In the past six months, I have lost one aunt and one uncle. My aunt’s death was sudden and unexpected, and my uncle’s—let’s just say he plowed for decades through almost every illness, curse, and disease under the sun, until last Sunday.
Earlier last week, on Tuesday, my mom and I flew to the East Coast to spend time with my cousins and widowed Uncle G.—whom we had traveled to in September, in a state of total shock. Everyone was doing their best to fill this springtime visit with fun and laughter and hoagies, when we got the news we’d better get to Delaware if we wanted to say “goodbye” to Uncle K.
Mom and I headed south.
Prior to last year, I had never experienced the death of a loved one. Lucky me, I know. Three of my grandparents died before I was five years old, and my mom’s mom died when I was in high school. My mom had moved us into her home so that she could take care of her. I saw my grandmother fade slowly, but was not present in the hospital. I didn’t make it cross country in time in September, for my aunt.
Last week then, was the first time I witnessed someone go from being (kept) alive, to taking his final breath. I hadn’t seen this uncle in ages, but memories of a childhood spent close to him kicked in clear and hard as I watched his chest rise and fall, called him “kid,” and kissed his forehead.
Uncle K. had owned a flower shop in South Jersey. I loved going in there as a kid, not only for the mini-cactus he would always give me to take home, but also for the hodgepodge lushness of the place. The flowers, of course, filled the air with sweetness and color… but the place smelled too of dirt and of the sea-salt shore. I loved walking into the refrigerator case full of baby’s breath and cold roses in crystal vases. I loved the carousel of little cards set next to the cash register that people could pick to jot down something quick on: for love and friendship, for graduation and gratitude, for birthdays and Mothers’ Days, and yes, for death. I’m so sorry.
One summer in high school, I delivered flowers for my uncle. What a job—everyone is happy to see the flower delivery girl! (I wasn’t sent to funerals.)
My uncle leaves behind an aunt who has dementia. Watching her at my uncle’s bedside tore a bigger hole in all of us than my uncle’s departure itself. On the drive down to Delaware, I had no idea how I was going to talk to my aunt, but of course, once I saw her, that feeling of utter cluelessness (and fear) fell away. All that came through was love. I had been missing her.
I missed her.
I was missing her, even though she was right there in front of me.
I hugged my aunt and held her hand and asked if she remembered the time my sister and I got snowed in at their place and built an igloo; the time my college boyfriend and I tried to do archaeology in their woods but got attacked, repeatedly, by ticks; the time my grandmother told me she’d take me over her knee if she ever caught me taking more than one sip of wine (Oh, Grandmom—how cute)!
At one point, when I was telling my aunt about my mother (her sister) drinking more than her usual one glass of wine at my wedding in Paris, my aunt thought I was talking about their mother: “Oh, she studied French as a girl. I bet she had the time of her life there with you.” (I had been telling her that my mom started studying French after I got married, assuming she would have a French-speaking grandchild). Did my aunt think I was my mother then? Qui sait. Mom and I realized on the drive back north that she had not called anybody by name.
Ah, memory and marriage, death and grief—qui sait?
I am collaborating right now with a woman on her memoir. She is talking to me about how becoming a widow at an earlier-than-average age changed her. Every other week, I create for her a list of questions, we spend time on the phone talking things over, and I build chapters around her words, her stories, her life. The week before I flew east, we worked through the morning she found her husband dead.
This “job” I have, of honoring her experiences, would leave me speechless probably, if I could not write.
Since January, this woman and I have been confronting grief together. We both cry—sometimes on the phone together, sometimes during writing or reading, sometimes right after a good laugh, and sometimes, for me anyway, at the most mundane moments. My aunt and I rarely cooked together, but for some reason, when I’m headed out to go food shopping, or when I’m preparing a meal, I’ll lose it.
And although this client—this friend now—has “worked through” her grief for five years and has rebuilt a wonderful life, I guess I am in the early stages of learning what many have already figured out: Grief moves eternally, in waves. It is rose petals, birdseed, or one photo out of fifty others.
It is a child saying, “I miss him/her.”
It is petting a cat you rescued together from beneath a tree, it is a model ship, it is a marble.
It is a conversation you had, or the one you never had.
It is the conversation you wish you could have right this moment–with the aunt that is gone and with the aunt that is going.
Talking to Grief
Ah, Grief, I should not treat you
like a homeless dog
who comes to the back door
for a crust, for a meatless bone.
I should trust you.
I should coax you
into the house and give you
your own corner,
a worn mat to lie on,
your own water dish.
You think I don’t know you’ve been living
under my porch.
You long for your real place to be readied
before winter comes. You need
your collar and tag. You need
the right to warn off intruders,
my house your own
and me your person
my own dog.