Grieving the Living
My Aunt is dying.
She is the one I remember best of my father’s 6 sisters. She babysat me. Let me eat as many Mrs. Baird’s white bread and mayo sandwiches that I wanted. Let me stare at her bright red fingernails and fiddle with her jet black hair. She told me that I could do anything I put my mind to at a time when I doubted I could even survive adolescence.
For some reason I believed her, and although I didn’t act on that at the time and dropped out of school anyway, I eventually got a GED. I spent a couple of years as an EMT on the sweaty streets of Ft Worth, became a wife and mother and ended up many years later with a Master’s degree and so far a life lived with few regrets. I never forgot the look on her face when she told me she had faith in me and I never will.
I find her imminent exit from the mortal coil to be not only sad in and of itself but also a trigger for all the remaining grief of her brother, my father’s, untimely death that I’ve managed to keep at bay for 2.5-ish years. His was a senseless death from which I may never recover. This all then cascades into the death of my soul dog Scarlett, my other darling dogs Chloe, Bugsy and sweet, complicated Ivy all of whom died in an 18 month span of time between 2010 and 2012.
I can safely say Dad and Scarlett are tangled together due to timing and how these emotional events become a strange unresolved soup impossible to define or separate. Sort of like trying to make split pea soup back into single round peas. Can’t be done.
I drove the nearly 13 hours to Texas to see my Aunt so I could feel, cry and think unobserved by others. Sometimes Grief needs a Witness, sometimes when its old and dirty and consists of hard rocks that get stuck in the throat, it needs Solitude.
I didn’t do any of those things on the drive. I listened to NPR, ate peanut butter and raisin balls and watched the flat of Colorado transition to the flat of West Texas. I drank in the miles and miles of wildflowers, choked up a little at the sight of the Trinity River and the lush, green trees and lawns of Ft. Worth. I didn’t even feel very emotional on the drive. Not numb either. Just…not much of anything.
Instead I broke down in public, in the rose gardens of the Ft Worth Botanical Society, the last place on earth I wanted to display an emotion.
I don’t know if it was the beauty and the fact that my Aunt said she had asked God to see one more Spring when we all know God is not likely to overcome what her free will, genetics and a touch of Fate, has done to her body.
It might have been the heat which was oppressive even at 1030am. It might have been the hangover from dinner at my friend Sharna’s house, sitting for hours with red wine out back on her Magic Patio or the full moon or the knowledge that my father’s family is year by year disappearing from my view.
Whatever it was I was grateful that the rose gardens are so large that there are plenty of hiding spaces. If anyone noticed my dissolving they had the good sense which comes from being raised in the Southern states to politely avert ones eyes and walk slightly faster away from any public display such as mine.
It was if I’d been biking hard for miles, the speed of which keeps you dry and oblivious to pain until you stop. Then your legs are shaking up and down like they are typing the next Great American Novel and you are suddenly aware of all the aches that biking brings. You become instantly drenched and dripping with the sweat of your ride and there’s nothing you can do about it but wait for your body to calm down.
I guess the rose garden was my stopping point, the Willow tree my witness and the Magnolia tree my comfort and hope.
They don’t call women Steel Magnolias for nothin’. The Southern heat literally incinerates roses and other fragile blooms into brown dust while the Magnolia blooms on oblivious. Its waxy leaves are impervious to the wilting humidity and underneath the trees is a dense cool shade that smells earthy and intense. It comes of the rotting layers of golden leaves and dirt and spent blooms and is not at all unpleasant. The Magnolia in fact thrives and the trees grow as tall as skyscrapers.
The more the heat tries to destroy them the more beautiful they grow and the sweeter they smell.
As most grieving people know, in the back of my mind I’m aware this will pass. I know that grieving all the losses of the past and now my Aunt, will be chipped away over time. All I can do is bear the crush of the waves when they come, focus on the Magnolia and hope that I too can survive the heat with beauty and grace.
*my Aunt is farthest Left and my father is in the center.