in the small hours

  My Aunt Betty, on a sailboat in La Paz

My Aunt Betty, on a sailboat in La Paz

I find myself digging through old photographs, trying to catch a glimpse of her, full face and smiling. Smiling isn't hard, but straight on? To the camera? Not so much. She was always motion and work and play and beauty. She was always on the edge of the frame, my lens never taking her in fully, too bright to capture. 

Or at least, that's how it feels, right now.

In the small hours of this morning, after only a handful of months since diagnosis, my Aunt Betty called out to her parents and went to join them. My Uncle at her side, her kids both nearby, her extended family a trail of love from the previous day. She went out how she lived, surrounded by love. 

Sitting by her bed yesterday, I watched her sleep, restless and fitful. Her face, frequently breaking into a smile, working around the complications of breathing, swallowing, living in the last day. When my mom told her she was flying to Europe on Saturday, her eyes fluttered open and a smile took over her face, that light spilling out of her in waves. Paris! Italy! She was so delighted for my parents, "Go go go! Live live live" her eyes sparkled encouragement. 

I spoon soup into her mouth and tell her about the kids, "They're back in school and doing so well," I babble on, filling the air with my voice. She replies in soft tones, taking in the words and nourishment slowly, carefully, thoughtfully. And that smile, it just keeps landing on my face, filling me up with her love, making the loss of her so much more sharp and tolerable, all at once.

Her son Mike and I are only four days apart and we grew up hand in hand. We were cousins and friends and constant companions when we were little. She was second Mom, taking care of me and my brother and lending a hand. Once, Mike and I were riding big wheels out on their street, a long winding hill, when I got going too fast and couldn't stop. I ended up bloodied , screaming out like kids do, dying (obviously), from skinned knees. Mike hauled me up onto his back and carried me up the hill to her, where she kissed and washed and bandaged me up. I always felt so safe under her care.

Once, I broke apart on her living room floor. I was a teenager and life had thrown me a set of curve balls, all at once. I didn't know then that this would be how it always is: beauty and life and love and then WHAM, BASH, IN YOUR FACE pain, almost always in threes. I didn't know yet that you could continuously crumble into grief and then be stitched back together. So I broke in her home after death had taken a friend, and my peers helped hold the pieces together. I thought I was broken forever. After, she held out the sutures and guided my repair.

  Aunt Betty with my niece, Michelle

Aunt Betty with my niece, Michelle

On a beach, in Mexico, I watch her play with my daughters, carry my niece across the hot sand, laughing loudly and fully, taking over the shore with her beauty. She helps blow out the candles on a birthday cake while holding my naked, squirming kid. Her arms were always ready for any of us, be it tired mom or small person. And they were just as ready for a naked, mad, and dirty child and as clean, sleeping one; she took them all in and quieted them in her embrace. She was in every moment, all in, no holding back.

  Always these two, with these faces. He's scheming up something and she's humoring him.

Always these two, with these faces. He's scheming up something and she's humoring him.

After almost 20 years with Mark, I more often now noticed her gaze, as it so often landed on her husband. Her partner of 48 years. The love for him was always so clear and it was easy to use their relationship as a guidepost. She was honest about how it was sometimes hard. But that love. That love just poured out of her when she looked at him or the children they brought up together. 

Leaving the hospital yesterday, we said our goodbyes thinking we'd see her today when she transferred back home for the remainder of her hospice care. You always think there will be one more chance. You always think this moment can't be enough. And it's never enough. Except for that it has to be.

Full smile, bright eyes, love and light and beauty filling the room. 

I am forever marked by her hands, her smile, her life and her love.

  Taken just last week in a last minute family photography session. This. This is the light I'm taking about. 

Taken just last week in a last minute family photography session. This. This is the light I'm taking about.