31 May 2005
Shirley has lost her battle with cancer.
Shirley was my cousin, and the first in "my generation" to lose her life (well, technically speaking, she's the second, since her brother died several years ago, but I didn't really know him, so this is the first generational death that really hits home for me).
There are 32 of us first-generation cousins. My grandmother had 10 children and most were fertile, some more than others. My aunt Betsy was one of the most prolific, with, I believe, five children from her three marriages. Shirley was the oldest.
When I was a small child, she was my babysitter. When she started dating Sonny, she would bring him to the house. Karen and I loved Sonny and I remember the night she came by to tell my mother that they had decided to marry. She teased me that she had broken up with him, and when I looked sad, she told me that no, she was going to marry Sonny.
And so she did and began having children. I remember when we were older, riding in the car with her and her daughters, Donna, Debbie and Denise. But Sonny was not an ideal husband and the marriage did not last.
Shirley did not lead a -- shall we say "uneventful"? -- life.
My family is noted for youthful excesses, unfortunately often lasting well into adulthood. Shirley experienced the 60s in all its permutations. There were drugs. Lots of drugs. There was alcohol. There were more husbands (including a first cousin she'd always loved). And there were cigarettes which, these many years later, have finally killed her, as they have killed most of my aunts and uncles.
She would pop into my life from time to time. She was a writer and she knew that I liked to write, so she decided we'd revitalize our relationship through correspondence. So we would begin to write letters to each other. I can't remember where she was living at the time. But the drugs would start up again and it would be years before I would hear from her again.
It's been many years now since she finally cleaned up and got her life in order. She has been rebuilding family relationships ever since that time, reconnecting with the family and coming back to her roots.
A few years back, she had a pivotal experience, traveling through Australia with a woman for whom she worked. She was very moved by the country and with her experiences with the Aboriginal people she encountered. She felt she had made a mental connection. But that's not surprising because Shirley had become a child of the earth. She was into natural spiritual things. She drew strength from drum circles and sweat lodges and from Mother Earth. She tried several times to get me to attend one of her retreats. I always found an excuse not to go, but in 2004 she did finally get me to go searching for my inner goddess. (I didn't find her)
For Shirley, the family reunions that we have begun to have were the center of her life. Those gatherings, bringing together parts of the family that hadn't seen each other in decades, introducing 3rd generation and 4th generation cousins to each other were so important to her that she would sometimes drive us crazy trying to nail down plans for the next one when we had hardly cleaned up from the last one.
Each year we crowned someone as the monarch of the family for the coming year. Shirley was thrilled the year it was her turn. She donned the ornate crown and took on the role of "queen" for the rest of the year. At the next reunion, she turned the crown over to our cousin Peach.
She and Peach had rediscovered each other through the family reunions. Peach had begun to research the family history and while we all had some passing interest in the story of our family and the ancestors who had come before, Shirley really got into the whole story of the two brothers who rode with Robert the Bruce and then left Scotland to begin life in a new world.
Shirley, her kids and grandkids were instrumental in putting together a whole "Kilpatrick family pageant" at one of the family reunions.
By the time of our last reunion, Shirley was already on oxygen and we feared it would be her last reunion. The previous reunion had been the last for our Aunt Barb, who, while she still lives, is now in that Alzheimers world that none of us are able to penetrate. She knew at the time that she was losing her brain functions and it was a scary time for her.
A few years back, her daughter threw a big party to celebrate Shirley's 69th birthday. She was queen of the day. It was a wonderful party and she was well honored. I made a slide show of that day, which was kind of my way of letting her know how I felt about her, though we never discussed it. It was a pretty good slide show, if I do say so, and it saddens me to know that though I sent it to her daughter a couple of times, Shirley never saw it. Now it's too late.
They turned off her oxygen this morning and she left this world quietly, and at peace. A big presence in the family has gone.
PHOTO OF THE DAY
Shirley on her 69th birthday