When I was a toddler, just learning to talk, I couldn’t enunciate my aunt’s name. “Mary Lou” is a mouthful when you’re just mastering one-syllable words.
So I called her, “Ga-Goo.”
The whole family, including my mom, Mary Lou and their three brothers, thought it was adorable. I mean, all humility aside, I was a cute kid to begin with. The whole “Ga-Goo” thing just amped up the cuteness to a new level.
However, my life soon came to a crossroads: Right around the time I was learning my ABC’s, I realized that, yes, I could pronounce the syllables, “Mary Lou.” But I thought it would break her heart if I stopped calling her “Ga-Goo.” I vaguely recall that I slipped once, called her Mary Lou, and I could see the disappointment on her face.
So, she remained, “Ga-Goo,” to me, for quite a few years after I realistically could have switched. Pretty sure the family knew I was fully capable of saying, “Mary Lou.” Either that or they were worrying: “Hey. Kid’s cute. But just maybe he’s not especially bright…”
I’m not sure when I first started calling her Mary Lou, like a grownup, but I’m guessing it was in my early teens, when, full of early-teen assertiveness, I decided enough was enough with the baby talk.
Mary Lou was a sweetheart of a lady. Humble. Kind. Quietly strong.
She died this week. On my grandmother’s birthday, almost as if Nana was calling Ga-Goo home.
Cancer is a bitch. Mary Lou is the second member of my family to fall to it within the past few months. On the other side of the family — and the other side of the continent — my cousin Shannon, who lived in Ontario, Canada, died in January, at 52. Both of them were way too young.
Distance is a bitch, too. I got to know my cousin Shannon through a limited number of trips back, over the years, to visit my dad’s side of the family in Toronto, Niagara Falls and Hamilton, Ontario. Shannon was a fireball, an energetic personality with a delightfully wicked sense of humor. Watching from a distance on Facebook, it was heartbreaking to see cancer sap that energy until she passed. But she kept that wickedness going as long as she could:
“Thanks again everyone for your best wishes,” Shannon posted on Facebook in December. “My memory is screwed.”
I’d monitored Mary Lou’s cancer journey on Facebook, too, through weekly updates posted by my cousin Cyndi, who took Mary Lou to her treatments. The posts always included a “carpool laughter” photo of the two of them and, often, Valentino the family dog.
Mary Lou, Cyndi and my cousin Jennifer lived in Arizona, and Mary Lou had been battling cancer for the past several years, enduring multiple rounds of debilitating treatments and a rollercoaster of good news-bad news-good news-bad news. The latest news had been good, so when I got word of her passing, I was stunned.
We hadn’t seen her much in recent years, except for when we took road trips to Arizona to watch our son play hockey, in juniors and then in college. His University of Oklahoma team played the two Arizona schools — University of Arizona and Arizona State — every year, meaning they took an annual three-game road swing through Phoenix and Tucson. So, whenever we made those road trips, Mary Lou would show up at the rink and root for Luc. We’d sometimes grab dinner before the game and catch up. She always seemed in good spirits, despite what we all knew she was going through.
It’s been a hell of a year, in so many ways. Many people’s lives have been irrevocably impacted by one C, COVID-19. In my family, it’s been the other C, cancer. There’s a vaccine for one of them. Meanwhile, I’ll make a donation to the American Cancer Society in memory of my lost loved ones, and if you’d like to do the same, visit donate3.cancer.org.
Rest in peace, cousin Shannon. And rest in peace… Ga-Goo.
Tim Whyte is the editor of The Signal.