Today the world lost a bright light in my sweet aunt, Laurie Patton Walton. Laurie is my mom's youngest sister - 20 years span the two sisters - and although she was the youngest child of my grandparents, Dr. Charles Franklin and Evelyn Patton, she became somewhat of a family matriarch after my grandma's passing at the young age of 68.
Laurie was everyone's favorite. She hosted huge gatherings at her gorgeous home. I always loved that house - it had the huge front porch, the acres of land, the expansive interior - that I always wanted in a house. Since we lived far away throughout all of my growing-up years (and still do) I only got to experience a few of those gatherings over the years. But through the magic of Facebook, I was able to share in the experiences through pictures, and I always longed for that family closeness and the abundance of aunts, uncles and cousins living close enough to gather frequently to celebrate.....everything!
My Aunt Laurie was only five years older than me, so she was more like a sibling than an aunt when the families convened. I remember her room upstairs in the huge old house she grew up in. She was a cheerleader and her room was adorned with all the trappings, plus every "cool" thing I could imagine a teenager could have. It was a rare treat to be invited in, and I reveled in the glory of being allowed into her world on one of our visits.
I remember her visiting us when we lived in Salt Lake City, UT. My parents didn't tell us she was coming. I was in the bathroom and someone knocked on the door. I yelled that I'd be out in a minute but the knocking persisted. I opened the door and took a minute to register that it was Laurie standing in front of me, laughing hysterically. Always laughing. Always smiling.
Just shy of four years ago, she and her sisters Mary and Leah (my namesakes) flew to Boise, ID to surprise my mom for her 70th birthday. I missed the reunion, but arrived a day later and what ensued was a weekend of hilarity, practical jokes, goofing around and talking for hours. It was SO much fun. I still cherish the video I took of Laurie jumping on the air mattress where my (very hungover) brother Doug was sleeping. Always joking around.
Not long after that visit, Laurie began experiencing symptoms of what would soon be diagnosed as ALS or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a progressive neurodegenerative disease. The disease affects the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. It attacks randomly and the symptoms vary widely. For Laurie, it meant losing her voice, ability to swallow, and, eventually, the ability to walk. It's a horrible, wasting disease that robs a person of their livelihood while often preserving their brain function so that they are completely aware of the progression of the disease. Other times, dementia becomes a symptom. It's quick and brutal, and often strikes people between the ages of 40 and 70. The mean survival time is 3-5 years. It robs people in the prime of their lives and extinguishes their light way too soon.
For me, I will miss her infections smile and her fun spirit. I will miss her peanut butter fudge, and the way her family was totally devoted to her before, during and after the disease. I will miss that I was never a part of that huge, extended family that held so many celebrations and who have always been there for one another, supporting each other, going to games, celebrating milestones - and though I was unable to be there physically, I loved seeing it all on Facebook. And every time I visited, I was always made to feel welcome and included. When I took my young family to visit, I fondly remember a night we stayed up until the wee hours just talking - Laurie, her husband Dirk, and me, holding my toddler son, jostling him to sleep. The three of us talked and talked and passed around the sleeping baby and caught up on years' worth of lost time.
Another time we visited and stayed with Laurie, my husband was so sick. As it turned out, he had pneumonia and slept away most of our family reunion. Laurie was so sweet and made sure he was comfortable and had a quiet place to sleep. A little over a year ago, the family was having a celebration for Laurie's birthday. I told my husband I really needed to be there. He agreed and we both flew out for a week-long trip that turned out to be so wonderful. Although Laurie could no longer speak, she had no problem communicating and she and I looked through pictures together for a long time. She wrote down recipes for me. She got up and made spaghetti for Isaac, her pasta-loving son, who ate her special spaghetti every day. Saying goodbye was especially hard because I knew it would probably be the last time.
And even though you know it's coming, it's never easy when death happens. The shock is still there and the disbelief that such a beautiful spirit would no longer inhabit this Earth. I am blown away by how many lives she touched. How many people go out of this world having made an impact on literally hundreds of lives? I'm told her funeral will be held at the high school because the whole county will be attending. I wish I could be there to witness that kind of outpouring of love and support. The world won't know the name Laurie Patton Walton like they know a celebrity or public figure. But she was a celebrity nonetheless - just try to find a person in her community who's heart isn't broken today. She was a star - in the best and brightest sense.
Life is so unfair. ALS sucks so much. And Laurie will be so very, very missed.