Late yesterday afternoon, my mother called to tell me that my wonderful Aunt Brenda Kay had passed away at 1:25pm. BK was finally released from a battle with cancer that she’d undertaken in July of 2016, one she fought with her familiar grit and razor sharp wit — the stuff that makes obstacle and trauma seem easy along our walks of soul-decorating and character-shaping. She had practice.
I was with Brenda Kay at the hospice in McKees Rocks the night before, Sunday evening. There was a placid type of beauty in the weary air. She could no longer speak. Light fades from the eyes toward a goal of greater witness. Inner vision bridges back with more exact testimony. But the suchness of BK’s story rang loud and clear in the room like a sustained pitch I’d known my whole life, I could see it in the air, really — dignified even in the sterility of such a building. Story, story, story, God, God, God, holy moment it seemed to ring. I felt the vacuum at an undeniable pace, but continuity past its twisting threshold. Absorbed back into the tender care from which we’re imagined.
Sprawled out on the extra bed next to hers, I praised the ways in which she proudly embodied the divine, her roles edifying and protecting all the people whose lives she touched — in her neighborhood, school communities, and family above all. Brenda Kay was a public school teacher who held multiple master’s degrees, studied at John’s Hopkins, and for years traveled Kenya teaching. I remember fondly the wood carvings of leopards, zebras and giraffes she’d return with. She was a powerful psychic limb of the family, as immediate as anyone else. When my parents separated, she moved from Greenville to Pittsburgh to be with us, a decision I didn’t fully comprehend at the time. Her house number on Suismon St. in Deutschtown is nearly the same as my mother’s a few streets away. They share a birthday five years apart.
I hold close BK’s smile and mischievous laughter, her love of Jim Carrey’s comedy and writhing existential angst, and her musicality; she had an incredible operatic voice that could certainly peel back some gates early. Dixie Chicks, the Kansas City Chiefs, Dr. Pepper and sooooooo many shoes — these too were her creed. Brenda Kay was a fortress for others, yes, but herself as much so. For such flamboyant humor she was a very private person, with a strongly cultivated inner life that went little understood. It could not be accessed on anything other than her terms, and that was part of the point. I wouldn’t have changed a thing about her perch of hoarded protection. Not my choice. It was part of her story’s soulfulness, how she processed the tumult this world put upon her.
It feels leaden, indifferent, when a collective event so alters our individual lives, doing away with the prospect of proper funeral rites. Grief in our varying degrees of isolation and communion regardless. Admittedly, my quarantine has been mostly mental. I only got to see Brenda Kay once in the hospital, on March 13th; she was shuttered back and forth from AGH multiple times, the hospices already locked down. But I feel so grateful. Some of us saw spiraling moments and feared only days left, but I got two hours with her beautiful lucidity that evening in March.
She was speaking in the imaginal of her home-as-offering to God, saying ‘Brenda Kay’s House of Harmony’ — then she would drift a moment, come back and add to it, ‘no, Brenda Kay’s House of Love and Harmony’ and add to it once again, like Venus’ copper-mirrored pieces of the Divine. It was these visions I continued to build upon Sunday evening, with bouts of peaceful silence in between, as I lay in the bed next to her. The weight of her gaze favored that direction, a wall of cards to our right like gorgeous glitter in a pharmacy aisle’s apocalyptic rubble. Her breathing accelerated for several seconds when I mentioned the celestial palaces beyond us, and soothed when I spoke of the favor she is held in. She woke again only for the three kisses to her left cheek I found reasons to keep giving her as I tidied to leave. Those were the only moments her eyes didn’t look pained.
When things fall apart, when people really unravel, I try to open up more, to listen better, and build a loving container. Looking back, I’ve mostly navigated such spaces. I would rather lay in someone’s room for months and months, sharing things to help get them through, than have anything of my own in this dance of impermanence. I would stand in line for this, again and again.
I said I love you over and over, and that I would be back tomorrow. After two half-sleepless weeks, a day without eating, I awoke yesterday to an extra flurry of messages. I replied first to Emma, who spoke of her grief. The clock read 1:25 — the minute we later learned you would pass on. The day felt lighter before I really knew, and it was all put together. I plan to uphold your memory Brenda Kay, and continue to never give up on anyone as long as I live.
your loving nephew,
Brenda Kay Dailey
May 18th, 1957 — April 20th, 2020