I am attaching audio from my spoken tribute to Debbie at her memorial:
Almost every week, I would pick up my cousin, Debbie to go to dinner and occasionally a movie. I searched for movies that were wholesome and upbeat for her.
I laugh. remembering how I wasn’t always careful about researching my movie suggestions in the beginning. I thought Moonlight was going to be romantic, but when it became violent Debbie covered her eyes during most of the movie. I told her we could leave, but she wanted to stay and was a trouper. It was probably her least favorite movie even if it won the best picture Oscar!
No one was like Debbie in my life. Her first words upon getting in my car were usually, “Judy, can you please play me your latest song?” She oozed sweetness and love.
Debbie was only two months younger than I. We shared a lot of memories of growing up together. Our wonderful times included parties, beach trips, double dates and sleepovers.
My cousin’s life wasn’t easy. Her biological mother died when she was a baby. Her father married my aunt and she adopted his three children. In her late teens, mental illness took hold and Debbie was diagnosed with bi-polar disorder. At one of our last sleepovers, she babbled and cried out in the middle of the night and it was scary. She was in and out of treatment for many years. I did visit her at the hospital once or twice. But I was not really close to her after that.
During the time Debbie struggled with mental health challenges, she was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. She beat it, but was left with many health issues plaguing her later in her life.
So after my carefree years of childhood, I rarely spoke or saw Debbie. I was happy that she found love and got married. She was invited to every family event, but often didn’t show up. But Debbie was vigilant about keeping in touch with my parents; she would call them on a regular basis. I was sad when her parents passed away and she was sad about mine, too.
After I left my long marriage in 2012, I moved back to the home where I grew up and Debbie lived only few miles away. One day, I spoke with Debbie and we made plans to get together. She didn’t drive and I was happy to go pick her up.
Our relationship was revitalized and we began to make plans more frequently. She became my “movie buddy.” Before that, I would go to the movies alone when I had the desire to see something. Now I had Debbie’s eager company.
I used to feel guilty that I had pulled away from her when she went through her mental health issues. Now I had the chance to turn things around, to feel good about making a difference to her life.
Her excitement to go out with me was infectious. I’d pull up to her house and call her to let her know I was there. She’d eagerly walk down the driveway and happily slide into the passenger seat of my car.
After a few years her gait became unsteady and she began using a walker. It reminded me of taking my mother out. Although it was challenging at times, it heartened me to feel my mother’s presence during our outings. I loved talking with Debbie about our parents and memories of them.
Only a month before she died, Debbie seemed to be gasping when she spoke. She shared that it was hard for her to sleep at night and she was hoping to get a prescription for an oxygen tank to help her. It took hard work and advocacy for her to get it, but she prevailed.
On our very last outing, her husband, Tom came out to my car holding a big bag next to Debbie. In it, was her oxygen tank that she now needed during the day. He explained to me that I would need to change the battery after two hours. As he showed me how to snap in another one, I watched carefully and felt a little nervous about this important task.
It was definitely tricky to get her into my car with the tank. She finally eased into the passenger seat but didn’t have the strength to put on her seatbelt. After fastening her in, I started to ask her where she’d like to go for dinner. Then I had an idea. I said, “Deb, how about coming over to my house? I’d like to fix you dinner tonight.”
She said softly with a small hint of a smile, “That would be wonderful.”
It wasn’t easy getting her to manage up the 3 stairs into my old apartment. This was where she had stayed with me when we had sleepovers as teenagers.
She was breathing hard as she sat at my dining room table while I fixed some of her favorite foods. I could see she’d lost a lot weight since the week before. I put a plate in front of her, but she hardly ate any of it. I was worried.
Despite my worry, I saw that she was happy being there with me. This was so much better than going to a restaurant. After I cleared the dishes, I had another idea.
I brought out a box of old photos from my closet. It wasn’t organized, but I knew there would be many interesting pictures inside. I found one of Debbie as a young child. She glanced at it and asked who was in the picture. “That’s you, Deb!” I made a pile for her to take home.
I pulled out some pictures taken at my Sweet Sixteen party. It amazed me to think that those pictures were taken right in front of my apartment building – the same place where I was now living. Debbie studied them, but then she revealed something very sad to me. Normally, everything she said was positive and perhaps with her recent struggles it was hard for her to stay that way.
“Judy, did you know that I was crying when that picture was taken at your party?”
I looked carefully again at her picture and said, “Deb, I don’t see tears. But tell me, why were you crying?”
“I was crying because I felt left out,” she said. You had so many friends and I didn’t.”
I felt tears well up in my eyes and I hugged her.
Now she was struggling to breathe and said, “Can you please change the battery? I’m not getting any air.”
I reached into the bag to get the replacement battery. My hands were shaking as I pulled out the dead battery and inserted the replacement. I hoped I was doing it correctly and Debbie was gasping as I fumbled. I pushed a button and we waited. Then Debbie reached over and pushed another button anxiously. It turned the unit off.
My heart was racing as I pushed the correct button again and gently held her hand away. The machine whirred and started pumping again. I was so relieved!
I still needed to drive her home, and could feel the weight of responsibility upon me. We had three steps to go down and a short distance of walking to reach my car. I gathered some extra food and pictures I wanted her to keep. I maneuvered her walker down the stairs and held onto her firmly.
As she sank into my car, she whispered, “Judy, this is pretty tough.”
I said, “I see that. I’m so sorry, Deb!”
After dropping her off, I cried. I knew she was going to have the best surgeon and hoped her heart procedure was going to “fix” this awful situation.
When she didn’t make it through, it was a reminder to me of how my son died. All the hope in the world and medical treatment didn’t change the outcome.
I will miss Debbie and I share one of my last fond memories.
Two weeks before she died, we went to dinner at her favorite restaurant. We stood up to leave and I went to get her walker.
Debbie stood holding her chair. She reminded me of a willow tree swaying in the wind and asked me to help button up her sweater. She did not have the energy or dexterity to do it.
I stood very close to her and gently pushed each button through, one by one. When I finished the last one, she beamed at me. I felt like I was bathed in a glow of joy. Her face shone with a radiant smile and her eyes sparkled. “Hey Deb, what’s the big smile for?” I asked.
She said, “I’m just so happy!”
That is how I will remember Debbie.