Tag Archive | life and death

My Mother

Aunt Rita, left, and my mother Ali, eighteen months younger than her sister.

I’m grateful for my mother. I may not have said that here often, but it’s been true all along. She would have been ninety-four today. I wouldn’t be here without her, on so many levels. The obvious one. And when I bought this land, she pitched in the last five percent that I didn’t have. And all those years between. I could write a whole book about how grateful I am to my mother for her love, protection, and support. Not that it wasn’t fraught sometimes in the early years, but by and large she was my best friend for all of our life together, and she called me her night rainbow, though I don’t remember why.

Rita and Ali on a double date in the 1940s.
Mom and the Colonel on their wedding day, with her mother holding baby cousin Bruce. And the Colonel clearly teasing the baby with a glass of sherry. Or perhaps Dubonnet, which was fashionable at the time.
My mother at fifty, drinking Scotch on a riverbank with friends in the mountains of western Virginia. I cherish this picture of her in a moment of joyful levity. I have another one of her with a similar expression, as one of my baby corn snakes coils across her face. I’m grateful that she let me know that she learned from me as my life opened new adventures for her.
And here she sits on another rock, with Dia the calico, at the canyon rim on her first visit to my new home in the early nineties. When I took this picture, she would have been just about the age that I am now. That’s a mind-bender. I believe she’s drinking Scotch in this picture too.

The gifts she gave me are immeasurable. I’ve written about them before. But even though she’s always in my heart and I think of her almost every day, I don’t really think about her in the way that I’ve been doing today. She was a talented artist, had a wonderful tact, a great sense of humor, and a tender open heart; and she could be fierce, vindictive and petty. At the end, her true strength manifested in dignity and astonishing courage. As I look for and at these images of her, I find myself chuckling at some memories, of things she said and trips we took, and tearing up at others. I suppose I’ve never really gotten past the grief of her dying. I’m so grateful I was able to be with her during her last eight months, her last days, her last breath. It was one of those difficult experiences that nonetheless brings genuine happiness because it’s so clearly the right thing to do. I wouldn’t trade that time for anything.

Sunrise

I’m grateful I went to bed early enough last night to finally see sunrise this morning. It’s been a long time! I woke from an endless fever dream about grocery shopping of all things, which opened with me realizing I wasn’t masked and proceeded through greeting or avoiding many people, delighting in choosing cheeses, and finally wound up with a horrific discovery that City Market was selling live wild animals for both food and pets.

I struggled to get my camera to open and then to work right to photograph the three glass front cages before me, first filled with tragic mammals but then the reptiles in the background began to fill the scene, eventually including some small dinosaurs. I can place almost every element in the dream to a corresponding piece of yesterday’s reality, but what a colorful subconscious interpretation! I’m grateful for dreams, and for waking up from them.

Just like in the movie, I mean dream, the camera failed to open at first when I stepped out onto the deck at sunrise. I’m grateful it did in time to catch the daily spectacle that I all too often take for granted: its beauty, and that I’ll live to see it.

Artists

I’m grateful to have known many artists. Yesterday I finally reframed two dear artworks, a project I’ve been eager to accomplish for a year, and hung them on the living room wall. I realized with some sadness that most of the artists represented on that wall now are deceased. Dick Higgins was a friend of Auntie’s, and after she died her daughter sent me the small watercolor above. (Dick’s daughter Wendy is a phenomenal oil painter in Santa Fe, specializing in light.) I pirated an old frame and mat that had had a Japanese print in it for fifty years to reframe this one, which is not only a lovely image but also carries the breeze off the Rappahannock River at happy hour.

“Cats on the Furniture” is a print by one of the loves of my life, Daryl Harrison, who died of breast cancer in 2006. She was scientific illustrator for the University of Florida biology department when we lived next door in the 80s, and was staff artist at the Albuquerque Zoo for years before she died. This print perfectly captures her skill and her whimsy. It came in a silver metal frame, and the mat had faded, so I stole the frame and mat from an old pastel my mother made of me and Knobbydog, which always bugged me because she got his head wrong. I’m grateful I know my way around a picture frame.

When I owned a gallery in the 90s, I supported the artists by purchasing a lot of their works. One of my favorites is this fox by an artist still living, Daniel Logé. Another, below, is this lovely spring alpine scene by Richard Van Reyper. I became friends with his daughter when she brought some of his paintings to enter in a show. I was immediately enchanted with his work, and also with his daughter who became a friend. They’re both gone now. Gretchen succumbed with grace to cancer ten years ago, and I just learned that Dick died last year.

My mother painted a couple of versions of this vase with lilies of the valley, her favorite flower. Amy has the more abstract version of it, while I got to keep this one. She died in 2004. Sometimes it seems like yesterday. She loved the art of Ando Hiroshige (1797-1858), and this print below, Fudo Falls, from One Hundred Famous Views of Edo, was made the year before he died. Oh wait! That’s a Liberty puzzle!

And it’s not on my wall, but it was on my table for the past few days. Liberty carries a number of Hiroshige prints made into puzzles. I’m grateful to Sarah for sharing her puzzle collection with us here in Colorado, and thoroughly delighted in assembling this first of three. More on that, perhaps tomorrow. I’m grateful for artists and the infinite worlds they bring to life.

Acceptance

I realized the second I hit “Publish” last night that I had just spouted something old, a view at odds with what I actually currently believe. Yes, intellectually, philosophically, mentally, we are each alone; but, fundamentally, energetically, elementally, spiritually, we are All One. All sentient beings are interconnected in ways Western science has yet to fully comprehend, but at the forefront of consciousness studies is the dawning recognition that we are literally all connected. So, when I remember this, and I think in cosmic terms, and even in the sense of community, networks of friendship and support, I do recognize that I’m not really alone.

Further, I really feel this in my bones, my inherent belonging in this world teeming with life. From the microorganisms living in symbiosis with my body whose cells outnumber my human cells 10:1, to the insects in my summer yard, to the brilliant avifauna of tropical forests represented in today’s completed puzzle, we depend upon each other. We are all animated by the same force. We just don’t really understand what that is yet, or what to call it. Life. But I feel it. I’ve lived close to the earth for most of my life in one way or another. The boundary between inside and outside is quite permeable at my house. Even as a little girl climbing the poplar tree, and hating boys who burned ants with a magnifying glass, I’ve felt my connection with all living things profoundly for as long as I can remember. It’s made for a hard life, among a species who’s so hard on the planet. I’m grateful for acceptance, resilience, and equanimity, all recent acquisitions which contribute to contentment and joy, even in times of loss and grief.

Dead Dogs

Stellar enjoying his nose on our short walk this evening, after a long few days.

Tonight, as I reflect on them, I’m grateful for all the dogs who’ve died on my watch. There was Sam, the pregnant stray I picked up in college; Knobby, who picked me up at a campground; Mocha, renowned for her sweetness; serious Mr. Brick, the golden bobtail, my first puppy; mischievous Raven, who died in my arms. Each of them died a different way.

I see growth over the course of this progression in my understandings of life and death. Karmically speaking, I can only hope that by the time dear Stellar dies, I’ve been able to purify the negative karma I incurred when I had Sam put down. The memories still traumatize: She won’t feel a thing, they assured me. She bucked and fought on the table, the whole time glaring at me in wide-eyed terror. It was the most horrible thing I’d experienced thus far in my young life. And the reason I did it? I’m ashamed to admit it, because now, knowing about no-kill shelters like Best Friends, I would never have even considered it. I rationalized it as the most compassionate thing to do, and it was the most compassionate way I knew at the time.

The object of my thoughts for days has been whether or not I could ever euthanize Stellar. During his seizure Sunday night, I was perhaps too willing to let him go, prematurely welcoming relief of my own suffering (and inconvenience, I have to admit). All this morning I perused online Buddhist perspectives on euthanasia. I spoke to his vet around noon, and she thinks he may have a bladder infection that’s exacerbating ‘everything else.’ So I drove to town this afternoon to pick up antibiotics.

I’ve had a couple of dreams in the past six weeks after which I vowed I would not have him put down. It’s never gone really well. The best deaths have been those rare affairs when a beloved dies on their own. A local vet came out after staving off Knobbydog’s time for a week; I ended up sleeping outside on the patio with him his last two nights before she came with the shots. A friend had helped me dig a grave down near the canyon rim: I’d never have had the courage to buy this land without the security of Knobbydog. He had a fast-growing cancer in his mouth, and was half dead by the time we took that last walk. As the vet strode briskly ahead down the trail, chatting, Knobby stopped to sniff the base of a juniper. After what seemed to me sufficient time (for his last long sniff, really?), I hurried him along. To his death.

We stood on the lookout rock together, the three of us, the vet chatting, Knobby sniffing the breeze and looking his last look into the canyon, I so sad. She gave him a sedative. After a few minutes she suggested we should walk to the graveside before he fell asleep. There under the Ancient One, I sat on the ground and held his knobby head in my lap, my arms around him, while she gave the lethal injection, chatting all the while about people I neither knew nor cared about. ‘Just shut UP!’ I kept screaming in my head. I have always regretted that I let myself feel rushed, and rushed him along. Also, I vowed to never have that vet come kill another pet for me.

So I had Doc Vincent come put down Mocha, when she could no longer rise for walk or food due to kidney failure. He was the exact opposite. He strode through the gate while I explained to Brick and Raven, and by the time I got inside he’d already wrapped the rubber around her leg. She, objecting, had crab-walked across the living room to get away from him. I gathered her into my lap on the couch and held her, cooing, while he finished the process. We had a communal funeral for her and Michael’s cat Luna, burying them both in the hole I’d dug to plant a peach tree the following spring. While that death went more smoothly, it still unsettled me. I happened too fast, and she was frightened. She didn’t understand.

Mr. Brick… I tried to let him die on his own. It was in the low twenties night after night, and he wouldn’t come inside. Paradoxically I both feared and hoped he would freeze to death, but he just hung on day after day. After days of pacing, he chose a favorite spot down by the pond and didn’t get up. But he didn’t die. Raven required a midnight run to the ER vet in Grand Junction. Stellar was a puppy and needed a lot of attention. I was exhausted. By then I’d come to believe that if I was going to do it, I should do it myself. So I consulted with another vet, gathered up my mom’s leftover morphine, some sleeping pills a friend kicked in, and my own Lorazepam prescription, and mixed up a brew, which I fed him with a syringe. But still I was impatient. It felt like hours and still he didn’t die. I feared then that he might wake up and keep living like a vegetable. I can’t write what I did next, but again, my intention was pure. Though again, tinged with concerns about convenience. Anyway, it worked, and I felt like he never woke up, though his head thrashed. Ack.

How much negative karmic imprint have I incurred so far? This is why Raven’s death was such a gift.

Some of the things I read this morning suggested that we listen to our pet; some argued that euthanasia is the compassionate option, others that it is the easy way out. Some raised the question of whose suffering are we trying to relieve? Many referred to the Buddhist precept of ‘no killing, not ever,’ and also used karma as a basis for ruling out euthanasia, both the pet’s karma and the person’s. Karma aside, since I’m still not clear in my understanding of nor faith in it, there was one argument that has stuck with me all day: The sense of betrayal and confusion a pet might feel when the loving hands that cuddled become the hands that kill. I thought of Sam, of course.

As I lay beside Stellar tonight, my forehead against his, stroking his soft ears, his thick ruff, his thin legs, it came clear to me. Just thinking about euthanasia had thrown a wall between us, was robbing my attention from whatever life remains to him. I chose to reaffirm my dream-inspired vow not to kill. There was an immediate sense of relief, a letting go, a flood of love released. We both relaxed. I reassured him as I did during the seizure that I will do whatever it takes to make sure he’s comfortable, and be fully present with him until his journey’s natural end. I committed to attend him with boundless patience. I felt deeply the true value of his precious life; understood viscerally for a moment the meaning of sentient being.

Maybe the antibiotics will slow down his inevitable demise, give him a few more walks in the woods, slow down the flow of pee and make him more comfortable; maybe not. He’s in doggie hospice now either way. Between the seizures and his deteriorating hind end it’s clear his neural pathways are failing. My mission is simply to ease his transition. I’m grateful for all the dead dogs that led me to this realization, and for the mindfulness practice that enables me to receive it with equanimity.

Tomato Paste

Many of Thursday’s tomatoes, above, turned into paste today. These Amish Paste tomatoes ranged from a smallish Roma style to a fat, almost-round fruit weighing half a pound. I grew three of these vines, but one died halfway through the summer. The other two are still ripening fruits, though most of them went into this batch of tomato paste.

I spent most of the day with tomatoes, all the while keeping an eye on Stellar. After our sunrise walk, he slept until after one, napped through the afternoon with a few forays outside, and only since it’s been dark a few hours has he become a bit restless. Meanwhile, the paste tomatoes roasted… then cooled, and then got pureed. Paste is the easiest thing to make–you don’t ever have to peel the tomatoes, just roast, cool, puree, then roast again–but it does take the longest.

The first roast is just halved tomatoes, for about an hour and a half at 350℉. Then the puréed mash roasts another few hours, with stirring every half hour. The mash concentrates over time…

…to a tangy, salty (just a sprinkle of kosher salt on the first roast, but as the tomatoey goodness condenses the ratio changes), sweet tomato essence. The easiest way to preserve and later use it is to freeze it in an ice tray. Once they’re solid, I’ll pop them out and seal them in a freezer bag to use one or two at a time. Each cube is around a heaping tablespoon. I’m grateful today for tomato paste, which kept my mind occupied, my hands busy, and my heart calm. I was present with the process, but it was straightforward enough that I could be equally present with Stellar as he lived through another one of his tenuous last days.

After his scary seizure last night (now his right eyelid droops, too), he slept soundly til morning, and woke eager to walk. His remarkable resilience propelled him to the canyon rim, and he seemed to have the good sense to avoid the very edge. The cottonwoods are half-turned, the ground is dry, and morning air is brisk. Stellar has made it to his thirteenth autumn. I’m grateful to have been present for his puppyness, his magnificent prime, his aging, and with him now as he approaches the far edge of life. He continues to exemplify benevolence, acceptance, loving-kindness, and all the other virtues I aspire to, as he demonstrates the path of presence.

Auntie Rita

I’m grateful for my Auntie Rita, who died a year ago today. Here, we stopped by her friends’ house at happy hour, but they weren’t home. So we sat on their chairs out by the Rappahannock River on a blustery fall evening, and she pulled out her snakebite kit. I’m grateful for the many zany fun times I got to have with her. I’m grateful that her daughter asked me to write a eulogy to read at the memorial service today, which many of us family members joined by zoom. Here is what I shared with her surviving friends and family.

When Rita was trying to decide where she would move from her last house, and considered leaving Kilmarnock to come up to Knollwood, I said, “But Rita, all your friends are down here!” She wasn’t worried: She told me, “Oh, you make friends wherever you go!” And she was right: She made many new friends here, and she found old friends from as long ago as high school: and here many of you are today.

Rita made friends wherever she went. She kept friends once she made them so that wherever she moved to she carried old friendships into her new ones, building relationships among many people. She was ebullient and generous, funny, playful, and above all, she was authentic. She loved fine things, luxuries, and comforts, yet she adapted with courage and resilience to losses of all kinds, from losing almost everything in a flood, to the death of her son, and so much else in her 93 years. 

She loved sleeping late, rum and cokes, taking naps, reading, doing her nails, Jeopardy, creating art… She didn’t like: pictures of herself, chipped fingernails, swallowing pills, being ‘incarcerated’ during Covid, or meanness in any form… 

Leslie remembers her creativity, generosity, and humor, recalling that when she was young, her mother happily made all her clothes because she was too small to fit in store-bought; and she remembers her putting cotton balls inside homemade fudge drops to give out on April Fool’s Day! She recalls Rita as ready for anything, any time. 

One of our more remarkable cribbage hands…

Robin remembers her aunt as giving the most fun and appropriate presents for every occasion, keeping her company when she was sick in bed, and that she was always up for a game of cribbage, any time, anywhere.

Rita taught me so much about how to be in this life, throughout her life. When I was a child, I learned more during one meal at her dinner table about how to treat animals than I did from anyone else: she treated their dog Duchess, who may have been begging just a little bit, with such tenderness and respect. I watched her through the years turn this utter devotion toward all her dogs and cats, toward her friends and family, and even to her houseplants. 

Many would be reluctant to have dogs on their furniture, but Rita made them welcome on beds, couches, chairs…
Raven and Stellar on her good couch…
Stellar shares his chair at Rita’s house with Amy visiting. Any friend of mine was a friend of hers, and vice versa…
Rita (center) with her old, dear friends Polly and June.

When I was a teenager, she modeled for me as no one else, how to be a strong woman: One of the most magnificent things I ever saw a woman do came after a big family dinner at her brother John’s home. John took all the men upstairs for cigar time, and Rita became impatient, wanting to spend time with her new husband Ford. She changed into her tennis outfit, opened the door to the study, and smacked three balls across the room. “Tennis, anyone?” she asked with a sweet smile. 

As an adult, she was my favorite drinking buddy—she was many people’s favorite drinking buddy, perhaps even some of you here. One time when I had over-partied at their island home, and she found me in bed in the morning still drunk, she didn’t judge: she comforted and revived. She never judged me, or anyone she loved, fully accepting us with unconditional love just as she did her animals. 

Rita (left) and Ali on a double date in their late teens

When I was an older adult, and helping her sister, my mother, through a grueling dying process, Rita was my strength and my sanity: We provided mutual support during this devastating loss for both of us.

Through my whole life until she died last summer, as she did for so many of us, she provided inspiration, refuge, boundless love and countless laughs. It is a source of lasting joy that I got to spend many months over the previous fifteen years visiting her in the Northern Neck. Some of the happiest memories of my life come from these times: simple lunches, jigsaw puzzles, quiet cribbage games, deep talks, spontaneous adventures, sunset cocktails along the bay or the Rivah at the beautiful homes of her many friends, even if her friends weren’t home! She always kept a snakebite kit for emergencies, pulling out a couple of airline hootch bottles as needed. 

With her perfect fingernails, assembling my first Liberty puzzle after she introduced me to them.

Her gifts to me, and to others, were boundless, and live on in the values of compassion, unconditional love, joy, mischief, humor, strength, and acceptance that she modeled for me and for everyone whose life she touched. 

I’m not alone in my adoration of Rita. To know Rita Wherry Cleland Stephens was to love her. I speak for her daughter Leslie, for her sister-in-law Clara, for her nephews and nieces: Leonard, Bruce, Robin, Gary, Jack, Bill, and Amanda, who knew her all or most of their lives. She made each of us feel special with her love and attention, and she will always hold a singular place in all of our hearts.

After struggling for months to recover from a debilitating stroke, she courageously chose to relinquish her attachment to living. She was at peace with her life ending, and made time to say goodbye to as many of her beloved family and friends as she was able. In death as in life, she was a remarkable person, wise, courageous, adventurous, ready for anything.  

She would have hated this picture, but I love it. Always in my heart, favorite auntie…

Awareness of Death

I’m grateful today and every day for awareness of death. The mindfulness program I’m getting certified to teach in encourages us to consider three thoughts upon waking each morning:

  1. We have an incredible life with opportunities and leisure that many others do not have.
  2. Life is impermanent – death is certain and the time of death uncertain.
  3. What is meaningful to you now, and at the time of death, what will be important to you? Is it all the things in your life, or is it how you responded to life?

Much of my life has been both hampered and motivated by fear of my own death, which has kept me from doing some things and colored my perceptions of others. Yet it’s also occasionally moved me to make courageous and fulfilling choices, knowing that life is short and I could die any minute. Between the wisdom of age and the Mindful Life Program I now have a healthier relationship with death. The knowledge that I’ll die someday, as will everyone I love, as will we all, death being an ineluctable feature of living, is no longer a motivation solely for big decisions like should I choose this school, should I move from this town, leave this job, should I buy this land, take this trip…. Awareness of death now shapes my values and informs my daily decisions, helping me choose wisely where to place my attention moment to moment.

I’m grateful for the teachers and students who have helped me explore the three thoughts over the past year, and for the delightful mug that was given to me today to remind me with every sip of morning coffee that death can be a friend and ally rather than a foe.

Each Day

Some days make me feel just as wide-eyed as these little dogs; in fact, most days do, practicing gratitude. I’m grateful today for the opportunity to do chihuahua for a little while; for clearing the air despite the smoke; for getting my hands on some chicks that are all named Dinner; for perspective on some of my less healthy habits; for connection with family and friends; and for the courage to open and play my dusty piano again after years.

I’m grateful that last night’s fireworks over the reservoir didn’t go rogue and cause a blaze, and that no one was stupid enough to celebrate Pioneer Days with home pyrotechnics; I’m grateful that wildfire smoke remains distant and we can still breathe here, albeit with extra sneezing, coughing, and just a hint of nose blood. I’m grateful for each day with breathable air, knowing that fire is certain this summer and location of fire uncertain. A new fire south of Salt Lake has consumed more than ten thousand acres in less than a day, and another four-day old fire near Moab exploded today. Seeing a sky like this evening’s reminds me not only of last summer’s horrendous smoke, but of the tragic summer of 1994, when the Wake Fire in our valley burnt three thousand acres in a couple of days; its impact was quickly eclipsed on its third day by the Storm King fire near Glenwood Springs that blew up and killed fourteen firefighters. Everything we hold dear is so tenuous.

Not only because of wildfire, of course, or the slow-moving catastrophe that is climate chaos, but because impermanence is the nature of all things. Our evening walk was especially poignant in the coppery glow of the smoky sunset: Not only from the oppressive weight of the big picture, but the looming loss of the very personal was readily apparent in dear Stellar’s feeble gait. We turned around before the first gate and he hobbled back in to his comfy bed for the night. I’m grateful for each day that we both wake up alive, and I don’t have to make that horrible decision to call his time. I’m grateful for the mindfulness practice that allows me to enjoy our remaining time together, to recognize that one bad day is often followed by a few good ones, and to accept the inevitable end of both our lives. I’m grateful for the inspiration and motivation that comes from knowing that “Death is certain, time of death uncertain.”

“We’ll Always Have Ditchley”

Kilmarnock library maple tree

We passed Ditchley House after an evening drive around the interior of the Northern Neck Peninsula, to entertain the dogs and to enjoy the last of the fall colors. 

“Have you been to the ferry?” Auntie had asked. I hadn’t yet. So the Corotoman River ferry provided our initial destination. The river flows softly flat past the ferry dock at the end of the road. Beside the dock lies a small triangle of river sand, below a bluff with opulent private homes on top. We let the dogs out to run on the sandy beach before continuing our ramble.

We wended our way back east and a little south, in the general direction of home, along small roads getting smaller, crossing the peninsula on Goodluck Road. It was almost my last day there, and I hadn’t yet taken a detour to see the hamlet of Ditchley, on a point flanked by two creeks.

At Hughlett Point, Raven looks across Dividing Creek toward the hamlet of Ditchley.

I saw Ditchley from across the creek on my walks out to Hughlett Point sanctuary along the Chesapeake Bay. The historic Ditchley mansion, up Dividing Creek from the bay, was once the home of Jessie Ball duPont, a teacher and philanthropist who helped create the Hughlett Point Audubon preserve, where I walked as often as possible during my autumn in Virginia.

Boardwalk from the parking lot to Hughlett Point beach

From the sanctuary parking lot in the woods, you walk east through a short strip of lovely swampy forest, cross a grassy strip and a low dune, and arrive at the Chesapeake Bay, a couple of miles north of Hughlett Point. There’s nowhere to go if you turn left, but if you turn right, it is a different walk every day, every tide, every weather. The dogs run, Stellar flies, Raven runs away, and I walk and walk barefoot in wet sand or dry, wade in turnunder waves or tidal pools.

Ditchley lies across the water in the trees.
Stellar mastered flight at Hughlett Point.

Most days I walk all the way to the point, savoring sea and sky and solitude. From the very tip of Hughlett Point I can see Ditchley, so I’d always wanted to drive down Ditchley Road and check out Hughlett Point from there.

It was cocktail hour when we drove past the mansion’s driveway toward the village dock, so we didn’t turn in, though Auntie insisted we should do so on our return. I thought it looked more like a private drive and I said so a couple of times, but she said, “No, this is Ditchley, it is a private home, but they use it for all kinds of public functions. I just want you to see it. We can drive through, there’s a turnaround.”

Then she pulled another friend out of her magic hat and said, “Let’s go have cocktails with Jan.” Jan lives on Dividing Creek, almost to the bay. She wasn’t home, but we walked out on the dock behind her house and watched for a few minutes as the water pinked up, then greyed over, and the sky to the west lit up. The dock had a great view of Hughlett Point, our main objective anyway, so after enjoying that we headed for home. It was dusk, and I was hoping she’d forget about Ditchley House.

A different happy hour, with the same view of Hughlett Point from Jan’s dock. The solitary tree on the far shore marks the turnaround at the southern tip of the beach, where Stellar likes to fly.

As we approached the Ditchley mansion driveway, a sporty red car turned out of it and zipped past us toward the bay. I didn’t like the idea of turning in while they could see us. I was hoping nobody was home. I resisted.

“Turn in, turn in!” Rita insisted, so I made an acute right turn and drove slowly down the colonial-style brick drive through a huge lawn, toward the brick mansion on the right. The driveway narrowed suddenly as it approached the mansion, and passed directly below the foot of the front stairs. I saw with dismay that there was in fact nowhere to turn around but the perfectly smooth green lawn, that the driveway went right up to and around behind the caretaker’s cottage, across a concrete carport, with a grill, bikes, a basketball hoop, and worst of all, a pack of barking dogs. The moment I saw the dogs, I said, “Cover your ears!”

The driveway funneled us through this very private domain: we were bayed up by a large black lab, a midsize gold dog, and a little cocker spaniel. Our dogs were snarling and snapping and barking their heads off trying to get through the car windows. It was a tense cacophony. Our car was so big, and the carport so small and so crowded! I was afraid I would hit one of the dogs snapping at our tires, or knock over a garbage can, or that someone would run yelling out the door. After we slowly, carefully, rounded the back of the house I sped up as fast as I dared and we lost the gold dog, but the big and little dogs pursued us another few hundred feet, Raven and Stellar still snarling and barking.

When they fell off, my dogs settled down. We drove a long silent stretch under arched trees, both of us looking straight ahead, until we turned onto the road. Then Rita turned to me and broke the silence by saying, with a satisfied smile, “Well, now you’ve seen Ditchley!”

I laughed so hard I almost lost control of the car. We laughed all the way home. We laughed through our cocktails. Six months later, we are still laughing about Ditchley, when one of us mentions it over the phone.

Auntie turned 85 yesterday. I cherish every laugh with her and every memory of our wonderful autumn together. What I treasure most about that moment, that smile, that “Well, now you’ve seen Ditchley,” is that it was utterly unexpected. I should know by now to expect the unexpected from my Aunt Rita, it has always been the way she rolls. But in that moment, after the violence of the barking dogs, the awkwardness of our intrusion through a private home, the tension of our escape from Ditchley, and my anxious sense of guilt, her sweet satisfaction was the last thing I expected.

Eight years have elapsed since I wrote that. I visited Kilmarnock again, but not for the past few years. Occasionally through those years Auntie and I will be chatting, and she will say, “Well… at least we’ll always have Ditchley!”

Auntie died Thursday, after months of suffering. She had a stroke three days after Raven died, the Sunday before her 93rd birthday. After struggling to recover, she courageously chose to relinquish her attachment to living.

There’s been a lot of loss in my world since May. Of them all, I will miss the most my dearest Auntie Rita, my last mother in this world, my friend and role model, my drinking buddy, my favorite person on the planet, whose flair and humor and kindness showed me the way so brilliantly.

Going through photos from our visits through the years, a lot more memories are coming up, bringing laughter, tears, gratitude, joy. She loved to play cribbage, and delighted in a great winning hand…

After cousin Leslie told me that her mother had died, I hung up and walked a few steps farther into the woods, then laughed out loud: in my head I heard so clearly, in that sweet satisfied voice, “We’ll always have Ditchley!”

I’m not claiming that it was she speaking to me; just that I heard her, from within my heart at the very least, though I didn’t realize for two days how much that moment has helped me cope with the loss of her. Having this trove of memories is a gift beyond measure, an enduring connection with her beautiful, mischievous, loving soul.

Rest in Peace, Rita Stephens, May 24, 1927 – August 6, 2010