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Gone but not forgotten

The temperature has dropped. Stores have every available shelf stuffed with candy, and costumes are hanging in closets. Halloween is just one day away. It’s a day of overindulgence, a day to take a break from reality, a day to pretend to be someone else.

The idea of a night out dressing up has trickled down from Gaelic and Welsh roots, and while much of the hoopla stems from pagan rituals, the name itself has a definitively Christian etymology. Tomorrow is Halloween, or All Hallows Eve. Tuesday is All Hallows or All Saints Day, a day to recognize all saints, a day to remember those departed Christians who have walked among us, raised us up when we have fallen and shared in Christ’s love.

I have been extremely fortunate in my 25 years to have only lost one person I was close to. All my parents and grandparents are still living, which is a beautiful gift, not only for myself, but for my daughter. I am beyond thankful for that.

But when I was 18, someone extra special to me died, and it was the first time I had to truly grieve. There’s no good descriptor for Helen. Her job title was babysitter or nanny. She started working for my parents just before I was born and continued until I was in sixth grade. For nearly 12 years, I spent just as much time, if not more, with her than my own parents.

Without Helen, I wouldn’t be who I am today. She had a no nonsense way about her when it came to chores and to-do list. There was no excuse good enough to get out of cleaning our room, but when the bed was made and toys were put away there was no one better to have fun around.

Someone once told me it takes a strong family to survive a divorce. If that’s true, Helen was the backbone. As we made adjustments to new living arrangements, she followed us back and forth. It can’t have been easy to care for children constantly moving.

I still remember the day she quit. I was sitting at the breakfast bar doing homework when my dad got home. She told him she needed to talk to him, and my mind quickly raced over what I had done that day. Had I done anything to get in trouble? Then I heard her say she had a gotten a job with the hospital, and my heart sank. When my dad got done talking to her, he found me trying to hide that I was crying. He told me it was OK for me to be sad about that.

And while it did change daily routines, she was still a part of our lives.  We continued to see her over the years. She still kept us occasionally, and we still celebrated milestones together. Where it counted, nothing had changed.

And then it changed again. I remember sitting in a classroom in the science building for cheer meeting. That’s when Mama told Sallie and me that Helen was sick ‚ breast cancer. Sallie immediately started crying. I was shocked, but I probably didn’t show it the same way. After all, our grandmother had been diagnosed with breast cancer when we were younger, and she was fine now. But Helen was not fine. It had spread, and there wasn’t much that can be done.

The timeline gets a little jumbled from there. I cannot remember exactly when we found out, but by the time I graduated in May 2009, Helen wasn’t acting like herself. As I started college in the fall, her symptoms continued to worsen. On Tuesday of Thanksgiving week, I stopped at the hospital in Jackson on my way home. I don’t really remember why since I woke up the day of Thanksgiving and drove back to Starkville, but I’m glad I did. It was the last time I saw her, and as hard as it was to see her like that, it made it the tiniest bit easier when she died just a few days later. I didn’t want her to stay alive if it meant that she couldn’t communicate, that she couldn’t even recognize us.

At the funeral, I vividly remember the church choir at Siloam Missionary Baptist singing “This Little Light of Mine.” With harmonizing parts and clapping hands, it felt like a true celebration of life. It helped underline the positive amongst all the grief. She had loved, and she had been loved.

This year will mark seven years since her death. Seven years without Helen, but this year will also mark my first year with my own Helen. My prayer is to show her as much love as her namesake showed me.

Julia Miller is the lifestyles editor of The Daily Leader. She can be contacted at julia.miller@dailyleader.com.