Last week I completed the whirlwind trip to Florida to say goodbye to one of my favorite people on the planet. Moose and I piled into the backseat of my father’s car and began our epic journey. It was one of the most stressful and rewarding trips of my life.
My trip engraved a fact into reality that I will never forget- My son hates long car rides. Actually, that probably isn’t true. He hates long car rides strapped into his car seat. A fact I now share with him. There was some serious crying, yelling, and battles of wills. He did all of the crying and yelling. Scratch that- he did all of the yelling. I shared the crying a little as he held his arms outstretched to me with tears streaming down his face. As it turns out, my theory that sharing the backseat with him would make the trek easier on him, was most assuredly wrong. Seeing me so close just fueled the flames of his displeasure. But we survived. We survived the cumulative 12 hours in the car over the course of 28 hours. We survived the yelling, the tears, the tension, the heartbreak. And we won’t be going on any long car trips anytime soon. Make no mistake about that. The maddening travel aside, having my sidekick on my hip on one of my poignant days was a blessing I cannot describe.
My family is Irish Catholic. Moose and I attend Mass with my father and step mother- the awe of the cathedral and comfort of the words and traditions wash over us weekly. A part of my faith and history that I am reconnecting with. A tradition I cherish more than I ever thought I would.
I have mentioned before, in the Catholic church children attend the Mass. My son does not go to childcare, he sits in the pew with me, observing the ‘calisthenics’. He adds his own, as he usually gets through about 20 minutes of Mass before he decides that we must pace the side isle for the remainder of the service. He experiences Mass with the exhilaration only a child can. He has not developed a crushing awareness of his surroundings. Instead he delights in turning around and flirting with the people behind us. He runs circles around the candles in the side chamber. He squeals with delight and punctuates the priest’s homily. The echo brings him a level of glee we can all only aspire to achieve. And one day he will make his weekly bolt to the alter and I will not be fast enough to catch him. A mission he pursues at any chance he finds.
My aunt’s memorial was no exception to this experience. He immediately locked his gaze on the bible and required it in his lap to flip through. He jumped on me, delighted in standing on the kneeler, and crawled down the pew during prayer- this resulted in a family member almost sitting on him. Thank God he has kids and found the whole affair adorable. Moose tested that the acoustics of the cathedral in Florida matched those we attend in Atlanta. Magnificently, they were just as good. He chirped, chatted, and giggled throughout the service to relish in it. His passion for life feeds my soul. His antics fill my heart during Mass and always spread an uncontrollable smile and giggle across my face. But on this day, I worried. Friends and family gathered to honor my aunt. My cousins embraced in the pew in front of me. I tried to wrangle my precocious toddler in an effort to respect that his actions may not bring them the same joy. Though I tried my hardest, I failed.
Upon the conclusion of the service, I gathered my son- in addition to his toys and snacks- and filed out of the cathedral. First, I was stopped by my uncle. With a smirk curling his lips, he told me that my aunt would have loved every second of his entertainment. And he was right.
She would have loved that he didn’t conform to the somber service.
His disturbance of the peace was the best homage to her I could have provided. Second, my cousin grabbed me by the arm and whispered into my ear- “You should bring him to all of our funerals”. I laughed out loud. She cut through my grief with a sentence- one of her many talents. And finally, my aunt’s daughter assuaged all of my fears. She thanked me for bringing Moose. She told me that his presence made the experience bearable for her. She told me how much she knew my aunt loved his exclamations. Her tears paused, just for a moment, to engage in high fives and gibberish with my tiny person. Experiencing a day of mourning with a tiny human is an interesting collaboration of utter sadness and laughter. Having Moose in attendance kept my hands busy. It gave me an outlet for my energy. It provided some distraction from the absence of a partner- a hand to hold.
I learned something about myself at my aunt’s funeral. Something I think I have always known, but I finally saw through the perspective of an adult. I do everything in my power to contain my grief. I do not allow my tears to cascade down my cheeks. In my mind, it is in deference to those heartbroken. I feel like my pain doesn’t compare to those surrounding me. That my grief will somehow insult theirs. So I choked my emotion down. I blinked back tears. The few that escaped the confines of my lashes, I quickly wiped away. Listening to both of my cousins and my father speak about my aunt and her love, made this endeavor increasingly more difficult. Particularly, when my father looked at me with kind eyes and told me that he wished she could have seen Moose once more too. So when my father asked if anyone wanted to speak, I didn’t stand. If I spoke, my battle with my sorrow would win. My stable facade would crumble to my feet. And now, a week later, I still feel regret. I regret not speaking about a woman that made an incredible impact on my life. So here are the words that swirled around my head. Here are the words I should have said that day. The day I should have allowed myself to show my vulnerability.
I was a quiet kid. Not much different than I am as an adult. I take a while to warm up. Once I do, I can be loud, goofy, and full of laughter. But when I am in the presence of someone new, I observe. I wait- I watch- to see if I can be me. But my aunt never made me feel like I couldn’t be myself. I think that was a gift she bestowed on anyone that knew her.
Due to complications of life and circumstance, years passed in my preteen and teenage years that I wasn’t around. I didn’t get to spend those years visiting with my aunt or my family. They didn’t get to watch me grow into the woman I am today. But when I was 19, those circumstances changed. I attended Thanksgiving at her home in Florida with my dad. I cannot appropriately put into words the apprehension I felt. I had no clue what I would be walking into. No indication how I would be received.
The reality was, most of my family there wasn’t sure what to do with me. Greetings were friendly- but formal. They didn’t know me. I was a name- a distant memory- but not a person to them yet. And I don’t blame anyone for that. I get it. But then my aunt rounded the corner and saw my face. As soon as she laid eyes on me, her whole body smiled. She hugged me like she did when I was a kid. She immediately accepted me. It was like no time had passed. I was still her family. She still knew me. She still saw me. She spent the rest of the trip asking me questions, making me laugh, hugging me.
That’s who my aunt was. Once she loved you- she always loved you. Teenage angst, distance, or any other manner of things couldn’t change that. She would wait. She would wait for you to come back. She would be there with a warm embrace. She wouldn’t remind you of the time passed. She wouldn’t tell you how you broke her heart. She would just be there to pick back up where you left off.
Because I can be reserved- it has always been easy for me to fade into the shadows. People with larger personalities can suck the air out of the room- and I will let them. I will contently sit in a corner and read a book and allow people to forget I’m there. But she never forgot I was there. She never let me fade. Honestly, I think she found my ability to hide in plain sight endearing. Her favorite story from when I was a kid was a time I was visiting. She perpetually kept her house really cold. We affectionately referred to it as a meat locker. And because of my stature, genetics, and hashimoto’s I am rather sensitive to the cold. So I spent time in her house layered in clothing and blankets. So this trip, I was crashing on the sofa. She had a house full and I was small. The couch was a comfortable place for me. The only requirement was a mountain of blankets to sleep under. So this particular morning, she had awoken before anyone else. She had dressed and was making her way to the kitchen to start a pot of coffee. The lifeblood of our family. She caught the mound of blankets on the sofa in her periphery. What she didn’t see was me. She scanned the room and I wasn’t anywhere to be found. So she walked over to the the couch for further investigation. Through some prodding- and deduction- she found me. I was curled below the mass of comforters, sound asleep. Even now that I am a grown woman she remembered that morning with affection. She loved to tell me the story of me hiding beneath the covers with a chuckle. I had a talent for disappearing even in my sleep. And yet she found me. She always found me.
She is free now. She is free of pain, of suffering, of the isolation her disease put her in the last three years. She fought every day. She deserves to rest. To see my grandparents and uncles again. But selfishly, I hope she still finds me. I hope I can hear it in the wind, see her in the rays of the sun. Aunt Barbara, I love you. And one day, we will find each other again.