By Kelci McKendrick
She bought the dress for her daughter’s wedding. Instead, she wore it to her own funeral.
My Aunt Tammy J, short for Johnson, was my second mother. She was buried in that pink and white dress. Her daughter, Rachel, was born exactly one year before me. We called ourselves the “year-apart twins.” We grew up with same-day birthday parties in the old McDonald’s caboose and the old skating rink, always swapping Barbies afterwards. Our mothers were lucky enough to be able to split the cost of our birthday parties.
Rachel’s house had a pool and a huge swing set/slide, so I spent a lot of time there, playing with Polly Pockets and pretending to be mermaids in the pool. Aunt Tammy was my mom at her house and watched us while we played, and she was my mom in mine and Rachel’s elementary school, where she was a teacher. I would see her in the hallways and hug her and then ask her if I could go stay with her. She would laugh and tell me she would ask my mom.
Biscuits and chocolate gravy. Trust me when I say Aunt Tammy made the best biscuits and chocolate gravy. I can’t count how many times she’d make me breakfast, lunch and dinner. When I was younger, I had really bad allergies — allergies that would last two months at least twice a year. I can’t count how many nights I would be coughing my lungs out at 3 a.m. when Aunt Tammy would sleepily walk into Rachel’s room and wake me up to give me cough medicine. There’s so many things she did for me that I can’t count.
Her house was my home away from home. I knew everything about it, from which drawer held color-changing spoons and which held crayons to how to feed their fish the right way.
I also knew, however, time could be short.
In addition to Aunt Tammy J, my mom’s sister, I also had an Aunt Tammy K, short for Ketchum, my dad’s sister. Growing up, if I would tell my parents I wanted to go see Aunt Tammy, I would then specify “Aunt Tammy K” or “Aunt Tammy J.” It’s something I would always laugh about when telling stories to my friends about the weekend I’d had at Aunt Tammy’s house — Aunt Tammy K, I mean. Aunt Tammy J, I mean.
Aunt Tammy K had a computer with a lot of games on it. To any kid, that’s a dream come true. She also lived on a horse farm. I got to spend many days with her petting foals and colts. I helped name horses and rode around with Aunt Tammy K on her Ranger around the farm land.
I invited Aunt Tammy K to my eighth grade banquet. That elementary school I mentioned didn’t have a high school, so I graduated from eighth grade. I invited Aunt Tammy K because I wanted to spend more time with her. That was in May of 2012. I didn’t know how much time I had left to spend time with her.
I don’t exactly remember when Aunt Tammy K was diagnosed with cancer. It wasn’t a long time before my banquet — maybe in March. Nor do I remember what kind of cancer she had. I do remember my mom and I picking her up in her “limo,” which was just my mom’s blue Titan, and taking her places to spend time with her. I’d lost a grandmother and grandfather before, but not someone who wasn’t … old.
That changed in July 2012, when my parents — who were divorced, but my mom was close to Aunt Tammy K — stood by her hospice bed. My dad cried out for her, the second time I’d ever seen him cry.
“Take me instead, God! Please take me instead!”
Those words echoed from then until now. My dad’s pleas to God to take him over Aunt Tammy K ring in my mind to this day. She was barely breathing as my dad clutched her hand. My mom was holding me with tears brimming in her eyes. I was at loss for words. Growing up with two aunts named Tammy was the best of both worlds. Now there was only one.
* * *
In the years following her death, I grew closer to Aunt Tammy J and my year-apart twin.
I started high school in 2012 at the same high school Rachel had chosen to go to. Aunt Tammy was there with my mom to take those dreaded first day of school pictures. Both my mom and Aunt Tammy had big smiles on their faces as we walking into high school together — growing up attached at the hip like they had made them so happy. It made me happy, too. I loved having two mothers in my life.
But by 2015, my year-apart twin’s senior year, everything changed. A pain in Tammy’s hip, which had bothered her for months, was diagnosed as… cancer.
Is this, I remember thinking, really happening again?
Osteosarcoma isn’t an easy to cancer to beat, but we all believed in Aunt Tammy. We all believed God would — as became our motto — (He)al (can)cer. That was our motto. That’s what kept us going.
Aunt Tammy got to watch Rachel graduate in May, crying, using crutches to walk, clearly in pain, but never smiling so big as she did when Rachel crossed that stage. Her other oldest daughter, Sarah, was to be married that July, and she was determined to make it to then. But by July, she couldn’t smile anymore. She couldn’t do much anything. Soon, hospice care was again arranged.
I went to work at my part-time job at Wendy’s on July 1, after leaving Aunt Tammy’s house. She was asleep when I left, her family surrounding her. I hated leaving.
I got back just before midnight, just in time. Aunt Tammy’s her oxygen level and heart rate were low. It was almost time. I stood at her feet as her husband, Russell, as my dad had done for his sister, tried to soothe her.
“It’s okay, Sweetheart. You can let go. You don’t have to be in pain anymore.”
And as her heart rate went flat, he cried out again, but this time, in agony.
“Oh no! God please no! Don’t take her from me!”
This can’t, I remember thinking, be happening again.
As we waited for the funeral service to arrive, I ran to the bathroom and sank to the ground. I called my best friend at the time, Landon, and sobbed, as I stammered through tears.
I lost them both, I explained to him.
In the same month, three years apart.
To the same disease.
* * *
The dress was still perfect, even if it didn’t match its ultimate occasion.
Her daughters had helped her pick it out — big pink and white horizontal stripes and sleeveless. It captured her essence: graceful, loving, sweet and elegant yet casual.
Aunt Tammy wore the dress meant for her daughter’s wedding only twice. Once in the store, and the last time in her casket. Still, she looked beautiful in the dress at her funeral.
Sarah’s wedding was pushed back to September. As happy as the family was for her, we all knew there was a somber tone in the air. In place of the mother helping her daughter with her dress were dozens of aunts stepping in. In place of the mother being walked down the aisle by the groom, was him walking with a white rose in his hand, laying it in her place in the church pew. Jump forward two years. In place of the mother helping Sarah through her first pregnancy to holding her first granddaughter was a baby girl who would never see her grandmother’s smile. In place of the mother smiling at 20-year-old Rachel graduating with her bachelor’s degree was a smile through tearful eyes. In place of the mother, we had an angel.
Biscuits and chocolate gravy. Rachel makes them just like her mom did. I had no answers for Rachel after Tammy died. What answers were there to give? All I could give her was my shoulder. I helped carry her — and my mom, who took her death very had. I grew closer to mom after Tammy died, not wanting to waste any time.
Three years later, my year-apart twin and I talk — as our mothers once did — like sisters. We talked about boys, future babies, OU football, college, God’s existence, the ocean, food… and eventually, Tammy.
She’s not taboo anymore. I was there for Rachel when she lost her mother, and she was there for me when I lost an aunt. We miss her, but she is with us, and she is proud of her daughters and grandchildren.
Biscuits and chocolate gravy, just like her mom made. I’ll eat the biscuits and chocolate gravy Rachel makes any day of the week with her.