I was walking one of my dogs when the phone call came. It was almost dusk. A beautiful sunset after an unseasonably warm day. Walking by the creek, I felt the damp coolness in the air that only comes from being near water derived from glaciers miles away.
I almost didn’t answer the phone, so sweet and still was the moment. I was feeling peaceful for the first time a long, long time. But it was my mom, and I hadn’t talked to her all week, so I took the call.
Isn’t it funny how you just know? As soon as you hear the voice, you know. Someone has died or is dying.
She is my mom, so she asked pleasantly after my daughters, how my weekend was, even how my dog was, before finally saying, with a catch in her words, that she had some bad news. My aunt — her only sister and my only aunt in the world — was in the hospital and not expected to survive the week.
I’ve lost a lot of people in my life, and it’s always the same: the words hang in the air and somehow I manage to say all the appropriate things. I asked after my mom, then my cousins. I listened while my mom cried and I made the sympathetic murmurs of reassurance that you make when someone’s grief is primary over your own. During our conversation, I finished my walk, let myself into my house, hung up with my mom, and transferred a load of wet laundry into the dryer. Then I stood in my foyer and tried to remember what I was supposed to do next.
Without thinking, I picked up the phone and dialed my old phone number. My youngest daughter answered and I asked to speak to my ex. As I explained to Bryce what was happening and how I might need to get on a plane on short notice to attend the funeral, I cracked. Before I knew it, I was slumped against the wall, choking out the words through sobs. He wasn’t the person I’d have chosen to lose my composure with but he handled it well and with compassion, thank God.
Since that phone call, I have pushed myself through my evening chores as if moving through molasses. I had forgotten how heavy this kind of grief is. How it settles on your heart like a rock.
And then the memories started. My aunt, whom I just spoke to on Thursday, is not yet dead, but my mind is already combing the recesses of my memory for all the clips that include her. And there are a lot of them.
In fact, my very first memory is of my aunt. I was standing at her kitchen counter as she chopped some kind of vegetable — I want to say carrots — for dinner. Her blonde hair was in a 1960’s style chignon, and a polyester dress with a large floral pattern hugged her perfect figure. She talked to me while she chopped and handed me pieces of vegetables every once in a while. I was so small that I couldn’t see over the counter… possibly age two? Three at the most.
As a young child, I thought her impossibly glamorous and beautiful. Her house in Southern California seemed like the coolest and most modern home imaginable. They had a trampoline 30 years before doing so was fashionable. My aunt was hipper than Mrs. Brady.
My aunt took me to Mexico for the first time when I was only about 7 and Ensenada was a yet-to-discovered tourist destination. Twenty years later, she took me to Cancun after I passed the bar exam, and introduced me to the resort we still go to every year.
The summer I was 16, Katrina and I went to her house for a week. I learned to drive a stick shift that week in a old Toyota Tercel whose transmission was, I’m sure, never the same again. As I slid out of her driveway, gears grinding and car lurching, my aunt stood on the sidewalk, smiling and waving us off, as if such automotive behavior was perfectly expected and acceptable.
My aunt helped me pick out my prom dress — a dreadful Jessica McClintock lavender and white concoction that looked like it came off the wardrobe truck for Gone With The Wind, but was surprisingly stylish for 1985. And it was while visiting her house a year later that I bought my first shockingly small bathing suit.
When my mom and I didn’t speak for several years, it was my aunt who tended to me, calling frequently, cheering me on, reminding me how much everyone loved me. And when my marriage ended, it was my aunt who reminded me all the time that lots of great people end up with failed marriages.
I will remember her laugh and her love of children and her beautiful eyes. I will remember how dogs delighted her and how she loved amusement parks and how good her cooking was. I will remember that she used to make homemade greeting cards for every occasion and that she always made everyone feel welcome at her house and that I was her only niece and therefore always special.
Over the next week, as her body gives up and her soul makes other plans, I will be, I am sure, inundated with memories of her. Her passing will remind me of my own mortality and how very soon it will be my generation that will be burying each other. I will move through my grief and tears and goodbyes and emerge in a world slightly altered by her absence.
Death necessarily follows life, but it also intrudes on it, cleaving a canyon through the lives remaining behind in its wake. And no matter how many times I wander through this particular canyon, the landscape never ceases to feel surreal, the air heavy, and the path rocky, my step all the less sure in the dimming light.