As well as being a cancer blogger, Laura Yeager is a religious essayist and a mental health blogger. A graduate of The Writers’ Workshop at The University of Iowa, she teaches writing at Kent State University and Gotham Writers’ Workshop. Laura survived cancer twice.
Mary Jane, my mother-in-law's sister, my husband's aunt, loved squirrels. And squirrels loved her. In fact, she often welcomed them into her laundry room and fed them peanuts.
“Mary Jane, one day that squirrel is going to bite you,” her husband said.
“Jennifer would never bite me,” she assured him.
One morning, Mary Jane was bothered by extreme lower abdominal pain. After enduring many tests, she discovered that she had ovarian cancer. She had only a few months to live. The cancer was very advanced.
Right before she passed, my husband and I and our six-month-old baby boy went to visit Mary Jane. She was sitting in a chair in the sunshine. On her lap was a beautiful yellow throw. Her checks were rosy, her white hair was soft and silky. She looked beautiful.
We were excited to show off our baby whom we brought home from Guatemala in January of that year.
“So this is little Tommy?” Mary Jane gave Tommy a kiss on his forehead. She bounced him on her knee.
Tommy smiled up at his great aunt Mary Jane.
Mary Jane then presented us with a beautifully wrapped present for our baby. We opened it and discovered a Peter Rabbit anthology. Besides loving squirrels, Mary Jane loved rabbits. The gift of a book was a suitable gift from Mary Jane because she'd worked for many years as the town children’s librarian.
Mary Jane died in September.
A couple days later, my husband's mother, Carolyn, called.
"You're not going to believe this, but a new squirrel has appeared.” Like Mary Jane, Carolyn also loved to feed squirrels. “She comes right up and sits on my armrest. She lets me feed her a peanut. I think it’s Mary Jane."
We were a bit startled. This seemed strange to my husband.
"Mom, are you OK?"
"I think Mary Jane's spirit has inhabited this squirrel."
My husband didn't protest. We figured that Carolyn needed to believe this to help her grieve and let go of her sister.
“If she needs to believe it, it’s fine with me,” my husband said.
“It’s fine with me, too,” I agreed.
The squirrel appeared several times a day. My mother-in-law and the wild squirrel became best of friends. Carolyn convinced her other sister, Margaret that the squirrel was actually Mary Jane. The two of them believed in this miracle with their whole hearts.
Miracles are highly personal things. I would like to believe that Mary Jane’s spirit had inhabited the body of this little squirrel and was comforting Carolyn and Margaret in their time of loss. But it doesn’t matter what I think. What matters is that they
believed a miracle had occurred.
But Carolyn’s other two sisters, Denise and Rhonda weren’t so sure.
“There’s Mary Jane,” said Margaret to Carolyn one day when the sisters were playing Scrabble together. The two sisters looked out the patio door.
“Yes, there’s that creature who might give you a disease,” said Rhonda.
Denise rolled her eyes and chuckled.
“Just a minute. I’m going to feed her.”
“Carolyn, you’re holding up the game. It’s your turn.”
“This will only take a second.” She grabbed some peanuts still in the shells and went out on the patio to feed the squirrel that was behaving rather aggressively, darting back and forth as if it was trying to get someone’s attention.
“Here I am,” said Carolyn.
Carolyn sat on her deck chair and the little squirrel climbed up on the armrest. Carolyn feed her the peanuts.
“She is kind of cute,” said Denise.
“She’s beautiful,” Carolyn said. “She’s our sister, Mary Jane.”
Carolyn and the squirrel were constant companions until Carolyn and her husband decided they needed a house all on one floor. They were getting up in years.
Carolyn cried when she had to say goodbye to Mary Jane. “I’ll miss you. Yes, I have to go. Dave’s knees are bad. He can’t go up and down stairs anymore.”
They packed up everything they owned and moved to a three-bedroom ranch that was all on one floor and without a basement. They would never have to climb steps in their home again.
To remember her little friend, Carolyn purchased a brass squirrel and attached it to Mary Jane's gravestone. Whenever Carolyn went to Mary Jane's grave she saw the lovely brass squirrel. It made her smile.
Mary Jane was a gorgeous woman. She spent her life bringing literature to children. It’s no wonder that she was my husband’s favorite aunt.
Carolyn believes that Mary Jane gave her a sign that she was fine and had arrived in heaven.
If that comforts her, who am I to doubt?