I dreamed about my Aunt Della two nights ago so I was not surprised to hear her son’s voice over the phone telling me that she had died at 4:30 a.m. on Tuesday. Nonetheless, my heart instantly filled with a mixture of sorrow and regret.
In my son’s childhood, he and I often visited Della. Her cheeky irreverence gave him a glimpse of what his Grandma Lucy had been like, compensating for my mother’s death six years before Patrick’s birth. She let him and his cousins built forts in her living room and race in her driveway. She skipped when others walked and unleashed her mild potty mouth in ways that made the kids giggle.
Della Mae Lyons Rush showed her fearless side in middle-age. She left her husband, got a degree, and became a therapist. She gave me strength during my son’s difficult toddlerhood, coaching me over the phone, assuring me that many other single mothers before me had felt as overwhelmed as I did. I used the techniques she taught me in her low, gentle voice. Because of Della, I could give voice to my desperation. She helped me name and conquer many of the fears that would otherwise have been my downfall.
Della’s view of life had no boundaries. She loved fiercely, praised loudly, and hugged without reservation, long crushing embraces that swallowed children in the warmth of her bosom before releasing them to catapult into the yard with unbridled jubilance. She had neither need nor capacity for artifice.
Some of my fondest memories of Della Mae Rush involve near-hysteria. Once my then-husband Dennis, my son Patrick, and I visited Della and took her to lunch. Dennis grew impatient with the service and began grumbling louder and louder, ignoring my attempts to redirect his anger. Finally Della told him she would get the waiter. She lifted a fork from the table, speared her paper napkin with it, and began waving the make-shift flag while calling the waiter’s name. “Yoo hoo! Yoo hoo!” she said, in a pretend little-girl voice. I held my breath against the wrath that I expected from my husband but he joined us in the general hilarity which followed.
Della shared my deep conviction in the existence and guiding hand of angels. She frequently told stories of unexplained bounties which she attributed to her angelic guardians: Cash in her mailbox, children saved from swerving cars, unexplained hands on her shoulder when she bowed her head to weep in quiet desperation. I believed her. If I had myself been an angel, no one would seem more deserving of my divine intervention than Della Mae, with her three beloved children; her cluster of adored grandchildren; and her saucy attitude toward life.
Della suffered strokes some fifteen years ago. My son and I were there as the tragedy unfolded. I kept telling her, Aunt Del, something’s wrong with you, we need to call Adam — her son. She forbade me for an entire morning but at noon, I reached for the wall phone. He arrived within a half an hour and got her to the hospital. I feel sure that she had been having strokes for several days.
Over the next six years, Della’s condition declined. She suffered additional strokes and began experiencing dementia. When her daughter Sabrina died from complications associated with her diabetes, Patrick and I went to Illinois for her funeral. We visited Della in the nursing home but by her son’s mandate, did not mention the passing of her beloved daughter. I don’t think she ever realized that Sabrina had died. When Sabrina’s daughter Angela visited, Della mistook her for Sabrina. Angela did not question the mistake; she gladly played the role for Grandma Rush.
I think I last saw Della in 2009 when Patrick and I were in Chicago looking at schools. She thought I was my mother. I was honored to be mistaken for Lucy Corley. We took Della outside but she quickly grew cold and back to her room we went. Within the hour, Della no longer knew either of us and made it clear that our visit had exhausted her. We left, with sorrow heavy on our hearts.
I might have seen her once in 2010 but I am not certain. I had embarked on a new phase of my life by then, with a new relationship and a new extended family. I continued to write and occasionally call but as the years went by and my own life spiraled downward, I let even that meager contact fade away. When I awakened yesterday with the lingering image of my Aunt Della, I felt the inescapable weight of my abandonment. With Adam’s call last night about her passing, I will need to summon all my strength to keep regret from being my last connection with a woman who loved me whole-heartedly despite my faults — or perhaps, because of them.
Sleep well, my dearest Della. You will be missed.
It’s the twenty-second day of the thirty-eighth month of My Year Without Complaining. I have another guiding light above me now, no doubt organizing a jump-rope contest with her sisters Lucy and Joyce in paradise. Here on earth, life continues.