Posted by: caryandjohn | September 25, 2012

You Are My Sunshine …

Happy Birthday, Dear Rita Anne

Happy Birthday, Dear Rita Anne

(Rita Anne’s sister-in-law, Catherine, wrote this wonderful remembrance of Rita, and read it at the memorial service in Princeton, NJ, on September 22, 2012 … if you click on the birthday cake pic, it will take you to the original post on Cath’s website …)

Rita Anne Sweeney Ehmann September 23, 1965 – August 9, 2012

It is such a heartbreak to be standing here today. When I first met Rita more than 25 years ago, I was initially intimidated. She was my boyfriend’s little sister but she was a couple of years older than I was and I knew she had teased Mark about me visiting. On arrival, she treated me like a close friend and made the visit so easy. During the summer of ‘86, the two of us were working in D.C. and while Mark wasn’t around we discovered that we really were like sisters.

A couple of years later we toured Italy together, dodging one amorous Italian after another in Rome and always opting to eat dinner alone on our hotel balcony and talk. I remember we arrived in Venice too late to check in by the 10 o’clock deadline set by the convent where we had made a reservation to stay the night. We wound our way through the streets and finally stood in front of an enormous wooden door, where everything was dark. Rita said confidently “We are just going to have to stand here and knock hard on this door until somebody comes, even if we wake up a nun.” Moments later we followed a very terse nun down a long corridor where she plunked us alone into a room that resembled a hospital ward and was filled with thousands, maybe millions of mosquitos. I believe I was whimpering but Rita was resolute. From under her sheet she said “Cath? Sleep with your mouth closed.”

That was the thing about Rita, her absolute certainty, her confidence. I never found reason to doubt her about anything.

It wasn’t long before she stood with me when Mark and I married and declared “Now we really are sisters.” Life got busy with us having a family and her tackling medical school but over the years Rita and I grew closer and I turned to her often. Whether she was calmly telling me that yes, Heather would need stitches or carving Evan’s dinosaur birthday cake for me when I was unsure of the cuts, I marveled at her ability to just “know” most everything.

When her Mom was desperately ill she knew how much we needed her and arrived here in Princeton to stay. Rita brought her cat, Jackson, along on the plane and made us all laugh when she told us that half way across the country there was an announcement about a cat found sitting in an empty seat in row 11 and the owner should retrieve it. She said that she had wondered from her seat in row 26 what would happen if she pretended she didn’t have a cat. Rita and I spent a lot of time together over those difficult weeks and deepened our bond. We developed a rhythm to our whispered conversations and long walks with our arms linked that we would come to depend on.

When her Mom passed away I think Rita’s confidence did waiver, and with her guard down she whispered her misgivings to me. As much as she loved being a doctor she was tired of her independence and admitted to wanting a family of her own. She didn’t want her Mom to be gone either. I was emphatic that her Mom wasn’t gone, just that we had to be open to try and understand new ways of knowing her. It was only a month or so later we were on a hike together during a trip out west and as we reached the summit I found her looking at the ground rather than the view. There was a rugged rock in the perfect shape of a heart and she was weeping. We have each found many unexpected hearts over the years just when we needed them and often called to share the latest discovery. When she met Charley, we imagined her Mom had been hard at work to find him. They were perfect for each other and wasted no time getting married and adding to their family. In a whirlwind Rita surpassed us and found herself with a big family of her own. She relished every aspect of it. Her wish had come true and she was elated.

As devastating as it is that she won’t grow old with Charley and that she will miss seeing the children grow up, I can’t help but feel that they are her triumph. She did get to smell their heads, hold their hands and be their mommy. With the heart of a lion and the love of her family at her back, she faced her grim diagnosis. She left no stone unturned and she did beat some of the odds. She once said to me that just because you bring an umbrella with you it doesn’t mean you have succumbed to the rain. She walked the heroic line of being a full time warrior who had to carry an umbrella and God walked with her. She bravely made a home for her family despite wondering if she would be in it with them and Charley said that there was never a time that a smile did not come across her face when she heard the sounds of the children from her bed.

Their house is adjacent to a seminary with a bell tower. Rita walked up there nearly every day, sometimes calling me while she rested at the top of the hill. If the bells sounded while we were talking we would both hush to hear them. One day, not so long ago, she laughed and told me that when she is with the kids and they hear the bells from the house she hugs them and whispers that the bells are telling them that their Mommy loves them. She does love them and I believe that they will grow up knowing it. For the rest of us, we will have to be open to try and understand new ways of knowing my dear sister, Rita.


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