Tuesday, September 30, 2008

A Memorial to my Aunt Rhonda

My aunt Rhonda passed away about a week ago after years of suffering and illness.

In my first memory of Rhonda, I’m standing in the front yard of our Rock Creek house, about three years old. She pulls up in her car, slowing down before turning into our driveway and yells, “hey hot shot!” Rhonda definitely always made me think I was special. Maybe too much.

Soon after, she told me she’d have her baby “when the leaves fall.” Courtney’s birth was indeed a good day. Rhonda was one of the few people I’ve ever known who said she loved being pregnant.

I’ve only been to Hum Dinger once, and it was with Rhonda. I don’t even think my little sister was born yet, and yet I can still remember how much I loved that cheeseburger.

Rhonda hated having her picture taken, although I was so proud of myself when she let me do so one year at Christmas at Grandpa Dunn’s before it was DeeDee’s house. She lived with Grandma Kaye and Larry for years, who helped her raise Courtney in her young years. On top of that, she helped them. Together, the three of them took in dozens of desperate foster children and loved them as their own.

I remember that, during middle school, we stayed over at DD’s a few times. She, Courtney, Rhonda, Amanda, and I would watch jeopardy, roller-blade in the park, play with the dogs and talk politics. Incidentally, she was better at Jeopardy than half the contestants, and she was a scrabble ace as well.

Rhonda was really in to politics. Although quite opinionated on a host of topics, she rarely felt the need to tell others what they should do or think. Except for the occasional political discussion. Rhonda’s willingness to disagree wasn’t about her, as is so often the case for people. It was truly about what she believed.

She had this dream once, about Rush Limbaugh (whom she loathed), chasing her around telling her he loved her. I thought that was so funny. A dittohead at the time, I could enjoy it for what it was. So, for her birthday, I did up this sheet of paper with his head on it, chasing her, saying, “Rhonda, I love you!” I’m sure glad I got to really tell her I love her.

Rhonda was the first person who wasn’t conservative that I ever had serious political discussions with. My political blog is titled “Why I’m Voting for Barack Obama,” so you can guess how that turned out.

Rhonda cared for the oppressed, and, although too prideful to realize that she was one of them, she always passionately pursued her political beliefs.

When Jeannie died in 94, I remember Rhonda, who was an excellent craftswoman with beads, made a wand for Jeannie. When she was little, she was told Jeannie was her godmother. She got that confused with fairy-godmother, which was easy to do, given Jeannie’s seemingly magical, whimsical laughter, creativity and love. At her funeral, Rhonda spoke and said she really now had a fairy godmother, and gave the wand to be put in the grave with her. I can only imagine that they are laughing about that one now.

Did you ever hear Rhonda sing? She had a beautiful alto voice, and played the guitar once upon a time. I can remember her harmonizing with the radio, and wishing I inherited her vocal talent.

Rhonda had a superior vocabulary. I was a smarty pants and a nerd, so I took the PSAT a year early. I remember seeing this word—jooxtaposition. “What in the world does that mean?” I thought. I saw her later that day at a Grandma Dee party. “Juxtaposition?” Oh, that means… I’ve never forgotten it since, nor have I doubted her vocabulary.

Other memories abound. The epic Davis heave-ho day of stretching out the cyclone fence in Grandma Dee’s backyard. Tearing down Grandpa Dunn’s old shed at DeeDee’s. I remember one day there when we were moving a rock pile and a fist sized rock rolled down and hit her in the knee. She never was one to have good luck.

Rhonda had a very hard life. When they picked out a body for her, she got a lemon. Maybe it was because she was so tough, someone figured she could handle it.

She was born with tangled intestines. When she was in primary school, her teacher had her tested for retardation. It turned out she was a genius. Just not really into fitting their mold. Rhonda had a rocky teenage life. Most of us have some rocks, but Rhonda had a few boulders. She made it through, though. She ended up a young, unwed mother, and did her darn best to make sure Courtney was raised well. I know this experience really built compassion into Rhonda for single mothers. With the some help from Kaye, Larry and DeeDee, she raised a tenderhearted, fiercely independent young woman whose grief we should not forget.

Things went from bad to worse. Rhonda had years of back pain. It turned out that stones had backed up into her common bile duct, among the most incredible pains possible. I remember that I was told she sat in an emergency room with tears streaming down her face because of the pain. You know what my response was? “Wow, Rhonda was crying in pain! That must have really hurt.” She had a stroke in her mid-thirties. Her Dad died too. We all miss him. Then came the Krohns. One miserable day after another, nearly a decade of severe diarrhea and vomiting, pretty much every day. It takes me about three hours with that kind of pain to give up and wish I was dead. I know there were many times Rhonda felt that way too, but she kept going, for years and years and years.

She married Joseph, who turned out to be a bit of a lemon himself. He was exceedingly hard to live with, and he treated her poorly. Several years after his passing, she found Dwayne, the love of her life. Dwayne adored Rhonda, and Courtney. They married before the planned ceremony because Rhonda desperately needed health insurance. Without it, she couldn’t afford the medicines that kept her Krohns remotely at bay. They excitedly went to a justice of the peace, planning on a double wedding with DD and Ray a few months later. A few weeks later, Rhonda was tragically widowed for the second time.

Since then, it has been especially rough. Many periods without proper health care, and so little preventative maintenance, only responses to acute crises. Rhonda slowly deteriorated, visiting the hospital dozens of times in the last few years. She was frequently comatose, with severe pneumonia, on a ventilator. She nearly died at least half a dozen times. Her heart even stopped briefly.

Through it all, she persisted. Not glowingly, mind you. We all wondered if anyone could have the strength to keep from ending it for themselves. I think of the fact that a few days ago, after a cruddy couple of incidents in a train station I was yelling at the lady behind the counter…and I think of the times I heard Rhonda be curt. I realize there is no comparison. Despite her cantankerous spirit, or perhaps because of it, Rhonda dealt with this. She was despondent, and depressed at times, but she kept on. Far better than I could.

She was finally rewarded disability benefits (with a large amount of back pay—her case had been obvious for years and ignored) just a few months ago. She even had a couple months away from the hospital, now that she had appropriate medicine, and we all started daring to hope.

But you know how the story ends. Rhonda is no longer with us. She finished with a grand finale—strokes, clots, tissue death, impeding amputations and full lungs from a severe injury to boot. And of course when she was finally removed from the ventilator, she just kept going and going and going.

There are two things Rhonda said to me in adult life that I want to say here. After Dwayne died, at Christmas, we were talking about a host of things. One thing she said to me is, “I just don’t have time for judging others. Love is what we live for. Every moment of love is what counts in life. Cherish the love that you have. That matters more than being right.” Wow. Not bad for a recently widowed sick to the bone lady. Rhonda had a talent for wrapping tons of small gifts up immaculately—those words that Christmas showed a gift-giving depth drawn from hard-won wisdom. I don’t know if she ever knew what a gift those words were.

The other was more recent. She knew I was planning on leaving for a yearlong trip, and so I had the chance to say goodbye to her, with the understanding that this might really be goodbye. She wrote me a really nice email about a year ago. In it, she reminded me that she could beat me at scrabble, but that she really hoped I would be (left of center) president someday. She said she was proud of me, and that she loved me and was so glad I found someone who is such a good match.

My life has been one stroke of luck after another. Rhonda did nothing but love me and encourage me in that. Even though her life was incredibly scarce, she chose abundance.

My aunt was an odd duck. She could be reclusive, cantankerous and hilarious. She was smart, talented, occasionally surly and usually eccentric. She was also very sick. I’m so glad she’s not sick anymore.

My best friend sent me an email the other day, with a tagline on it from the book of John. “This sickness will not end in death.” Indeed.

Rhonda, the embodiment of all the reasons we wonder how a gracious loving God could exist and allow this to happen—Rhonda exhibited what I think are the three most important aspects of Christian fidelity.

She loved God. Her relationship with God was under the stars—with her telescope. Rhonda had “awe” down. She knew how to admire God.

She loved her neighbor. Rhonda had no place for pharisaical judgment. She knew that love was the reason for life. She did her best to exemplify that. It was her response to the tragedy in her life.

Finally, is the topic of judgment. In scripture, Jesus gives only one true picture of judgment. When separating the sheep from the goats, what does he say? Does he say, how much did you go to church? How religious were you? How wet was your baptism? How evangelical was your theology? How full was you “faith-o-meter?” “Did you do everything right?” No, he says, when I was hungry, you gave me a cup of cold water to drink. You fed me.

It was the hallmark of her politics, which were at the core of her heart. Rhonda wasn’t good with money, but she was certainly generous when she had it. She was never one to hoard. She cared about the least of these. “Whatever you do to the least of these, you do to me.”

One of the great joys of Christianity is our hope of resurrection. We hold furiously to the hope that death has been conquered by life himself. Rhonda embodied that in life, she chose love over judgment, striving over bitterness, and hope over fear.

Now Rhonda embodies that in death.

I can almost hear the Rhonda’s earthly and heavenly father both whispering the same thing to her…

“Shhh…sweetheart. Don’t worry. It’s all over now. I’m here. The dark night is over, the nightmare is gone. It was only a shadow. It’s morning, and there is joy all around you. You suffering is gone, never to return.”

Goodbye and Godspeed aunt Rhonda. I love you…


Neato Bandito! said...

I'm so sorry for your loss - she was such a great woman... full of joy and laughter! Your family is in my thoughts...

Aaron said...

Ron, that is a beautiful tribute to an amazing person. I'm so glad she was a part of your life.

SarahBeth said...

It is truly a privilege to meet such an awe-inspiring person through your words, Ron.

When Rhonda had so little by nature's design and yet gave so much, I am very humbled by the much that I possess and the giving that I have yet to attain.

Thank you for these reflective and quite focusing words.

Dee Dee said...


Thanks for sharing your thoughts. It's nice to hear from someone who really knew and loved Rhonda. We're missing her so much. We're missing you and the Trina girl, too. Have fun with your parents next week :)

Delores Jr.