By Deb Hernandez

I never imagined that at age 63, I’d be living with my Mom, but I’m amazed at how happy it makes me. Then again, I never imagined we’d both be caring for a 99-year-old Mexican woman either. This Golden Girls kind of life has been an adjustment for me and an even bigger one for them.

Who is this 99-year old Mexican woman, you ask? She is an aunt-in-law I inherited when my husband died in May 2014. She was part of the “package” when I married Ronnie earlier that same year. I’ll let that sink in for a minute. Yes, we were married for less than five months when he died.

Flashback to the day that changed me forever. It was the biggest shock of my life when I pulled up in front of the body shop down the street where Ronnie laid dead next to his motorcycle. I don’t remember a lot about that Sunday and the days that followed, yet some things are still eerily vivid, if that makes any sense.

I remember my entire conversation with Jason, his attorney, business partner, and dear friend.  His shock and disbelief as I told him that Ronnie had been in a horrible accident right down the street from where we lived only made it all more real for me. We were both so devastated and heartbroken. I remember watching his riding buddy, Luigi, crumble and sob uncontrollably when he arrived at our home after the accident. He had been with Ronnie when he lost control of his Harley, and he had single-handedly pulled the bike off Ronnie. I remember calling my dear friend Socar, who dropped what she was doing and rushed to the house. She never left my side over the next two days. She accompanied me to the coroner’s office and the funeral home. She made calls and helped me face the nightmare. I’ll always be grateful. I remember dreading telling Aunt Lillie that her beloved nephew, Ronnie, was gone. And I remember my son showing up and wrapping his arms around me two days after Ronnie’s accident, and finally feeling that I might survive this ordeal.

The whole experience was as awful as you would expect. Then, somehow in the middle of it all, miracles started happening. I had no ready cash or life insurance policy to bury Ronnie. He had no relatives offering to help. At the urging of Jason, my son Geoff, and several others, we set up a GoFundMe page to help pay for Ronnie’s burial. Within 24 hours, the account had more than $10,000. By the end of the week, it had grown to over $15,000. The donations came from everywhere — the Realtor family, friends of mine, and Ronnie’s, and from people I didn’t know at all. It was truly unbelievable. There were so many positives that week. Neighbors bringing food, people stopping by, calls, cards, and flowers, almost everyone at the office attending the funeral; it was a humbling experience. I was so touched by everyone’s kindness and generosity.

Then, there was this pitiful, sweet, nearly deaf old lady sitting quietly in my front room. Born in Mexico, Lillie is a naturalized citizen. Going through papers after Ronnie’s death, I learned she was honorably discharged from the Navy, and then worked as a Southwest Bell operator. Never married, she built a home in south Austin in 1959, and secured a loan to pay for it — all on her own. She must have been a pistol in her youth and beyond; smoked at least a pack a day, drank beer every day, and cussed like a sailor. Most of all, she adored her nephew, Ronnie. I find it odd, even today, that Ronnie had made me promise while we were still dating, that I would make sure Lillie never went into a nursing home if anything ever happened to him. When Ronnie’s estranged daughter told me at his funeral that no one would judge me if I didn’t keep my promise, I remember telling her that I would judge me and it wasn’t like I could take it back. Now came the hard part; how to pull this one off.

Lillie always did OK for short periods on her own, but I didn’t want her going anywhere near the kitchen. I was able to convince a friend of a friend to help by staying with Lillie for five hours a day. We hobbled along that way for a year-and-a-half with friends or caretakers coming in while I was working.

In October 2015, I convinced Mom that she would enjoy getting out of the Iowa cold, spending  the winter in Texas and helping me care for Lillie. Mom and Lillie hit it off, and they both thrived. Mom lost 30 pounds, and Lillie was truly happy again. There was joy in my home again. After spending a winter in Texas, Mom returned to Boone, Iowa to pack up the house she had shared with my Dad for 54 years. Mom had never lived anywhere else and I know it was hard for her to leave her friends and the only life she had known for her 80-plus years. Daddy had died in February of 2015, and aside from the harsh Iowa winters, my other concerns – her loneliness, upkeep of the house, and the financial burdens she now faced worried me. The house was old, the stairs were narrow and steep, and the upkeep would be more than she could afford. However, the need to dispense of the house could have waited awhile. Mom’s a strong, capable woman and there were neighbors who were like relatives that helped or checked on her daily. Mom could have stayed in Iowa longer, but she didn’t. She’s here and we feel blessed every day.

Today, Aunt Lillie may not always remember names, but immediately recognizes a plant she hasn’t seen in years as a hydrangea. Dementia is one strange ailment. I hope Lillie lives to be 100, so she can be pictured on the Smuckers Jar on NBC’s Today Show. Only months to go. Regardless, I know Ronnie is smiling down on us. If she makes it, it will be because of Mom. It’s now a few days before Mother’s Day and as corny as it sounds, having Mom here is the best present I could have asked for. I appreciate her every single day. Sometimes in the midst of the darkest days, you have to pry your eyes open to see the good, but it’s always there.

Debra is first a mother, daughter, and sister holding family even higher in her hierarchy of things that matter as she grows older. She is also a widow and shares that distinction with her mom who now lives with her. They share the responsibility of care for her deceased husband’s aunt, two dogs, a cat, the house and the garden. She has two children, and three grandchildren, so far. She has two younger sisters who were womb-mates. Debra lives in Austin where she has a career in professional development for a large association. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, traveling, and painting.

“Below is one of the works that I painted for a dear friend a couple years before he was pulled out to sea by a riptide in 2013. While his stature and physical strength were not enough to save him that day, his belief that your mind is your greatest strength lives on through his work. The accompanying quote has been my favorite for many years now.”