Part 2: Her Heart was Too Big
It had been several days since Anni’s passing, but I still couldn’t get my mother-in-law’s sobs out of my mind. We had called her the day we found out, and she was beyond grief, like the wailing women I always imagined who were described in the Old Testament. This kind of despair and pain is not something I have experienced much in my young life.
The worst part was that she had to endure massive surgery the very next day to remove the breast cancer in her left breast. If only it would remove her heartbrokenness.
Caleb and I worried about his mother, her will to fight the cancer, the family’s grief and loss. It was the third day when my husband finally broke down.
He collapsed on the couch after his shift and started crying. I was watching The Emperor’s New Groove after work because I needed something fun and silly on to distract me. I shifted empathetically toward him, brow furrowed in its familiar manner, and put my hand on his hand.
“Oh baby,” I said, “It’s okay to be sad. I’m so sorry.”
“I don’t understand,” he cried, “Why did it have to be her? She was so sweet, so gentle!” He put his hand to his face, which he often does when he’s crying.
My hands awkwardly clambered toward the Xbox controller, attempting to silence the cheery tunes of the llama. I took him in my arms against my breast, into the most compassionate hold I could offer as a loving wife.
I stroked his hair, smelling wisps of citrus.
The next few days were a blur of condolences and well-wishers, people caught in the wonderment and curiosity that often accompanies a young person’s death. There was a steady stream of Christians who praised God for Anni’s life, for her ministry as a young person, for her kind heart and numerous gifts and talents.
We all echoed the one sentiment we whole-heartedly believed in — that Anni was in Heaven with Jesus, in a better place. While it hurt terribly to let her go, everyone expressed that this was not the end, we would see her again some day.
I struggled with how to refer to Anni. Was she ‘our cousin,’ ‘my cousin,’ or ‘my husband’s cousin’?
She was so much more, though. I saw her for major holidays, always loving her embraces and smiles and the endless compliments she dished out. She and her older sister, Marisa, were like twins. Sometimes I even had to do a double take to tell them apart.
I realize now the last thing Annalisa said to me was through Facebook messenger. She sent me a video of a baby impressively rock climbing and said “I found your future baby!” I laughed and said she was right.
And that was it.
Just like that, our beautiful, vibrant, kind-hearted, spunky girl was gone. She was two months shy of her sweet sixteen.
I mourned her death, but mostly I mourned the life she would never have that I dreamed for her: one full of love and life and smiles and laughter. I always imagined her living her life with the kind of endless joy she emitted at every family gathering.
She was a beautiful soul and a beautiful young woman.
When Caleb and I arrived to his parents’ home a few days after the surgery, I was expecting the environment to be much more solemn, much more tearful. Perhaps my sisters-in-law were rallying around Susie to help her recover. There were still moments of laughter and love and silly banter.
This attitude made me feel like I didn’t have to be stuck wallowing in grief. We came to their house intending to be a blessing, but I was blessed by the attitude of those around me. Even those most closely affected by her death shared an attitude of simultaneous mourning and joy.
The afternoon was punctuated by the entrance of Anni’s older brother, Tony, and Uncle Keith. Uncle Keith drove up from Florida to stay with his sister, Aunt Linda, and help Susie recover. It was good to see them, but I hated that it was under these circumstances. Uncle Keith wrote beautiful, heartfelt poems about Anni. I think I could feel how he felt, but he summed it so eloquently the day of Anni’s passing:
When terrible things happen I give words-
Words never kept anyone dry in a hurricane, never built a shelter, never moved a mountain.
Words. They’re all I have.– Keith A. Kenel
All my words felt scared away.
In the late evening Annalisa’s mother, sister, and youngest brother filed into the house. They didn’t make it far before being bombarded with tear-stained hugs. When I saw Marisa I hugged her, possibly longer and harder than I’ve hugged anyone. My heart broke for Aunt Linda and Uncle Paolo, but it felt worse for Marisa. To lose a beloved sister and best friend in one day is too much.
Aunt Linda excused herself from the pack of the family and finally had a chance to see her beloved sister Susie, who was in pieces, both literally and figuratively. Aunt Linda sat down on the love seat and hugged her. They cried a bit, but it was Linda who seemed like she was protecting Susie, even though she was the one grieving; and it was Susie who was crying not for her horrible battle with cancer, but for her sister’s loss and heartbreak. They fed off each others’ strength. A love between two sisters is truly one of life’s greatest bonds.
My poor Marisa, I thought suddenly, tearing up when I saw Linda and Susie together. I made my hands busy and kept my head down so no one could see. I’m sure I didn’t fool anyone.
“We got the preliminary autopsy report back,” Linda spoke softly, settling down next to her sister and holding her hand. Everyone filed into the room, trying to make themselves comfortable.
“As you know, Annalisa was found face down on the driveway facing our house, as if she had finished praying and started walking back home,” she paused, gathering her shaky breath. “The coroner and detective came to check the house to determine if her death was caused by trauma. They could not find one drop of blood on the driveway. She had scraped up her nose and knees and the back of her hands, and none of it bled. They ruled out trauma and thought her heart might have stopped before she hit the ground.”
Linda raised her eyes and hands in the air and her eyes and voice started welling with tears, “It was clear that she did not suffer. I thank God every day that my baby girl did not suffer.”
There was a sniffle around the room, and murmurs of thankful voices. My heart relaxed from its clenched position as I recalled the voice that consoled me when I feared the worst, that she didn’t die alone.
Linda continued, “The autopsy report showed that her heart was enlarged,”
There was a slight gasp, a poetic embrace of sentiment and tragedy as we all realized why she died.
“Her heart was too large,” my father-in-law spoke softly with a sad smile. “That fits her perfectly.”
“I might put that on her tombstone,” Aunt Linda sniffled.
We sat there for a moment, soaking in the news. I sighed with relief, days of pent up confusion and fear of the worst suddenly let go in a moment.
Thank you, Lord, that Anni did not suffer. Thank you for this gift of peace.
“Now, the final report has not yet come back. This is the preliminary report, so they can’t yet say this was the official cause of death. But they told me this was likely the cause of death.”
“It’s not something you could have foreseen,” Caleb jumped in, eager to heal his Aunt, to console her. “Doctors don’t screen for heart conditions in young, healthy people. Not unless there’s a family history of it. You couldn’t have known. If this is what I think it is — hypertrophic cardiomyopathy — it most often starts in adolescence and causes the heart walls to grow too large. Blood can’t pump out of the heart. It most often presents itself in a healthy high school athlete who runs around during a sporting event and then suddenly drops dead.”
“But she wasn’t exercising when she collapsed; she was out praying in the garden,” our Aunt implored. She looked around to her sister, with pleading eyes of a mother trying to understand. “When she went hiking with you in Alaska, did she ever seem like she was struggling?”
A chorus of no’s rang out in the room as Caleb’s mother, father, and sisters explained that Anni struggled a normal amount with hiking, but nothing that caused them alarm.
Aunt Linda sat back in her chair and sighed.
“All we know is that she went out to the rose bush for her nightly prayer time. She was talking to her Heavenly Father one moment, and the next — her Daddy said, ‘No, we’re not done talking.'”
She rested her head gently on her sister’s shoulder and I thought back to her earlier Facebook post with amazement at her strength and faith:
The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the name of the LORD.
This is Part 2 of a continuing series, Remembering Annalisa. Read Part 1: Bearer of Bad News. Annalisa Laudadio was my husband’s cousin. She was 15 years old when she died suddenly on April 20, 2016. This short story collection is my way of working through the shock and grief of losing a loved one.