Mary Anne Hinkle, beloved wife of no one, mother of no one, died in November of 2006 at the age of 57. She left behind a family of many, more than I could have ever imagined.
I often felt sorry for my aunt when I was younger. She was a middle-aged woman who loved golf, collected crafts, and lived alone. I foolishly pitied her.
My Aunt Mary Anne was petrified of death, though she seemed to predict her shortened earthly existence. She lived every day fully and without regret. She explored the world, never forgot to write a thank-you note, and was dedicated to everyone she knew and every task she was assigned. Though I had experienced the love and selflessness she possessed first hand, I still pitied her single and fruitless existence.
I was with her when she passed. I was standing at the end of her bed, watching the numbers on the EKG screen rapidly decrease. When they all reached zero, a nurse came in and simply said “she’s gone.” Dozens of thoughts rushed through my mind: This isn’t happening, she can’t be dead. Who will sit next to Mom and Dad at graduation? Who will see me off on my first day of college? I’m going to miss her so much. It’s a good thing she didn’t have a family- something like this would devastate a son or daughter.
It was not until her viewing that I realized she did have a family to call her own. I was her family. My parents were her family. The hundreds of other people who came to show their support were her family. Fellow mourners, who were strangers to me, knew who I was, my age, my hobbies, and countless silly facts that only my aunt would find worthy of sharing. Strangers knew who I was because my picture could be found in various corners of my aunt’s office. Dozens of people stood in front of me with tears streaming down their cheeks and with looks of pity on their faces.
They pitied me as I had pitied my aunt. When she died, they lost a coworker or a neighbor, but they all knew that I lost a crucial part of my family: my aunt, godmother, and best friend. They did not pity my middle-aged, single, childless aunt, but instead pitied me, a confused teenager who was mercilessly taught the lessons of life and death by a seemingly cruel god.
I have come to believe that anyone can choose her family, not just her friends. I now realize that my family consists of my mother, father, a handful of friends, and an angel who is constantly present in my life. I may not have an extensive family tree, but each and every branch is unique.
I can no longer call my aunt on Sunday afternoons, but she has not abandoned me. A few of her leaves have fallen, but her branch will never break from my family tree.
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