An Aunts Legacy – Cancer Diagnosis

285 AuntLegacyby Steven Engelhardt


I was just a kid when my mom received the news. After finishing up practice with my middle school baseball team one day, I trudged across the school’s lawn toward the car line and my mom’s gold SUV. When I got to the truck, I yanked the passenger-side door open and flung my bat and glove into the backseat before getting in. I looked over at my mom, expecting to hear her ask me about how my day at school and practice had gone, but instead she was silent, stone-faced and staring straight ahead.

I was struck with confusion, for while my mom may be a small woman in stature, she towers above many when it comes to her daily energy and the spirit that she exhibits toward her family. Uncomfortable by the continuing silence on the ride home, I asked her if everything was okay, half-expecting a quick response of “everything’s fine”. Instead, she replied, “No, Rocky, but I don’t want to talk about it right now.”

Her response immediately had me sifting through my brain to try and remember something that I had done wrong. Had I lied about a bad grade, perhaps, or left my room extra messy again? Or had she simply just had a long day? Later that night my father got home, and after listening to what appeared to be an emotional exchange going on between him and my mom, there was a knock on my door. I panicked, unsure as to what was about to be said to me. But when he opened the door, I saw no trace of anger in his face—only sorrow.

“Rocky, your Aunt Debbie has cancer,” my dad said.

“Bee-Babs?” I asked, using the special name I had for my aunt.  “What do you mean she has…cancer?”

My Aunt Debbie was one of my mom’s seven sisters, and, together with the four boys, one of 12 total siblings in the family. A nurse at Hackensack Hospital for many years and a mom to my cousin, Bryan, Debbie was also my godmother, and she and I had developed a unique bond.

You see, I was always felt a bit overwhelmed to family parties as a young kid, worried that I wouldn’t be able to recall my eleven aunts’ and uncles’ names, or those of all of my cousins. This issue was compounded by my general shyness as a young kid. At about age six, I remember staring at my Aunt Debbie at one of these large gatherings, red in the after I had addressed her as “Aunt Mary”, confusing her with another of my aunts. I was sure I had upset her, and I began to apologize. But she just laughed and said, in a calming voice, “Don’t worry. I don’t even like the name Debbie—call me Bee-Babs instead, dear, that’s been my nickname since high school.” I thought it was a funny name when I first heard it, but having given myself my own nickname (Rocky) a couple years prior, I soon identified with it, and from that point on I felt my guard lower when I was around Bee-Babs—and I never forgot her name again.

As I grew and got to know her better, I became more aware of the many characteristics that I loved about Bee-Babs: her soft, soothing voice, which made me feel as if everything was going to be okay; her compassion; and, her genuine interest in me, evident in the time she always made to catch up with me and ask how school, sports, and my friends were going. In a family of twelve, Bee-Babs had many nieces and nephews, but she always made me feel truly valued when we talked.

One time we were talking at another one of our family parties, and I told her how I had seen previews for the movie Speed on television and wanted badly to see it, but that my parents had said no because of its rating. A few months later, on my birthday, I received a card and a five-dollar bill in the mail from Bee-Babs, along with a sleek, black VHS copy of Speed. I was overcome with joy and knew that she had remembered our talk from before. It was gestures like this that, over time, made me gravitate toward her and led me to view her almost as a second mother.

My special connection with Bee-Babs made her cancer diagnosis especially hard to take.

As a thirteen year-old, cancer was a concept that was difficult to grasp—I thought that only old people, or people who put bad things into their body, got cancer. I had of course heard cancer mentioned on the news, in commercials, and in movies from time to time, but the level of disconnect that I felt between myself and the things I saw on television led me to believe that cancer was something happening in a far-off land and wasn’t any threat to my family or me.

For that reason, Bee-Babs’ cancer provided my first taste of the realization that life isn’t always a fairy tale and that bad things can sometimes happen to people. I thought, If something as horrible and as scary as cancer can happen to someone as wonderful and caring as Bee-Babs, then bad things can also happen to other people I love, and to me. It was difficult to process the enormity of the tragedy, and my own worries. I didn’t want to talk about it with my friends because I felt that the more I discussed it, the more real it would become. Instead, I tried to push it to the back of my mind, thinking, Maybe if I just put it out of my head, it will just go away, and she’ll be okay after all.

In the months after I heard the news, my family made frequent trips to visit Bee-Babs. Between these visits, keeping up with my classes, trying to find my way socially, and staying competitive in sports, I began to feel like I was being pulled in too many different directions emotionally. Soon I lost focus in class, and I began to isolate myself. I didn’t want to be around my friends—who always seemed carefree and happy—and I couldn’t talk to my mother about it because she always seemed depressed and sad. My grades began to fall, I cared less and less about baseball, and finally I withdrew completely from my friends and family altogether. Even when I was around Bee-Babs, I would speak to her in a very reserved manner and stay away from her bedside when I could because seeing the physical impact of her illness made it all too real. I was crumbling under the pressure of the situation, and I didn’t know how to make it better.

It was at this point, that I got critical help to gain perspective. As I made my way out of my History class one day, my teacher, Mr. Smoot (who also happened to be my baseball coach), asked me to stay behind for a minute. I figured he was going to talk with me about my slipping grades, and that would be that. Instead, he said, “Rocky, your mother wanted me to talk to you, she told me about what’s been going on.”

He went on to tell me that my mother had called him and had explained the situation and her need for me to pull through. It was enough to give me a lump in my throat. When Mr. Smoot put his arm around me, that was it—I cried, finally releasing the ball of feelings I had wound up inside of me over the past few months. We talked further, and he said he was going to push me and get me back to where I was before, not just as a student but as an individual. He needed my help though, he said, and it was then that I realized I had to be strong. While there wasn’t anything I could do to fix Bee-Babs’ cancer, I could be strong for her and for my mother and the rest of my family.

After my discussion with Mr. Smoot that day, I took on a new appreciation for what my mom and the rest of her family was going through. I became more aware of the sacrifices of so many family members, who were all pulling together for Bee-Babs:  all of her siblings and her parents, who were spread throughout the country and abroad, were putting aside their many other responsibilities and dropping everything to come to her side, together. What may have once been twelve separate fingers on a hand soon turned into a rock-solid, united fist. I took their cue and found my place among them. Bee-Babs was relying on the strength of her family, and I realized that I, too, was a part of that.

Having opted to forgo chemotherapy in the face of her late-stage cancer, Bee-Babs instead chose to live out the remainder of her days in the family room of my Uncle Archie’s and Aunt Suellen’s house. As a result, their home had become home base for the family, as Bee-Babs took center stage. When she became too weak to get out her bed, my Uncle Archie would lift her up and dance with her to wherever she needed to go, singing songs all along the way. My Uncle Jimmy would constantly fly in from California just to be with her for a day or two. My mother and her sisters in New Jersey would drive up almost daily to wash, clean, and cook for her. My Grandpa would consistently be driven up from his home in Virginia, and would converse with my Grandma over memories of their daughter. Shifts were drawn up for everyone, and everyone, including me, considered their time with Bee-Babs a sacred appointment. When I was around Bee-Babs and her siblings during this time, I didn’t feel like a kid among adults, but as an equally important player on the team, doing whatever I could to help my aunt.

The impact these visits had on Bee-Babs was clear. At one point during this time, my mother and I were sitting with her watching the movie Secondhand Lions. Throughout the movie, Bee-Babs didn’t seem particularly interested in the plot, but when it was over I could sense a bit of sorrow at the realization that we would likely leave her now that the movie had ended. Reactively, I told my mom that I wanted to watch it again, that I was confused as to what happened in the end and needed to recap from the beginning. My mom was oblivious at first, but when Bee-Babs’ eyes lit up at the suggestion, she understood and for the next two hours we put the movie on again, but talked over it the entire time about whatever crossed our minds. She loved the company of her family, and we did our best to provide it as often as possible.

For about sixty days, my family and I provided all the care Bee-Babs needed. When her illness finally appeared to be in its last days, Hospice was called. The night she passed away, all eleven of her siblings were standing over her, around her bed. I was sitting outside the house with my brother and sister when I heard the rumbling of the hearse as it drove up the street and watched it pull into the driveway. Two representatives from the local funeral home had come and were here to remove her from the residence. They got out of the car and went into the house in an almost businesslike manner, paying little attention to my siblings and I, while tugging the stretcher through the front door behind them. About ten minutes went by before the front door opened again to reveal the two funeral home employees—empty-handed. Following them were my mother and my ten other aunts and uncles, all with a hand on the stretcher, pushing Bee-Babs out on their own. After the doors of the hearse closed behind her, everyone began exchanging hugs with one another, and my siblings and I ran to join in. I felt both sorrow and a sense of pride in my family at the same moment. We had all been with her through the struggle, and were there to aid her one last time.

I’ll never forget this period of time in my life, as I learned so much about myself, my family, and life itself throughout the process. You can be 13, 33 or even 53 and still share the same emotions when someone you love is ill. How you face the scenario and deal with the challenge is what sets you apart. Bee-Babs was just one child in a family of twelve, but during her fight and through her passing, she always had people who cared about her by her side. The end of her life was not an abrupt conclusion, but instead a beautiful final act wherein she played the lead role, supported by the loving cast of her family.

I miss you to this day, Bee-Babs, and I wish you were still here with us all, but I cannot thank you and rest of our family enough for teaching me so much about what’s important in life.