Maturity doesn’t happen to everyone. People choose to mature of their own free will.
As for me, I had no control of what would make me grow up. In fact, maybe if I could go back in time, I would’ve chosen to stay more naive than go through that situation again. But now, I know I would think otherwise.
Aunt Yulien was an ordinary woman, a humble housewife. However, at the same time, she was much more. She was a loving wife, mother, sister, mentor, and a second mother to me, even though we weren’t related by blood. She was the one that took care of me when no one else could, the one that taught me more lessons from her own experience than a textbook had. She was a warrior of her own right.
One day after my cello lesson, Aunt Yulien was waiting outside my teacher’s door, car’s door hanging ajar. She looked fairly normal, albeit a bit tired. The day was quite similar to the days before it; I bid her thank you and goodbye after the half hour drive back to my house. I watched her car make its way back to her house one block away. Ordinary.
That day, I never would have known that Aunt Yulien was diagnosed with leukemia.
My friend came to school the next day with a tear streaked face, repeating My mom has cancer my mom has cancer my mom has cancer. Those few seconds (minutes?) were almost surreal. I regretted that day because I was unable to say anything back to her. I could just stare and feel my heart shatter into pieces of intangible glass.
It was painful watching Aunt Yulien crumble. When she got released from the hospital after her initial chemotherapy treatment, she had undergone quite a transformation. Her shoulder length hair was gone, only to be replaced with choppy strands sticking out of a modest hat. She picked me up from school that day, chatting amiably with me, asking me if I ate enough, reprimanding me because she thought I wore too little. My answers were barely audible because I was afraid that I would start to cry, so afraid that my stomach started to cramp. I could only manage a weak thank you to her when her car pulled up at my house, and she smiled back at me, saying that it was no problem; it never really was. How she didn't mind coming to school everyday through horrendous traffic just to see my home safe.
That was the last day I saw her. The next week, she was taken back to the hospital. Over the course of weeks, the cancer only multiplied, up until the point she was in so much pain that she couldn’t recognize her own family members weeping at her bedisde. She died later that night, September 16 of 2014.
As I reflect back on it now, I feel very selfish. I wallowed in my own pity and sadness while I watched my friend stare at her mother’s casket at the funeral, face with barely a trace of tears. I watched her as she gazed steadfastly at her mother’s body lowering into the grave, gripping tightly to her seven year old sister’s hand.
The funeral haunted me and I couldn't sleep at night. I thought of the yellow flowers and stained glass and sunlight flitering through windows and a powdered, immobile face that once looked so familiar. I smelled perfumes and roses mixed with the smell of death and the sound of hymns. That was the first night in almost nine years that I slept in my parents' room.
Now when I look at my friend, I believe I am looking at one of the strongest girls alive. As I look at the weary eyes of her father, I believe I am looking at one of the strongest men alive. When I look deeper into both their eyes, I believe I am looking at one of the strongest women that ever lived. And that’s what Aunt Yulien gave everyone around her: strength and hope.
At her funeral, her brother said that she had never said “I’m scared.” Not when strands of hair came off onto her fingers like powder, not when she couldn’t recognize the voice of her daughter and husband. Not ever, and I don’t think she ever planned to.
She was expected to live for three more months after her diagnosis. She lived for eight.
Everything happens for a reason, some people say. At first, I couldn’t really see the reason that such an astounding woman deserved to die. One of my other friends once said, “I’m sure they won’t be taking her. They can’t. That would be unfair.” I agreed with her, but really, Mother Nature thinks of that as nothing more than a bunch of immature nonsense.
I think that if I had torn myself apart after her death, things would have turned out differently. But I chose not to. I thought of maturing as a way for myself to be courageous for Aunt Yulien, although it might seem petty next to her acts of courage.
I grew up not in one day, but over a course of months. Some days I would stare into the distance and think I could see all the way to Los Angeles, and pinpoint the grave next to a waterfall. Some days I would see her face in a photo album and try not to rip the book. I forced myself to treat her like a treasure. Before I knew it, next September arrived and she became a fond memory engraved in my bones. Bad things don’t happen because you can control it. They really don’t. But they do happen for a reason.
I learned what real courage was. It was never backing down even though you know you’re going to lose. It was saying that you’re not scared even when you tremble in your sleep at night. It was giving light to others while you could only give yourself the darkness.
Courage was Aunt Yulien. I’m glad the last words I ever said to her were, “Thank you.”