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Last Conversations: Aunt Cheryl

“If there’s anything I’ve learned from her loss, it’s that she is right. Everyone does need help from time to time.”

“Everyone needs help from time to time.” That was the last text my Aunt Cheryl sent to me on Saturday, May 16, 2020, at 9:36 a.m. She sent a few others over the next week or so to our various group texts, but that was her last message to me personally. It was in reference to me arguing over my grandparents insisting on helping me pay for a new car after my old one had been totaled the week before. I couldn’t let them do that, but as she was told, I helped my grandparents out a lot, and they wanted to help me too. 

She didn’t know then — just like I didn’t know then — that a little over a month later, she would die in a hospital in Shelby County after contracting COVID-19. She didn’t know that her simple message to just accept help from my family would push me to actually seek professional help a few months later and sign up for therapy again.

My aunt was a bright and funny person. The joke was that my mom had her sister’s kids on accident. My aunt and I were a lot alike. She called me her travel buddy and would take me to New York with her. Once we were lucky enough to stand next to a group of German firefighters while watching the St. Patrick’s Day parade. Our group pictures are some of my favorites, and the moment became one of her favorites to share. She sent me and a friend to New Zealand one year. For our last big trip, she took me to Gatlinburg for the first time and stood by ready to drive our group back to the cabin after an impromptu moonshine tasting. While she didn’t like her moonshine, she loved her Talladega County muscadine wine.

My aunt taught me the finer points of traveling and, honestly, about a lot of life things. Things my mom was probably ok with her teaching me — like how to use humor to be charming or having another good model for being a hard worker. There were also things my mom was probably not ok with her teaching me — like driving fast down a winding Highway 78 from Leeds to Prescott or how to say “I know” every time someone would tell me how cute I was as a kid. (It’s a thing I still accidentally do at nearly 31. Thanks, Aunt C.)

Ever the dog lover, there were five running around her house at one point. “That’s what I want,” I would think to myself. “Dogs everywhere. Some land. And next to my grandparents.”

The house with all the dogs is where she lived with her then-husband after she returned to Alabama. They moved there just as I was about to graduate high school in 2008. At that point, I knew we had a relationship when I was very young, then she moved around the States a lot, and we didn’t see much of her. The places I can most remember her are in Arizona (we visited her in Tucson and fed a squirrel at the Grand Canyon), Seattle (where she met Harrison Ford), Alaska (where she lived near a glacier) and Minneapolis (where it’s just real dang cold). When she moved back, that’s when our relationship really took off. 

I went to the University of Alabama, her favorite and my rival. Luckily, it didn’t cause too many issues as Alabama has a very good football team and Auburn has a pretty good football team. One time my car broke down, so she and my mom drove down to Tuscaloosa from Pell City so I could use her car for a few days. I’d end up driving her old green Suzuki a lot over the next few years. 

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When I moved for my first job in the summer of 2014, she and my grandmother helped me pack the Penske and drive north to Peoria, Illinois. I wasn’t prepared in any way, shape or form for said move, but she got me there regardless. When I moved back to Alabama eight months later for my second job, yep, you guessed it: She rolled up in the Jeep with my grandparents in tow, ready to move me back.

Over the next four years, we saw each other regularly. She got me in touch with a family friend whose house I was able to rent, just two or three minutes from my grandparents. My Aunt Cheryl helped me set up the place where I’d live, sleep, eat, cry, binge watch TV, play with my dog and jokingly make cereal as my potluck dish for any get-togethers we’d have. I was pretty hopeless in the kitchen at the time.

Holidays felt like my childhood days again, with everyone at my grandparents’ house, laughing, eating and opening presents, being generally loud and joyful. I worry about the holidays feeling empty this year and perhaps every year from now on.

In December 2017, I was able to travel to New York City with her again. This time, I’d be a witness to her wedding in Central Park. She married her last (and best) husband John just outside of the Bethesda Fountain. It snowed the day before (also my 28th birthday) and was perfect for pictures. John’s younger daughter Tiffany was also a witness. I imagine we both cherish the photos from that day differently now. 

John and my aunt were fun to watch together. They laughed a lot, smiled all the time, in turn making everyone else happy. I think that was her goal in life. They had a lovely little place on Logan Martin we’d go visit every now and then. They’d take my grandparents fishing on the boat while I tanned and read books on the dock. I know being there full-time was actually her goal in life.

I moved to Boise, Idaho, for a new job in March 2019. It was pouring rain, but she and John and our friend were there to help me pack up, clean up and get on the road. By this point, she told me she was too old to move me again and drag all my stuff around the country, but she’d help me get started. Driving away to a new place without her or anyone of my family members in sight was the strangest feeling. 

She was an avid NASCAR fan, but one of her favorite stories to tell didn’t even involve the racetrack. For a time, she worked at Bass Pro Shops in Leeds where they often had drivers come in on Talladega race weekends and do autograph signings. One year, Tony Stewart — her absolute favorite — came in for a signing. I went with her, and as she liked to put it, he made small talk with me while haphazardly signing the picture for her without even looking up. She then further backed up this claim by sharing that on our dinner date at Guadalajara post-signing fiasco, our server handed her the receipt without even asking who was paying — another sign of me being a regular charmer.

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I was happy to have her on my hype team, even if it wasn’t totally accurate. 

I scored four Talladega tickets and pit passes for the October 2017 race — mine and my mom’s driver’s last one. We said goodbye to Dale Jr. as my aunt and John walked around enjoying the sights and sounds. By this point, my aunt had moved on to Kyle Larson. I don’t remember where Junior or Kyle finished that race, but I remember having a good time seeing my loved ones enjoy the day.

When she passed, that’s the picture I changed my Facebook icon to in memory of that moment. 

My family members gathered together near the end of May to work on my grandparents’ floors. I Skyped in with them that day because they were all together, and I had nothing to do as my car had just been totaled a few days before. We laughed. We caught up. We cut up. It was the last time we were all “together.” Everyone had been taking precautions because of my grandparents’ ages and my aunt’s cancer.

Four days later, I pulled into my parking spot outside my duplex in my new car and got a text from my aunt. John had tested positive for COVID. She was supposed to quarantine away from him, but I feel like it was too late at that point. She was waiting to start treatment after being diagnosed with breast cancer in early March, followed by surgery a few weeks later. She told my mom and me she was going to be furious if she had to put it off because of COVID. 

My grandmother would also test positive. After a few weeks, she and John both recovered. Only a couple of days after my aunt texted us, she was running a fever and had body aches. She was on a BiPAP machine at Shelby Baptist in Alabaster. A day later, she was intubated. She’d spend three weeks on a ventilator, her condition going up and down every few days, with doctors and nurses and pulmonologists doing everything they could think of to save her.

My mom said she didn’t even look like herself because of all the IV fluid and illness, and we shouldn’t have to see it. I sometimes try to imagine it, but I can’t and don’t want to. 

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The last time I saw her was December 2019 when I visited home for my birthday and Christmas. That’s how I want to remember her. With all of us and my grandmother’s giant Christmas tree. Laughing and catching up. Joking about how I probably have a line of people at my door, waiting to take me out on a date. 

She was taken off support and died at some point during the rain-delayed Talladega race on Monday, June 22. It’s so weird that the biggest personality in our family died during her favorite race at the biggest track in the NASCAR family. That’s a terrible analogy, but I think it would make her laugh.

When I posted my tribute on social media, the comments poured in from people she worked with all around the country, people she went to school with, people who knew her through others, dozens of comments talking about how shocking her death is. How funny she is. Her sweetness. Her sometimes brutal honesty. How they never expected this to happen to Cheryl. I would say “join the club,” but I don’t want them to go through this. Instead, I find comfort in their comments and that she was exactly who I thought she was — for better or for worse. I try to remember she was a tough lady who at one point drove an 18-wheeler. She could push through this, and so could I. 

After my mom first told our group chat how quickly my aunt’s condition was deteriorating, I asked if I should come home. Not a single person in our family would let it happen because it wasn’t safe to do so then, and five months later, it still isn’t safe. Instead, I would wait for daily updates around 9:30 a.m. while I was sitting at work. I’d get sick to my stomach after looking up at the clock to see it was nearly that time. I was 2,000 miles from home, unable to help, unable to do anything but sit at my desk before going home and lying in bed, hoping I would just go to sleep instead of staying awake and crying. I would “tweet thru the pain” as the kids say some nights, hoping someone would see it and know I was hurting. I was mostly doing fine living alone at that point, but from my aunt’s hospital admission to August, I’d never felt more alone in my entire life. 

I work in local television news so I’m used to working weird hours, spending holidays either alone or with fellow news orphans, and knowing I’m probably going to move at some point in the next few years. I’d already been terrified to move to Boise because I’m so used to worrying about my grandparents, but this was completely rattling. The stories I’d run in my newscasts about people being separated from family members or loved ones suffering from COVID, the stories I’d read online about people saying goodbye from miles and miles, even countries away from each other, were now about my life. 

Her service was held on Sunday, July 5, at Kilgroe Funeral Home in Leeds, the place next to the ever-changing restaurant on top of the hill I’d gone to to say goodbye to friends, family members and others I knew my entire life. Except this time, I couldn’t be there. I couldn’t give her a proper goodbye as she actually passed, and I couldn’t in the wake of her death. Instead, I walked my dog around the Boise State campus, stopping to cry on a bench or a set of stairs a couple of times when it all became too much. I didn’t care that I was in public. If someone had seen me and asked, I would’ve let them know what happened and told them to wear a mask. 

My aunt was cremated, another thing I still cannot wrap my head around. She and John’s dog Layla had to be put down earlier this year. Their ashes are now in his possession, something I’m grateful for as I know they’ll both be taken care of with love. 

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I was able to go home the first week of October. I drove to Alabama from Idaho and back. I took every precaution. Nobody got sick. I was terrified for a month anyway.

It hurt so much to know I was there and I would see John, but I would not see her. The pain is apparent on everyone’s faces still, but there’s nothing to be done at this point. I spend time angry at people not taking measures to keep themselves or others safe, but I can’t stay angry forever and I’m mad about that too. 

I hate I can’t text her about a funny thing my dog did or that when I send a Christmas card, she won’t see it. If I do end up settling down, she won’t be there. Sometimes I think whoever I end up with might be lucky because they’ll skip her hazing, but I also know they would have loved her sense of humor. I hate that it’ll be the same way for my younger sister. I hate that my grandfather gets misty-eyed when he remembers her. I hate that my grandmother has to be so matter-of-fact about the loss of one of her children to accept it. I hate that my mother had to be the one to carry us all through it while losing her sister. 

In the end, I just miss my Aunt Cheryl. If there’s anything I’ve learned from her loss, it’s that she is right. Everyone does need help from time to time.

Kristen Bolden
Written By

Kristen Bolden is a University of Alabama graduate living in Idaho, where she works as the executive producer of Good Morning Idaho at Idaho News 6. Kristen’s aunt, Cheryl Bennet, 56, of Alabaster, died of COVID-19 on June 22.

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