Despite having minor panic attacks of who to choose (I am surrounded by amazing women every day, including my mother, sisters and closest friends) there was one woman unlike any I have every met.
Her name was Irena.
I lived with her in London, England in the summer of 2005.
She was my great aunt - wife to my grandmother's brother.
Remarkable doesn't even begin to describe this woman and despite how difficult it would be to summarize her life and her ... amazingness, I am going to quickly give you a glimpse (seriously, a teeny, tiny glimpse) into an unforgettable life, and even these tid bits will not do her life any justice.
Born in the eastern part of Poland in 1917, Irena would eventually move to France and study medicine. WWII broke out while she was living in France - and thank God for that because no one else in her family managed to survive the war.
To escape, she planned to go to the UK. She walked for 17 days until she reached the port and tried to get on board a ship headed to England. There was a big storm and the boats weren't letting women on. Having made friends with some soldiers, Irena put her long, long braids in a bundle on top of her head, slapped a soldier's cap on it along with a soldier's uniform and snuck on to the boat with the rest of the soldiers.
You now know how she arrived in England.
Sometime after, Irena became a live-in-maid in a women's house in London. She would serve strawberries and cream and biscuits to her employer's writer friends who would come to the house and talk about literature. One of these friends happened to be George Orwell, but Irena had no idea who this man was at the time.
Later on in life when she was a doctor and wife, she would travel with her husband to Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), in Africa and work as the country's main health care providers for fourteen years. They entertained the Queen, Dukes and other important people visiting the country and the region. She spoke very nonchalantly about these dinners.
Over those fourteen years they travelled back and forth from Africa to Europe many times and each time it took them about three months journey, in one direction, primarily by boat.
Later on in life, my aunt and her husband divorced. He developed schizophrenia and couldn't work, but refused to take a government disability pension. For eighteen years my great-aunt worked and supported them both, paying for both their mortgages, food etc., until his death.
In the late 80's Irene was diagnosed with kidney cancer. She was given two weeks to live and until she managed to find an Australian doctor who was willing to operate, no one would. She would get cancer a second time in her second kidney a decade later and survive again.
When I went to live with her in 2005,my great-aunt was 88 years-old. She was still living on her own in her apartment - except for a woman who would come in and vacuum for her and chit-chat once a week. Every day she was in a lot of pain. Getting dressed each morning was an arduous task because it hurt to lift her arms. Her body was old and frail and unbelievably small; she moved slowly. Yet, every day I woke up to go to work, there she was, sitting on the couch, dressed. She had made me breakfast. Try as I might, she refused to let me do it myself.
Irena told me all of these stories many times while I stayed with her - all of which she would repeat, even twice in an afternoon. Her short-term memory was slowly failing, but the stories each time, were exactly the same. Those memories from decades past were vivid in her mind and you could see it in her eyes.
Two months after I came home from London that year, my great-aunt passed away. I cried. A lot. I still get teary when I think of her, but she was just waiting for peace. She was ready to go and had been for a long time. I think God must have kept her around here just so I could spend those few months with her. (Greatly appreciated.)
What she achieved in her 88 years I can only dream of - but I will always strive to have her goodness, determination and resilience.