It's been a year since the unexpected death of my confidante, second mom, big sis, and dear friend, my aunt Michelle.
She always made me feel like I was one of her favorite people. My heart was and remains truly broken. I'm sharing here the words I said at her funeral to do my best to honor and celebrate this amazing woman.
My siblings, children, cousins, nieces, nephews, and I learned a lot from watching her navigate joys, tragedies, and common everyday occurrences.
While she was definitely taken from us much too soon, Michelle lived. She lit up a room with her vibrant style and her beautiful smile.
She was one of the most authentic and real people that you would ever meet. She never hesitated to praise accomplishments or the good that she saw in us. Michelle could put people at ease and make them feel like they were the most important people in the world the way she gave her full attention and listened, offering a smile and kind words of support to anyone who needed them from a stranger on the bus, to a patient, to the dearest friend.
She also never hesitated to tell us about ourselves when we needed to be put in line. Even then, though, I think we knew that she was coming from a place of deep love. She always saw endless potential, talent, intelligence - even when we couldn't see it in ourselves, and she wanted the best for us. She was a tireless advocate whose faith in us reminded us that we had a duty to believe in ourselves, to believe we could reach the highest of goals. When I told her I was going to take a year off from teaching to go back to grad school and focus on my writing, she sent me a framed newspaper that had the headline, “Lydia Roberts pens Pulitzer Prize Winner.” I hope one day to live up to her faith in me.
Michelle taught us not to give up and to finish the things that we start. This particular lesson was not so great when she made me and my sister finish drinking the pina colada flavored drinks we had begged her to buy because of a popular song about pina coladas and getting caught in the rain. The tenacity of spirit and level of self-determination that allowed her to strive on, served her well. At 36, she suffered a stroke. When she was in the hospital being treated for that, it was discovered that she had cancer. After undergoing surgery, she had chemotherapy, all the while relearning how to use her left side, to speak without slurring her words, and to rebuild her memory skills. As soon as her cancer treatment ended, she went back to school, taking two busses and progressing through to the top of her surgical technician program. When THAT was done, she started her job at the Medical Center, which required her to get up at 4:30 every morning to take - again - a couple of busses to work. I don’t know about you, but it makes ME a little tired to even think about getting up at 4:30 in the morning to do anything. Michelle never let being sick or being tired or being impaired or being without transportation, or really ANYTHING stop her from getting things done. Her sheer power of will kept us all from knowing just how bad off she was because even though she was in immense pain, she never let it show. She kept taking care of her business and of all of us, too.
Another lesson that she embodied was that no matter what personal choices we make in life, we should make ones that allow us to remain true to ourselves - regardless of the expectations placed on us by others. While Michelle had love in her life, she never married. She never had biological children of her own - though I have to say that many of us were nurtured, cared for, and guided through life by her, had her to fight for us and love us unconditionally as children and adults, and felt like she was another mom. Her choice to remain single and not to birth children demonstrated that this was a perfectly legitimate option.
Michelle knew who she was and was not hampered by what other people thought. Despite the fact that she had been clean and sober for 20 years, she always referred to herself as a recovering addict. She knew that sobriety was something that had to be worked for every single day, prayed over, and could not be taken for granted. To that end, it’s not only important to know yourself, but also to know the people around you. It’s perfectly fine for others to go down a different path than the one you want to take, but it’s necessary to realize that you can only get so far if you keep trying to stay in step with them. From her experience with addiction and recovery, we learned to own our mistakes, to learn from them and move forward in positivity, and - when we can’t - to stand still and let God work. It’s never too late to make a change in your life. It’s never too late to recognize that God walks with us no matter what path we are on.
When Michelle joined Mt Olive church, she not only shared in fellowship, she also shared some of her favorite recipes. When I was growing up, she taught me to bake. From the time I was very little, she trusted me with all of the various tasks that went along with making cakes, cookies, and other desserts from scratch. This led me to develop a passion for cooking (at the same time being left alone with the sweet potato pie filling when I was five led to an extreme belly ache at the time and an aversion to sweet potato pies that lasts to this day)! She instilled in me the understanding that feeding people is a way to give of yourself, to offer love, and comfort and every time I bake, I can hear her voice reminding me of how easy it is to make my own icing or not to overbeat my batter, or some other tip. She’ll always be with me because of that - and because my kids are always asking for different Chelle dishes!
Finally, I have to share the lesson relating to something that she told me, my sisters, and a number of other female relatives and friends so often it became a mantra. When I was on my way here last week, I had a layover in Detroit. The moment I walked out of gate in Detroit, I was facing a store full of accessories with three large signs saying, "ACCESSORIES! $10!! ACCESSORIES!!" I laughed and cried. Chelle was always after us for not accessorizing. She joked that she was going to have "Accessorize, Ladies!!" put on her gravestone. I bought something to let her know that I got the message, and that I would not show up at her funeral without properly accessorizing. Chelle was not one to let life get her down for very long, and even though I am crying, I will also smile and laugh as I remember the many good times and insightful things that she taught me.