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The Feeling of Absence
Thursday, Oct 5th, 2017
Grey skies were predicted to loom over the city all afternoon, but it didn’t take a TV Weatherman to know I’d have a cloud hanging over my head for the day. The funeral home mounted itself between two parking lots, towering like a flat-faced, crooked pyramid with 70s style siding and gaudy chapel windows. The daily color palette of everything around us seemed to be a mix of sand and charcoal, dark and brooding shades that painted every step of sidewalk, every bricked wall, and every mourner’s face. The mood was still gentle, my baby cousin ignorant to the situation and rubbing off a light bit of relief to everyone he greeted. At this point, it was just him, my older cousin, my Aunt Tim, my mother, my cousin’s parents, and myself. The evening was planned to be casual, so no one dressed in anything fancier than a black shirt or dress pants. As fidgety and self conscious as I usually am, I wasn’t too busy fiddling with my shirt cuffs or tucking the tails in, as I was much more preoccupied with how the evening would go. Just like I predicted, it was as simple as my aunt would’ve wanted it. Full of mingling, catching up on past times, and making the most of a rather unfortunate time.
My cousin, AJ, and I didn’t go by our aunties’ house any less than three times a week when school let out. Aunt Tim and Aunt Sis lived over in Greenfield, near the highschool, for as long as I could remember. Since I was a baby, I’ve gone over there often to enjoy the best summer has to offer. Swimming, conversing, eating loads of junk food, playing with the dog, and taking advantage of the special freedom to go about as I pleased that I couldn’t get anywhere else. A sort of mutual respect that clung each and every one of us together, while letting us feel like we lived there with them every time we came to mix.
Aunt Tim and Aunt Sis (or just “aunties” if needing to refer to the both of them) are my grandfather’s sisters, also siblings to AJ’s dad. Together, they lived in that tiny, one-story Mid-Century Modern house since before I was born. Their property consisted (and still consists) of an elongated, blacktop driveway, a two-car garage, quite obviously the main home, a mini, square front lawn, and a wide backyard with a sand-circle in the middle (for pool placement) and a garden that grew larger every year. I often enjoyed staying outside much more than being inside, mainly because of the smell. My aunts, the both of them, smoked like it was going out of style. Even when I was younger, they puffed and blew every moment I saw them. Although I’m not too big of a fan of smoking myself, I didn’t mind when they’d finish off cigarettes left and right, as long as it wasn’t in my face (and it never was, they were always careful around the kids, for the most part). That hearty, stinging stench of smoke clung to every article of clothing that entered that house, it didn’t matter for how little or long you walked in and out. During the summer, though, when the weather got warm and the windows needed to be opened, the house would air out, everyone would spend the day outside, then come in at night to enjoy the breeze that circulated clean air throughout the house. I remember having the time of my life just watching movies in their living room, downing soda and enjoying the time I got to spend with my cousin and sister, even the neighbor kid that liked to play with her.
I think it was the 2nd of March, before this last summer, when Aunt Sis was diagnosed with cancer. Everyone always said the smoking and the drinking and snacking would catch up to her. No one said “I told you so” that day. A pretty big tumor had grown on one side of her lungs, apparently occupying her chest cavity for a while before. Something like stage III, if I recall correctly. I wouldn’t take my word on it. I don’t like to pry into serious matters like...this. I sure didn’t then. It took a while for it to settle with my family that this was reality now. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t all serious all the time. We all had a good time together. Uncle Thomas, my mom’s brother, who grew up learning how to cook from my Aunt Sis, liked to push all these crazy health drinks on her. If it was green, had vitamins, and was supposed to make you feel better, it was blended in those ludicrous drinks. Anything to fight the cancer off. Maybe make ourselves feel better. I don’t know.
I appreciate those nights I got to spend with her. She wasn’t ever the same, with all the chemo and the chemicals and whatever else was going on inside of her. Still. She got to enjoy one last vacation to the Smoky Mountains. I remember being so thankful at the time, but not really for the right thing. When her and my other aunt would go on their summer vacations, my cousin, AJ, and I would get to watch and take care of their dog for the week. In other words, we got the whole house to ourselves, to eat and watch and do whatever we’d like, of course still looking after their teddy-bear-Shih-Tzu dog that’d keep us up half the night, begging to go outside just so he could roll in the grass and eat whatever he could find. I’ll never be able to shake off the guilt of never wanting to wear the super-touristy T-shirts she’d buy for my sister, mother and myself.
I still remember one of the greatest things she’s ever said to me, word for word. Well, it wasn’t “great” as in impactful, or meaningful, and it actually served no purpose whatsoever to be said, but always helps me smile. She was drinking one night, a little more than usual, and I had just walked back from a dinky, little festival a couple blocks away with my cousin. Both of us had drank a couple sodas, scarfed down probably an ice cream or two, and ate this weird, deep-fried Oreo dish, so we were as out of it from the sugar as my aunt was from the alcohol. Aunt Sis, being outspoken person she is, decides to make a comment regarding the nature of my sister and her neighbor friend running around and causing a ruckus. Of course, she was completely out of it, so it came out like “...and that’s why I’ll never have kids never.” Confused, I asked her simply, “What?”
“The children...” she said.
“What about the children?” I replied with.
“(Unintelligible gibberish)...ah, whatever. Just...kill ‘em all.”
“(sigh) That’s it. Eric...you’re dead. Say goodbye...”
At this point, my cousin and I couldn’t help but crack big grins over all this.
“Do I have to?” I managed to reply between sugar-induced giggles.
She bowed her head down.
“...No,” she sighed, before cracking up and laughing out loud at the absolute nonsense that was coming from her mouth.
My cousin choked on his drink, while I had to turn around and cover my mouth from how hard I started laughing myself. There was no real reason for why that moment stuck in my head, or for why my cousin and I nearly peed our pants over it when it happened, but I like to think back on that moment a lot. I don’t know why.
Late September, 2017
The roughest weeks for Aunt Sis, including us, were those last weeks of September. School for my sister and I had started, so we weren’t able to see my aunties too much during the week. My mom was the closest of any of us to them, so she would always be texting and calling and assisting them in medical affairs, or whatever else they needed help with. It was maybe the second to last week of September, sometime around then, when my aunt was apparently forced to stay in the hospital overnight. She went in for one of her monthly chemo treatments, and her heart rate spiked. She was fine, nothing serious occurred, but my mom had to take off work the next day to talk to my aunt’s doctors. What I’d consider to be worse news than the actual diagnosing dropped that morning, that my aunt actually had not been getting better after all this time. Maybe for a short period once chemo began, yeah, her breathing got better, her hair fell out then started growing again, and she was more active than previously. But when she had started getting more tired, her breathing more raspy, and her condition worsened, she blamed it on the chemo affects. We believed her, fingering Aunt Tim for the cough, too, as she had taken up smoking again around that time (of course, Aunt Sis had stopped altogether). It was the cancer. Maybe some outside stuff had to do with it, but the main issue was the cancer. It spread to her liver, and from what I heard it ravaged most of her insides. We didn’t need a confirmation from the doctor to know she didn’t have much time left.
The following days were a strange mix of slow and fast that made it more difficult than ever. Each day seemed to pass by quicker than the last, but time slowed down when everyone counted down the months, weeks, whatever, that were left. Aunt Sis got put into the hospital again, this time I’m not too sure what for. She was rough to be around, anyway. She struggled to even walk, she was weak and coughing and pale and her eyes were bloodshot and her hair really began to grey out and she was practically already gone. My family still had hope. To make things easier, when she returned from the hospital, a hospital bed was placed in their living room, and a nurse would be assigned to stay with them to make sure she got everything she needed to keep going.
It had only been a day since my other uncles and aunts set her house up as a hospice when my cousin text me during school. The message, or rather messages, were erratic. I can’t even remember what they said explicitly. What I got from them, when I read them through, was that AJ had left work early to see Aunt Sis, and she was struggling to stay awake. At 1:17 pm that day, she passed. It was the first time my cousin cried in several years. My uncle Rink, also brother to my aunt, detached from our family after a past falling-out, came out to see her, just in time. Jack, Toni, my grandpa, AJ, Rink, and probably some others were all there to see it happened. And I just...took it. I can remember telling my friend what had just happened, as calm as can be, explaining this was the first time this had ever happened to me, and he tried his best to help me figure things out. My mom and I wouldn’t see my Aunt Tim until the next day, after Auntie Sis had already been wheeled away and the house cleared of all medical assemblies. I saw my cousin that very day, though, after an after-school rehearsal for the play I tried out for had finished. His eyes were red and puffy, and he spoke with a bit of grizzle and hesitance in each word. My face was set in stone, however, and I didn’t know how to feel. I put my Johnny Cash CD into his stereo, put the volume up to a decent level where AJ and I could still talk if we wanted to, and we drove off for a while. Only Mr. Cash spoke when we left the school. I don’t think I can recall a sunny day since.
Sunday, Oct. 8th, 2017
Nothing hits me until I begin to vent. I didn’t shed a single tear the day she died. I didn’t cry at the funeral. It just wasn’t right. She wouldn’t want me to feel like I do now. She’d want me to stay the silly guy I always have been around her, keeping her on her toes with wit, but back on her seat with jokes. I can’t help but feel I’m failing her now, procrastinating like usual, finally breaking down and sniffling like a baby the further I get into this piece. God. At points I thought to myself, “Why should I jump into this so early? Why couldn’t I be like everyone else and write some light-hearted crap that’d make others smile or feel nice inside? Why do I have to be proof of that age-old realization that nothing lasts forever?” I even went so far as to think, “Well, this sorta thing has to happen to everybody, so why should it matter when it happens to me?” That’s just the thing. It doesn’t matter anymore than it would with someone else, even less so when I make it about me. It’s not about me. It never was. Maybe we can’t fight our natural instincts, maybe we’ll always make ourselves the center of importance, and every decision or thought or feeling we develop stems from our own self endowed loneliness. Either way, it doesn’t matter. What does matter is that Aunt Sis isn’t forgotten, and I never again find myself so self-righteously rugged that I can’t look all those other mourners in the eye at that grim, funeral center and cry, cry, cry.