I was 21 when my Aunt Martha died. She was my grandmother Mary’s sister. Martha followed Mary to the United States a few years after my grandmother emigrated from Ireland. I was only 7 when my grandmother died of a heart attack, so my Aunt Martha took over her duties and made sure that her sister Mary’s grandchildren always had that strong, loving matriarchal influence that helps kids grow up to be decent, honest, loving adults.
Aunt Martha would come and stay about a week at a time. For a lot of my youth, she still worked part-time. Aunt Martha came from the Irish servant class. She had impeccable manners and even though she had been widowed for years and was in her 60s, her work ethic, poor education and poverty necessitated that she alternate her visits to family with weeks cooking and cleaning for affluent people in southern New England.
From Boston to Newport, R.I., she had a reputation second to none — as good, honest help — and her younger friends who still served full-time staffing wealthy homes would enlist her to fill in for them on vacations and holidays.
When I was a kid, we would go collect Aunt Martha, who lived in an inner-city housing project in a rough Boston neighborhood. She was feisty and the hooligans — as she called them — in her project respected her. She wasn’t afraid to walk alone to the incinerator or going for groceries. She had lived through famine conditions in Ireland and not much on this side of the pond intimidated her.
One day when I was in college, my mom called and told me that Aunt Martha was in the hospital and her condition was pretty grave. I rushed to see her. Within a few days, Martha, who had ne’er had a sick day in her life, just up and died.
When I went to the wake I couldn’t look into the open casket. There was no way that I could believe, even at 21, that life was gone from this indestructible woman.
During her funeral, the priest — who saw my Irish Catholic aunt almost daily at Mass — explained how it all happened. He announced from the pulpit that he had been called by her doctor in the middle of the night and told that Martha Keady’s heart had failed. “But,” he said, “that was impossible. Martha Keady’s heart never failed anyone.”
Oh man, I lost it.
I had held it together long enough to sit through the various family gatherings, wakes, and now this — the funeral — but when he said that I completely fell to pieces.
That’s what happens when you love someone and you realize they are gone. And when the death is sudden, the “ahah, they are never coming back” feeling strikes you even harder.
Sunday morning, my son’s best friend Peter called. The closest of a troop of boys who practically lived in our basement, Peter had sad and sudden news to share. The mom of Luke, another one of the cellar dwellers in our house, had died — apparently of a heart attack — early that morning.
Somehow Maureen’s heart had failed. Today Yarmouth mourns the loss of this 40-something mom. Every one of Luke’s friends and their families are in shock because we knew Maureen, and we knew her heart, too, had never failed anyone.
So how did this happen?
Well the odds were against her. According to the Center for Disease Control, approximately 26 percent of women die of heart disease. Consequently, “heart disease is the leading cause of death for women in the United States.” And the scientists surmise that a number of those deaths occur because women don’t understanding the risks they face. “Heart disease is sometimes thought of as a ‘man’s disease,’” even though, “around the same number of women and men die each year of heart disease in the United States.”
Talk to the women you love — talk to yourself. Remind them that the CDC says: “Almost two-thirds of the women who die suddenly of coronary heart disease have no previous symptoms.” Then go to www.americanheart.org and read about prevention. You could save the heart of someone whose heart has never failed you.
Pat LaMarche of Yarmouth is the author of “Left Out In America: The State of Homelessness in the United States.” She may be reached at PatLaMarche@hotmail.com.