For me, Mary DePersia was this and so much more. She was my chosen family. My west coast mom. Forgive the cliche, but she was a soul sister through and through.
While it seems like I have always known her, I met Mary the day I brought my first born home from the hospital. Tired and worn, I took him straight to the front office of our townhouse community to introduce him to the two women who worked there. You see, I was already pregnant when we moved to San Diego, and knowing I would be staying home with our children, I did not take a new job there which left me plenty of time to meander. So each day, I would walk to the sales office, work out at the gym and then stop in to pass the time over coffee, cookies and conversation with the two women who worked there. (Sometimes they would interrupt our girl time to do their jobs.) On that fateful February day, Mary happened to be in the office doing the same. (Minus the working out!) We were introduced, she 'ooed' and 'ahhed' over my newborn and pretty soon, Aidan and I just met her at her townhouse instead to do life together.
Mary quickly became a bestie, like a sister to me and a grandma to my child. She was so tightly woven into the fabric of our life and I spent so much time over there that I am surprised her husband Chris doesn't have a neck issue as he continually shook his head at us, laughing like school girls, gabbing on as we would, solving the world's problems (or at least making fun of them) over cheese and crackers.
One of our favorite shared stories had to do with a trip to Costco. A constant companion, she would tag along whenever I went shopping to help me with Aidan. On one of these trips, Mary had offered to push the cart since I was big and pregnant again and Aidan, well, was Aidan. A little more sure on his feet now and wanting nothing to do with sitting inside the cart, he was given permission (i.e. he was already doing it anyway) to stand on the outside of the cart, holding onto the side, feet on the bottom rack. So there we were, walking along when I look over to see Mary pushing the cart while browsing the aisles and Aidan at the bottom, holding on for dear life as his body dragged along the ground, feet flying wildly behind, a big smile on his face. I started laughing and Mary looked down to see what she had missed, then looked back and ever so nonchalantly said something along the lines of: "Wow, I didn't know he could already cart surf! He is a real natural!"
She asked about her "cart surfer" during our last conversation, still getting a good laugh from that 15 year old memory. That was a week ago. No time at all it seems, yet between the then and now, life stood still a moment as one of its finest left us.
The day Mary died was an unusual day. My normal energy was sapped. I had a hard time waking up that morning and after the first wave of kids left for school, I found myself crawling back in bed with such a heaviness I thought I must be coming down with something. I told Kurt that I thought I might need to go get checked for Lyme Disease, everything ached and the exhaustion was intense. No amount of caffeine could snap me out of it; something just felt very wrong. A few hours later, Chris told me the news of her passing and as sorrow filled my heart, the heaviness made sense. We had a weird connection, birthdays a week apart, both of us Geminis to the core (or so we laughed about anyway). I thought it oddly coincidental that the day she went in sick years ago to the hospital with pneumonia, I was fighting off a horrible cough, the worst I had had in years. Chris had called me to tell me the terrible news that she was so ill and they had found cancer in her lungs and were not sure she would make it out. Devastated, I wanted to fly out but my cough was so bad I knew they wouldn't let me near her. But Mary fought back. And granted us more time.
But, there was no warning call this time. Just the news of her passing. The flood of memories and emotions, the regrets and remorse; all so crippling. Only a few days before, we had spoken on the phone. The sorrow she feels at the holidays since the loss of her only son was more evident this year; her breathing a little more labored, but all in all, she was doing ok she said. I had sent her the yearly picture calendar we make for her at Christmas, a little late as usual but earlier than my norm. And my first flustered thought was, oh no, did the pictures even make it to her? Did she know I thought about her....that I loved her? And then the guilt overwhelmed me. I had always felt like her chosen daughter and yet, she had tried to call me just days before and I couldn't take the call as I was with company. I had made a mental note to call her back the next day, even told her incredible story to my sister-in-law, how Mary was a medical miracle, how she had fought off lung cancer, and how doctors were shocked with her survival given how bad it was, how she had had some melanomas removed recently and had been scheduled for another scan. But my life, too full at times to even think straight, had distracted me from returning the call. My stomach twisted into a knot as I rapidly checked my voice mailbox, hoping to hear her on the other end. She hadn't left a message. I crumbled.
The thing about grief is that it all becomes kind of a big blur. There are so many tears shed, so much heartache, so many unanswered questions and unknowns. There were mournful hours mixed with moments of clarity and calm; tears shed for not only Mary and for Chris, their lost son, her brother, but then also again for my cousin, whose son's death is still so fresh in our hearts. It is all so raw. And everywhere I look, there is a reminder. The 'first year' frames she gave me for each of my children, the "Friendship is like a Sheltering Tree" plaque, the chicken wall decor, the Norman Rockwell Santas, even my daughter who was given Mary's middle name... and on and on. Mary is everywhere.
I slept fitfully that first night, waking once in the bleak hours of morning, after a chilling dream, only to open my eyes and feel water rush out as if I had continued crying in my sleep. I have heard it said that sometimes when someone you love dies, and you wake up that first morning without them, for a brief moment, you forget and feel like your old self. But then, in a blink, reality hits like a sucker punch, taking your breath away as you recognize that it wasn't all a terrible dream and it pierces you all over again as if cutting open the wound for the first time. And that is when you know that your old life, the one with your loved one still in it, is never coming back. And that smothering moment is the beginning of a new normal, one that starts with a crawl through pain and heartbreak and leads you through unpredictable waves of sorrow that threaten to wash you away.
Needless to say, the day was rough. I had traveling decisions to make and to be honest, I am not great at making travel decisions under the best of circumstances, much less in this one. Chris generously texted with me throughout the day, letting me know his sister and niece were flying in to help and he would keep me posted on the decisions made. With the false comfort of knowing he was not alone, I found myself keeping busy with the tasks I had been putting off a while like addressing Christmas (now New Years) cards and deleting my backlog of emails, all the while, wishing I had been given more time with her, that I had given more time to her. I just childishly thought there would be another day. Another year. Another conversation. Another lifetime together.
Obsessive questions kept drifting through my thoughts: why didn't she leave a message, what was she calling to say, why didn't I call her back? I kept lifting them to God, praying he would settle my mind. That's when I ran into an unread email sent to me just days before. It was an e-card from Mary. Always thoughtful, she had sent me a beautiful JacquieLawson animated e-card, her favorite kind: a delightedly peaceful winter scene unfolded, snow gently falling, (like it had all day the day she passed and continued in that moment as I read), sweet little black-capped chickadees flying about, deer grazing, bunnies curiously watching and a cozy, little house to come home to with kids skating outside on a frozen pond; a cold, winter scene that warmed the soul and at the end was this message:
I tried to reach you by phone.....no luck and did you know your mailbox is full so I couldn't leave a message. Anyway (enough of my whining) I want to thank you for my calendar, I enjoy them so much....I love seeing how the kids have grown and am sad to see how the kids have grown...hoping that makes sense. Happy New Year to you, Kurt and the kids. Love you and we'll talk soon. I have some "biblical" questions!"
And just like that, she gave one last gift. Answers, much deserved sarcasm, peace and just like Mary, a little cliff hanger to ponder.
Rest well, Mary Elizabeth (Betty) Depersia. Thank you for being you, for sharing your heart and life with us. May the only One truly capable of answering all your questions give you everlasting peace and comfort. (And sorry about the voicemail. I'm working on it!) Talk soon.
I love you.