Today would have been my Theia Tina's 87th birthday. It's hard to believe that a week ago we already observed her 40-day mnemosino (memorial service). Hard to believe because I still feel her presence with me every day.
The day before Tina passed, my niece Carli gave our family a new life: my great nephew Jace. When I heard the news of his birth, I wondered what he would learn if one day he asked about this great, great aunt with whom he shared this earth so briefly.
If he asked his cousins Gus and Niko, he'll hear of her great generosity. When Kelly asked each of the boys separately what they remembered about her, Gus said, "She gave us stuff you guys never do." Niko added, "She gave us candy all the time." Both observations are 100% true.
But there's more to the story. If Jace ever asks me, I'll share with him the stories of her that I'll always cherish.
Like how as a kid, I'd sit in my yia yia's driveway on Saturday afternoons, waiting for the bus to pull over across the street and Tina to step off, a wide smile on her face and a small gift for me under her arm. I honestly don't remember a single Saturday afternoon in my younger years when she didn't bring me something: a coloring book, a word find book, some candies. We'd spend the rest of the day playing games Theia Mimi and I had made up. It didn't matter what we did, she was simply there to spend the weekend with her family.
Maybe this incredible importance on family stemmed from the fact that the Studebaker taxi cab in which she was born was parked out side her Theia Kula's house, and it was in that house she was first taken. Maybe that explains how she could create and nurture a relationship with her cousin, Mary Kostopoulos, whom she never met in person. As if that minor detail could have made a difference!
I'll tell Jace how Theia Tina possessed more Orthodox Christian faith in a single minute of any day than most of us ever conjure up in a lifetime. Theia Tina never lost faith of what may happen - especially the hope that her vision would be restored. And frankly, she knew more about Orthodoxy, our history, traditions and dogma than many a priest I've known! But she shared her knowledge with humility and kindness.
Theia Tina was incredibly generous. I don't think I've ever really told anyone beyond my parents that during my four years of college, I never once paid for a book. Tina budgeted herself to give me money every quarter to buy books. She had a very limited income herself, yet she sacrificed to provide for me. She always made sure I had a little spending money - pleading with me to concentrate on my "studies" rather than get a job. And I always had a standing dinner date when my schedule required me to be at the U after 5:00. I cannot even hear the words "Lamb's Grill" without thinking of her.
Thoughtful isn't a strong enough adjective to describe someone who never missed sending a birthday card, or calling on an anniversary or name day. Not to mention the fact that she was kind enough to call everyone else in the family to gently remind them of the fact it was their third cousin's husband's birthday.
And man-oh-man, how she was a living, breathing, walking history book of the Greek community. But beware! Simply asking "Ever heard of John Doe-opolous?" could lead to a 30 minute lineage of his second cousin's wife's brother's son's grandson's girlfriend, who you used to sit next to in English class!" OK, maybe not quite that detailed...but close. Of course, for me, that was the fun of it!
I'll tell Jace how incredibly courageous Theia Tina was! Imagine the fear of gradually losing your sight - each year seeing a little less until only a pinpoint of vision - at just the right angle - was available. Yet, Tina lived on her own. She was active in community groups. She had more of a social life than most women half her age! She wished she could see better, she wished the deterioration would stop. But never, ever, in 45 years did I hear her say, "why me?" She simply accepted the burden with dignity and grace.
Oh! How proud she was of being Greek! And how proud she made me feel of that too! I loved to speak Greek with her, my warts on it and all. It's funny. I remember taking Greek in high school. One day my teacher said to the class, "Listen to the way Chris just said that! Even with his limited Greek, you can hear his Arcadian accent." When I shared this news with Theia Tina, she flew to my defense, arguing how in the hell did that woman think I would say it? I am Arcadian!
And the Greek organizations benefitted immensely from her participation. Her devotion to the Daughters of Penelope was darn right fanatical. And therein lies the charm. How proud she was - no, how proud she is of my cousin Joanne's participation and leadership in the Daughters. And when I moved back to Salt Lake City, and decided that if we're going to be here for the next 10-15 years, I should put down some roots, and I joined those Greek organizations, I simply needed to say, "I'm Tina Katis' nephew" to ensure my nomination. She was proud of me for becoming involved, and offered her advice about a successful membership. And I teased her that I was riding her skirt tails. She loved it!
Yes, there were silly things she did - like save her tax filing from 1969...for 40 years! And her nephews teased her that if Hallmark made a card for it, she'd observe it by sending one. But she had that amazing ability to laugh at herself. When I pulled that tax return out of her filing cabinet, read it to her and said, "Theia, I don't think you're going to be audited on this," she nearly fell off of her chair laughing!
Tina was incredibly accepting as well. She showed that with her love for the boys. My Lord, how she adored my sons. Niko never failed to make her crack her up - he was her admitted favorite. Gus was her pride and joy. So, imagine my heart when Tina went to the hospice, and made me promise her one thing: "Please, don't let the boys forget me." How could I? How could they? How can you forget someone like her? You don't.
She loved Kelly like another nephew, and she really liked him and enjoyed him as a person, too. Her parting advice to me was so moving, so powerful because it was about Kelly and me. She said for us to live our lives with pride and dignity; there was nothing to ever be ashamed of.
The one last attribute I'd share is Tina's love for birds of prey - especially eagles. She admired these animals for their amazing eyesight. I mention this because Theia recognized symbols. So it was fitting that the last day of her life, early in the morning, I was standing in the atrium looking at the yard next to her room, when I saw a small hawk swoop down and just, well, stand, in front of the French doors leading to her room. Tina would have loved it - she would have really loved the symbolism.
A few, short hours later as I held her hand, I leaned close to her ear and whispered "s'agapo para, para poli" (I love you very, very much) it was the way I've said goodbye to her every day for years. But rather than her usual, "episis" (you too), there was the slightest squeeze of my hand, and she was gone. She started her life knowing she was loved, and I'm so deeply grateful that she ended her life knowing it too.
I guess if Jace ever asks me, I'll simply tell him that Theia Tina was always there for me. Plain and simple. She was always there for everyone she loved. And I think she always will be. Today after church, Kelly, the boys and I took some flowers to her grave in honor of her birthday. I lit incense over her grave, and sang "memory eternal" (in Greek, like she taught me). As I cleaned up, Gus pointed to the sky and said, "Hey look, a hawk!" Like I said, Jace, Theia Tina was always there for us, and always will be.
May her memory be eternal.