He couldn’t talk for a few moments.
He was in the middle of telling us a story about a time in which Celeste had reached out to him, offering friendship and a helping hand when his mother was ill, back when he was a new pastor twenty-five years ago.
He said that they really hadn’t known each other very well, but still she was there to console him.
He didn’t know why this lady had taken the time to come to him in his time of need, but he was thankful she did.
He never forgot it.
Everyone followed to the cemetery for the final burial, and the reception would follow.
It was a beautiful day out.
At the burial, the navy blue casket really sparkled in the sunlight.
We all called it “Cowboys’ blue” because the Dallas Cowboys were my Aunt Celeste’s favorite football team.
There was and still is Cowboys’ crap — er, memorabilia— all over the house.
She had a Cowboys’ throw blanket on her bed, framed Troy Aikman posters on her bedroom walls, a Cowboys’ license plate holder, and there’s still a Dallas Cowboys’ sticker on her en suite bathroom mirror that probably won’t ever come off.
As we sat in the chairs underneath the shade of a temporary canopy, the priest did his blessing one last time, and we said goodbye to our dear Celeste.
I am grateful.
While everyone headed towards the reception in a caravan of vehicles, I turned my car around and drove in the opposite direction… back to the cemetery.
That’s where I needed to be.
I couldn’t leave her by herself.
I sat in my car with the windows rolled up.
As I incoherently sobbed and spoke out loud to my Aunt Celeste in spirit, I watched the gravediggers lower her into the ground, and then fill in the hole with dirt.
She was now truly gone.
We didn’t realize it then, because before the pandemic you would never think of not being permitted to have a funeral.
It’s just something we do when someone passes away.
We don’t really value the “normal things” in life until they get taken away from us and we can no longer do them.
So many normal occurrences get taken for granted.
We are fortunate that we were able to honor her and give her the services she had wanted, and we (her family) so badly needed.
Had she died a few weeks later, we wouldn’t have been allowed.
The pandemic would’ve made it impossible.
She received the farewell she deserved.
The farewell that so many others deserve but can’t have right now.
While this was, and still is a very sad time for us, my family can find solace in one thing:
Celeste had her goodbye, and we were all able to attend. I appreciate every single moment of it.
For all of it, I am grateful.