Inge, I just don’t know how to say goodbye
by Lucie R. Willsie, Associate Editor
Nov 18, 2012 | 734 views | 0 0 comments | 4 4 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Today would have been my cousin Ingrid’s 70th birthday.

She died just 13 days shy of it on Nov. 5.

I am still in a bit of a stupor.

I don’t know what to think or write or say about her.

It’s hard to make sense of.

I’d like to say something profound, something meaningful, but my writing abilities and my mind fail me. I don’t know what to say. I haven’t been able to make it feel real. Maybe, if I had waited awhile, but today would have been a milestone in her life, and it just seems appropriate to acknowledge it, even in this small way.

Someone asked me what our relationship was like, what was special about it.

Geez. I don’t know what to say to that either. She was my cousin. We spent time together. Ordinary things. Shopping. Holidays. Eating. It’s coming back to me now, a little more. She was kinda, well, child-like in a way. She liked to have fun and enjoy just being. She was kind to people. Yes, I remember now. She was always trying to be happy. Make others happy. I had forgotten about that. It’s funny what you forget about as a part of your life, kinda like taking breathing for granted. It just is — and you aren’t aware of it until it’s gone and you are gasping for breath.

But, now that I think about it, Inge and I were fairly close. First cousin close — a little more like sisters than cousins. Part of the first generation of first cousins that stepped off the boat from Europe. Her, not me. But we didn’t spend a lot of daily time together — at least not recently — because she lived in St. Louis most of her life, had a husband, was a real estate broker. Oh brother, I almost forgot. She loved to sell things. You should have seen her go at a garage sale. Man, was she ever a hard negotiator, preferring to hold on to her treasures than sell at a too low price. In fact, I just remembered, she left some of her sale items in my mom’s garage the last time I was with her. I don’t think she ever took those precious garage sale items back. She never missed them. Something else more important came up.

She had eight kids, lots more grandkids, for whom she babysat after she retired.

Thinking back, I also remember she came over from Germany after World War II as a really young kid. It was difficult in Germany during the war, but she was just a baby during most of it and only around 10 years old when she arrived in the states. I think she only spoke German when she arrived in St. Louis and learned English in school. That must have been difficult here as well, being a refugee and not knowing the language.

But she was young and became accustomed quickly.

Especially with the holidays approaching, I remember spending Thanksgivings with her and her family — at one point, eight kids, four boys and four girls, with their individual spouses and/or their own kids. It was usually something I dreaded. Too raucous for my world. But mom Inge seemed to flourish amidst all the hubbub.

I remember she would go to all the different casinos in and around St. Louis regularly. She loved the slot machines almost as much as she loved the buffets at the casinos. I remember her piling a big plate — not one of those dessert plates, no sirree, not for her — with a selection of literally eight different desserts. It was a toss-up as to how she was going to die — diabetes or lung cancer.

She died of lung cancer.

She and her husband both smoked a lot.

Her husband, Dan, also died of lung cancer. Can’t remember exactly when now. I’m guessing Dan was diagnosed about two or three years before Inge was diagnosed herself two years ago.

Their kids all vehemently tried to get them both to quit, to no avail. Dan never stopped. Inge stopped several times, only to start back up again. I never did understand why. Still don’t. It killed her.

Lung cancer.

It’s not a nice way to go. Not nice at all. Not that death can be “nice,” but some are more painful and horrific than others. Lung cancer is one of these.

That’s what my cousin Inge died of. Inge really liked to smoke.

Inge also really liked to drive and she was good at it. She must have gotten all the directional prowess in the family because she really could find her way around. Never an accident, I do believe. No one else of the same generation in the family can say that. I remember her carefully, yet confidently, driving my mom through a “major snowstorm of the century” to Inge’s sister’s house for a Christmas Eve celebration. She made it back and forth safely. She really loved the holidays. Going to be tough without her this year.

Inge took her diagnosis of inoperable lung cancer very well, by all reports. She went about her daily activities. She even arranged her own funeral. Can you imagine doing that? I didn’t know at the time, not until she was buried on Nov. 9, but she was buried in Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery near St. Louis. My first reaction was that this was odd because she had never served in the military. Then, I found out she would be buried in the same grave as her husband, who was a Navy vet, I believe. In the same grave, right on top. I didn’t know that was being done.

According to my mom and my cousin Karin, Inge’s sister, between the diagnosis and her death, Inge continued to go out to lunches, went to play the slots at the casino, spent time with her family — although the babysitting stopped pretty soon after she was diagnosed.

She went on with her life.

At first, she did the chemo and took the radiation treatments. She tried, like most of us, to do what the doctors told her, still hoping that she would be cured, or at least go into remission.

Her cancer did go into remission once, maybe twice. I can’t remember exactly. But then, the one day came when the doctors told her there was nothing else they could do. I don’t know what that moment was like for her.

Mom told me Inge said she wasn’t sad. And she didn’t seem that way. Not to my mom. Nor angry. In fact, mom heard my cousin say, “I’ve led a good life.”

Inge eventually moved in with one of her daughters and all of her eight kids were there constantly to help her, take her to the doctor, see to her needs — and be there to say “goodbye” when it was time.

Inge didn’t have it easy all her life. They never had much money. They lived in a tiny little house. She never scaled Kilimanjaro. She never wrote a book or painted a masterpiece. She never hardly traveled much. Never saw the world. I mean, just the fact that she had eight kids is difficult enough right there without having to suffer through dying of lung cancer. But, as it turned out, her No. 1 blessing was those eight kids.

She seemed to be at peace with the idea that she was going to die sooner rather than later.

But I think what I will remember the most about my cousin Ingrid is what happened in the last few days of her life.

She lived. From the time of her terminal diagnosis and imminent impending death, she continued to live. I don’t know how she did it. How does one keep living a normal life with this ultimate sword of Damocles hanging over one’s head?

But she did — and I think I will remember that most about her. Her continuing to live while death waited.

And, I’m sure you’ve also heard stories about others similar to what my cousin did. My cousin, as close to death as anyone could be and still be alive, forced herself to live until Oct. 20 so she could attend her son Michael’s wedding. She did. And then she told everyone she could “Give up.” And she did. She died about two weeks later.

At the end, she drifted into a coma a few days before she died. She had tubes attached and an oxygen mask. She didn’t look like Inge. She wasn’t Inge then, until eventually, she wasn’t at all.

Someone has said that there are only two things people have to do in this life. One is to die. The other is to stay alive until they do.

That’s what Inge did. She forced herself by sheer will to live long enough to see her son get married.

I think I will remember — and admire — that the most about her.