We entered the quiet house with the November wind. Aunt Bev's place felt altered; changed. We'd gathered for Thanksgiving, when it was always a home of joy. Now it was somber, dark, and bleak. Small groups of people huddled together, talking in hushed voices. Everyone turned to look at us as we entered, faces filled with sorrow for the emptiness that would soon be piercing our lives.
Gary moved forward to greet us. It'd been three years since I'd last been here, just before my wedding. Aunt Bev had been herself then; healthy and laughing, as she loved to do. He hugged me first, then Mom. The sadness in his heart aged him more than the passing of the years. "She's in her bedroom," he said, moving aside for us.
I thought I'd be OK; I was strong for Mom when my father died. But no amount of long distance phone calls could have prepared me for what I saw: my favorite aunt prostrate on her bed, more ravaged from the chemo than from the disease.
Doctors didn't make the proper diagnosis until it was too late and drastic measures had no hope of success. Her hair, always so well tended before, was ghostly--white and fragile and delicate. Her face, hands, and body were bloated so that I hardly recognized her.
Two steps into the room, I halted. This couldn't be the vibrant, loving woman I'd known all my life. I felt Mom's hand on my back, trying to give me strength. Hushed voices came from two cousins who sat at their mother's bedside. They shared sympathetic looks when they noticed my trauma in seeing Aunt Bev this way.
Now, she lay on her side, breathing shallowly, awake but not truly aware. My mother went to her sister's side, took her hand, and said gently, "Bev, Mary is here."
When my aunt looked up at my mom and spoke, her voice was delicate as a summer breeze. "Jean?"
"Yes, it's me," said Mom, patting the hand she held. "Mary is here to see you."
"OK." Her voice broke my paralysis and brought forth the tears I'd been fighting. Her voice didn't have the strong, upbeat manner I'd known and loved throughout my childhood. It was fragile, as ghostly as her hair.
Mom extended an encouraging hand. She knew how badly I wanted to move closer. I took a slow breath, and swallowed the tears; I didn't want Aunt Bev or her children to see me cry. I couldn't let her know my feelings; it was as if she wasn't aware that death was near and I didn't want to be the one who betrayed the secret. Only by freezing my emotions was I able to go to the bed and kneel on the floor by her side.
I took her hand. It was warm, distended, and incredibly soft, smooth as a baby's. I had to force myself to speak. "Hi, Aunt Bev. I love you."
My voice broke and my restraint failed. Loud sobs wrenched from deep within my chest. My shoulders heaved with the force of my sorrow, so that I could barely hear her reply. Tears flowed and I wouldn't let go of her hand to wipe them away. My mother patted my shoulder, letting me know she was still there. I laid my face on the mattress, mourning and aching inside. I no longer cared who saw me cry.
Softly, my mom asked her big sister, "Do you know why she's crying, Bev?"
"Because she's glad to see me," Aunt Bev answered, in a soft child-like innocence. Her hand stayed in mine, warm and soft, showing me the love she could no longer express in words.
I hadn't known how bad it was; how close she was to the end. It was only after seeing her for myself that I could admit that my Aunt Bev was dying. She was leaving us, quietly and forever. I'd never hear that wondrous, hearty laugh of hers again. Never watch her cooking in the kitchen for the whole clan. Never be able to enter her home again without a feeling of great loss and sorrow. I clung to her hand, unwilling to let go.
I knew I'd miss her for the rest of my life. Thanksgiving would never be the same.
In memory of my favorite aunt
July 9, 2002
by Starr Rathburn
Look at the shiniest star every night, you'll see your aunt's smiling face.
-- balm for my wound from a sweet gal, Humming bird-smiling! .
The love you share is never lost. - Michael Cannata
It's been over six years since Aunt Bev's death, but the pain lingers.
Thank you, Fic†iøn Diva †he Wørd Weava , for the awardicon, and for your kind words.
Featured in the Drama newsletter, May 2006.