I wrote this three years ago today, went searching for it here only to realize I had never published it on The Frozen Moon at all, only on Facebook.
In memory of my Aunt Karen, whose house was always open for me, so many long nights of my adolescence, who held my hand and whispered “ziti” to me on her deathbed (as one of her favorite “z” words in a game of Quiddler), whose laugh I can still hear and whose company I still miss.
I’ve only seen it once, a black and white photograph of high school girls linked arms, up in the stands of a sporting event, legs kicking in unison. It’s my mother and her sisters in a yearbook snapshot, something I must have seen when I was young enough for the thought of my mother being in high school to make an indelible imprint on my psyche.
I thought of it last month, the night before my birthday, as we all went running at the call of a hospice worker – my aunt wouldn’t make it through the night. She did. And the picture haunted me like a dream and I began to wonder if I was even recalling something real at all. My mother assured me it was real, it was them, she and her sisters, smiling faces and kicking legs forever frozen in the wave of a crowd, some afternoon decades ago.
I thought of it this morning, as we sang Sweetly Broken in church.
At the cross you beckon me,
draw me gently to my knees and I am lost for words, so lost in love,
I am sweetly broken, wholly surrendered.
And I thought of my aunt, still alive and fighting; for breath, for nourishment, for days to live and see her sons and grandchildren. I imagined her and thought of us all, fighting and struggling, when we can be so much freer on our knees.
I thought of the same picture this afternoon as I drove to hug my mother, to see my cousins, to view the finally forever resting body of my aunt, still curled on her side in her bed. The curves of her bones pushing up beneath a blanket, she looked like a child napping. She looked as though she could stir at any moment.
But the fact that that picture, that teenaged image of her was in my mind bothered me. I can’t pretend to remember her as through the eyes of her sisters, who were her confidants and co-conspirators, her memory keepers and secret holders. I can’t mourn for my aunt as they do, just as I can’t mourn for her as my Memere does – losing a child, a baby she has held, a daughter she has nurtured through sleepless nights and broken hearts, through torment and triumph. I can’t mourn for her as her sons will, or her husband, or her grandchildren who will grow up learning of her through stories and photographs, like the black and white one etched in my brain.
I want to remember her as my aunt who made me macaroni and cheese and helped me clean mud pies off my palms in the cool water of her bathroom sink. My aunt who smelled like coffee and cigarettes – and who is the only person I have ever seen order liver and onions at a diner, who was always particular with her hash browns at Bickford’s. I remember her as sitting at the head of her dining table, playing a game, casting a mischievous grin and appreciating my mother’s puns. I remember her door as always open, her couch always free. I want to remember her as my home away from home, as the woman in the beautiful hat, smiling beside me in her wheelchair in my wedding photographs.
So why this image? Why this impossible picture of her, of this girl I can never claim to have known?
I wondered this driving home tonight, thinking of the snippets of conversations we had around her living room, between waves of tears, her body still in the back bedroom. She’s watching over us now, she’s without pain, she’s free, she’s floating.
And it hit me.
This picture of her, standing, kicking her leg in the air, youthful exuberance like I have never seen from her wheelchair bound body. This is where she is now.
My aunt, she’s free.
And I will praise God for that.