My aunt died two years ago tomorrow. It was a Saturday and the day my world ended and although I didn’t know it then, the day my whole life started. I wrote this the day after, posted it on You’ve Escaped, and never read it again. I got hundreds of emails and messages from people I didn’t even know expressing their condolences, their understanding at losing someone, their sympathy and empathy, their thankfulness for this essay. I was grateful and I grieved for a long time, there are days I still am, but I didn’t read this again. I opened it many times to try to and closed three words in. Last week, I finally read it for the first time since writing it, crying quietly at my office in the middle of the work day.
On Friday afternoon, I made baked mac n’ cheese and butterscotch cookies for my friends. As I puttered in the kitchen and waited to take things out of the oven, my grandma called me and told me that there was nothing else to be done, that she had been clinically dead since she had that last heart attack on September 22nd. I hung up the phone and listened to the beep of my oven as I rested my chin in my hands. I almost took the mac n’ cheese out of the oven without oven mitts. I brought the food to the home of my two dearest friends and hugged them close. I didn’t say a word about my aunt. There was a pitcher of some vodka concoction and then another; the three of us shared both until I at least was very drunk. I somehow got home that night and slept fitfully till morning.
I woke up yesterday morning and immediately began to cry, hiding my sobs in my dog Harley’s fur. They say dogs resemble their owners and Harley is the perfect example of this. When I’m anxious, she’s even more anxious. In that past three weeks, she has chewed her tail and paw raw, to the point that I had to take her to the vet for doggy Xanax and ointment for her wounds. I cried in the shower so I wouldn’t upset her.
When I was 14, on the exact day my parents filed for divorce, my grandparents’ much loved dog passed away. I took this as a sign of things to come and it only added to my anger about the situation. A few months later, my aunt convinced my dad to pay for half of a beautiful puppy she had seen in one of those puppy boutiques that were popping up everywhere. She brought me Harley and was pleased at the name choice.
“It’s because I drive motorcycles, right?” she grinned.
“No, because of Harley Quinn, like from Batman.” I hugged the 9 week ball of fur to me.
“Oh, well, fine,” she said with a smirk. “Every girl needs a dog and I figured you could use one now more than ever.” Harley always loved her and she’s been a wreck since she got sick.
And she wasn’t lying, she did ride motorcycles, and whitewater raft and skydive and anything else people who were diabetic since the age of 2 with a score of other health problems were told they couldn’t do. She taught me, the clumsy girl with glasses, how to ride a motorcycle; that marker is still on my license thanks to her. I grew up thinking there was nothing she couldn’t do and it was mostly true.
I drove to the hospital yesterday still crying. I tend to be a crier, I cry at movies, songs, books but they tend to be elegant tears that stream down my face quietly, not the sobs of childhood. This was like that. I listened to More Adventurous in the car and realized it was more about death than I had realized. I parked and slowly made my way up the hill to the main entrance of the hospital. I got it together as I was getting my nametag and I kept it that way on the elevator to ICU. I walked the loop to her room and as soon as I neared the doorway, I began to cry. My aunt’s best friend hugged me and held me close for a bit. Two of my grandma’s dearest friends rubbed my arms and whispered soothing things in Spanish. They hadn’t seen me in a while and half expected a little girl to walk in. Regardless, everyone in the room still referred to me as la niña.
I asked my grandma if I could be alone with my aunt and she said of course. She has been so strong through all of this and I have no idea how. She scooted everyone out the door and I sat next to my aunt. I lifted the blanket and took her hand, the fingertips already beginning to turn black from lack of circulation. I cried like a child and said so many things, everything I would want to say. I begged and bargained.
Please don’t leave me. You promised you wouldn’t leave me ever. A week before this happened, you hugged me and told me that you would go with me to find a wedding dress if my mother was at her worst as usual. You told me not to be worried about the future, that you would always be there. When I worried about far off things like giving birth to a baby, you said you would be there if I had a husband who fainted, that you would be tough for me and that I was tough, too. You were excited to pamper my future babies and you hoped they would have my hair. If you wake up right now, I will let you have the flower on my or any birthday cake this year. You always want it and get pissed when I get it because I’m the baby. Remember that time when I was ten, we went to Miami Seaquarium and I was wearing those turquoise corduroy Bongo shorts and when they got splashed at the whale show, the dye dripped down my legs and you laughed and called me a Smurf? Or that same trip, how I begged you to buy me fish to feed the sea lions and then I didn’t want to touch it because it was one fish cut into four pieces and not four little neat fishes? You threw them in, you’ve never been squeamish like me. I’m sorry that I stepped on your toes a lot when I was learning to walk in heels in those awful Candies wooden sandals. You said you couldn’t really feel it because of your bad circulation but I know you could. Thank you for getting me drunk the first time in my life and as a result showing me how to deal with a hangover. I know you’re tired and that your body is exhausted but if you could wake up right now it would be the best thing ever. We want you to come back so badly and I know you’re so tired and it’s selfish of me to ask but I don’t think we’re strong enough for this and you need to wake up and yell at me and tell me to get it together.
These are things I can remember saying through sobs before breaking down into more sobs. My grandma came back in and sat next to me and hugged me.
“She promised she would be there, and I know it’s not her fault but why can’t she be?”
“She wanted to and she stayed as long as she could,” my grandma said as she cried into my hair and stroked it.
I stayed right there for the next three hours as we waited for the doctor to give the final okay to turn off life support. I took out tweezers from my purse and tweezed her eyebrows. She was disciplined and rigid about them and I knew she’d never want anyone to see her with them unkempt. I removed each hair to protect her, in an attempt to make people avert their eyes, even if it wasn’t why they were staring at all. I wanted nothing more than to put my body between hers and what happening, to watch over her how she had watched over me my whole life.
My grandparents signed the papers to remove medication and we sat and watched as her pulse and blood pressure began to slowly drop. I sat right there with my head on the side of the bed and held her hand in mine. My aunt’s best friend and my grandma’s best friend were there with us till the end. I forgot how soothing it could be to have someone stroke your hair when you’re upset. My aunt used to do that for me when I was really little.
My mom and dad and stepmom weren’t there, they had come earlier to see her but they couldn’t be there when she died. I don’t blame them, it’s hard to watch someone you love die. Not everyone is strong enough to be a witness to that and it’s nothing you can fault someone for. When the doctor gave the order, the nurse asked us to step out so the respiratory therapist could remove the tube from her throat. That would be it. I heard them remove it in the hallway and when they opened the door again, I was the first person back to her side, my grandparents on the other side of the bed.
“How long will it take?” I asked the nurse who had tears in her eyes.
“It’s hard to say, it’s different with everyone.” She had taken care of my aunt countless times before and I was glad she was there.
Her chest wasn’t rising and falling anymore, and her stats began to drop on the screen next to me. I began to sob uncontrollably. My grandma was talking to my aunt in a low voice, saying goodbye, and my grandpa, who I’ve never seen shed a tear in his life, was crying his eyes out. I wrapped my arms around my aunt and she was still. I kissed her forehead as I sobbed. I’m not exaggerating when I say I’ve never cried like that before, sobbing to the point that I had to let go. My grandma’s best friend stood behind me in fear that my legs would buckle under me. I was crying as I hugged my aunt again and I hoped she would just open her eyes again. The nurse looked at me.
“If she hears you sobbing like that, she won’t go,” she said. “I’ve seen it before.”
It took everything inside me to control myself but I quieted myself somehow and whispered, “See you later, Tata,” into her hair. Her heart was at 40 BPM and as soon as I whispered that and quieted down, it dropped to zero. She was gone.
Everyone else in the room began to cry but I just kept holding her. Her skin was already cool and I kissed her forehead over and over. I finally let go when the nurse needed me to be a witness to papers my grandparents had to sign for the release of her body. It feels weird to say her body when a few weeks ago, she was this whole person I loved. I signed the papers and explained some of the other papers to my grandparents. The nurse put her hand on my arm when I was done.
“Do you want to keep the bear we gave her after surgery?” she said. This hospital, like a lot of hospitals I believe, give their patients a bear after they have surgery for some reason.
“You should have it,” my grandma said.
“Yeah, I’ll get it,” I said.
I pulled back the curtain and walked back into her room, jumping when I saw her. In five minutes, I’d forgotten she was dead and it shocked me again. I took the bear under one arm and leaned in again to kiss her cheek. They would be picking her up soon to be cremated, she didn’t want a funeral. I will be going on a family friend’s boat soon to spread her ashes in the Atlantic Ocean.
“I won’t do anything you wouldn’t do,” I whispered to her body, repeating her favorite phrase back to her.
In the hallway, my grandparents were ready to go. They said they were okay to drive. They both hugged me for a very long time. It’s unnatural for parents to live longer than their child, it’s just not right.
“She would have been very proud of you today,” my grandpa said. “You may not know it but you’re as strong as she is or stronger.” He kissed my cheek.
“She didn’t go until she couldn’t hear you anymore,” my grandma told me. “You know she wouldn’t have left you on purpose, she loved you so much. She was waiting for you to let her go.”
I called and texted everyone I needed to tell on the drive home and I picked up tons of food to cook for my grandparents and the rest of the family that would be congregating soon. It’s too soon to lose anyone but when I think that she fought and really fought and really lived her 37 years on earth, I know she had more of a life than most people I know. She battled juvenile diabetes, kidney failure, a bad heart, uterine cancer, and other smaller things for as long as she could and damn it, no one could have done what she did under those circumstances.
She was my protector, my bulldog, my rock, my constant source of wisdom, my sister, mother, aunt, best friend, and anything else I needed her to be. She was strong when I needed someone to be strong for me and as a result she taught me how to do the same. I am grief-stricken and my heart will always have a hole that aches for her but I feel so strong at the same time. Is that strange to say? I know that if I can let her go, I can do anything I want to do. She really enjoyed my writing and this blog. I’m pretty sure there’s a storybook I wrote in second grade in her belongings. I know she would have liked my future husband, and she would have loved my future books and babies. I don’t know if I’ll ever entirely heal from this but I know I will live my life in a way that would make her proud.
I slept with Harley and the bear from the hospital last night; I did not feel alone.
I don’t think I’d be who I am if I hadn’t lost my aunt when I did. It shook me, it woke me, it made me feel for the first time in years. I carry her with me every day, I carry her love with me. I love the way she did and I’m open to life the way she was, the way she taught me to be, open to the best things as well as the possibility of hurt. She tried to tell me that for a long time when my heart was closed and I didn’t believe her, I couldn’t until I lost her. I don’t know that I would have been able to reconcile with my mom, start a new career, have the relationships I have now, fall in love with my person before that. She loved me the way I needed to be loved, she got me ready for my life and all the things to come.
The night Ian asked me to marry him, he told me he wanted to have children with me, that he wanted to have a daughter with me and that he wanted to name her after my aunt, that he could see her in me even though he never met her, from the way I lived and loved. I knew then that even if I couldn’t call her anymore, especially on that day, she wasn’t entirely gone. It never stops hurting, the big losses never do, it becomes a part of your bones. It rips you apart and leaves you to figure out what to do next. It becomes a part of who you are and runs through your life like thread, coloring everything you are and do. It has informed how I choose to live, what I do, how I love. You will ache and you will hurt but you will be feeling, remembering how much love there was and how much there still is; death can never touch that. You heal and the wound closes, becoming a scar to remind you how precious things are and how well you were loved, how well you can love if you let yourself.