She used to drink Tab and smoke cigarettes, and she’s the first woman I ever knew who did a “man’s job.” If she hadn’t been in my family, meeting somebody like her might have come much later in my life — if at all.

But lucky for me, my Aunt Ann has been my champion and hero from the get-go. And I’m convinced she buried some deep kernel of kick-ass deep inside my soul that helped me escape the suffocating patriarchy of my past.

Pretty sure she planted the seed when she ran me through the Apgar circuit as a newborn. She traced my skin, counted my breaths, palpated my belly, flashed a penlight in my eyes, and gifted me with the gumption to defy limits and break free.

She was a first-year med student, and I was her live little anatomy lab. She was also an artist, and I became her model at four months when she sketched me in charcoal. I still have the portrait — subtle shading, curled edges — a study in parchment perched on my living room shelf.

Years later, she molded dolls for a hobby after long, heartbreaking hours at the hospital. Those dolls were her escape. She pressed clay with deft and delicate hands — tiny for a formidable 5’10 female. (Story has it the nurses always tried to hand her Large gloves. She wore Small.) She created the entire cast of A Christmas Carol for my 7th grade Language Arts class because she knew we were reading the book.

She made the six hour trek from Tupelo so my students could see them and pass them around. A trip just for my students. Just for me.

Now, she’s grown pale and turned to parchment, her skin yellow and paper thin. Her chin has tumbled in crepe folds on her neck. Her shoulders are sharp and folded like origami. Her eyes are discs, lined pale and gray. The thoughts behind them are fragile. They crumble and tear when pushed.

This is a tragedy. Ann had a mind like none I’d ever known. Sharp. Eidetic. Sherlock Holmes and Spenser Reed in female physician form. But she wasn’t created by a British crime novelist or a Hollywood script writer. She was created by God to break barriers and save lives. When she graduated with her medical degree in 1969, she was one of only two women in her class. She has always defied limits.

Ann suffered a heart attack while I was pregnant with our boys. Mike and I were driving home from Texas when I got the news. We’d just crossed the Mississippi when Aunt Jan, her twin, called.

“Ann’s dying,” she said, and her words punched the air from my lungs.

When I could breathe again, I announced I was going to Ann. “I’m outside Vicksburg. I can get to her in no time.” No time turned out to be four hours. We pulled into the hospital — her hospital, where she’d run ER night shifts for decades. Her kingdom. But she wasn’t in her kingdom. She was in a bed in a backless gown behind a curtain with a ceiling track in the CCU.

Her eyes were not their normal gray blue like water flickering over river stone, processing everything so fast. They were black water ponds, dark dark as pitch. Maybe she’d been given something that dilated them. Or maybe they’d seen something of the unknown and hereafter. Either way, they were haunting.

She took my arm in her hands and clutched it tight and peered into me eyes for a long, long while. No words. No movement. Just a long steady gaze from the depths of black eyes. It felt like goodbye. I told Mike that as we left, I was certain she had just said goodbye.

Over six years later, and she’s still here. Still, it was no doubt a goodbye. Because when they cracked her chest, they also cracked something in her mind.

She pulled through, but her memories and words float free of context and command. Her tongue flutters like a fly strip hoping to catch them. Every now and then, she gets lucky — snags part of a sentence, sputters fragments. But in no time, she’s lost and lonely again.

I’ve seen her three times since that October. Each new meeting, she is frailer, smaller, this larger-than life legend. She’s curling in on herself, chin toward throat, fingers toward palms, shoulders toward that cracked-sternum scar. Folding and curling inward. But her strength to defy limits remains.

I got word this morning that she’s in the hospital. Her wife is home alone. I don’t know what the next few hours or days may bring. I do know that she and Pat are strong and fierce and have battled prejudice, the patriarchy, pit bulls (yes, literally — and in the last month!) and the ravages of disease. They are separated from each other. I am separated from them. I feel helpless. There’s not much I can do and my heart cracks with the ache.

But I can pray. And I can ask all of you to pray too. Pray for these beautiful women in my life. These women who have shaped me, who’ve taken me in and listened to me, who’ve taught me how unconditional, unconventional love is worth pursuing and worth living. And who reminded me to always dig deep into my soul to find that kickass my Aunt Ann planted there so many years ago. So no one takes advantage or control of me and my dreams ever again.

ILY, Aunt Ann and Aunt Pat. ILY super very — so very super — very much a lot.