I am twenty-seven and my aunt is thirty-one when she dies. My father calls to tell me. He says, voice flat, that his sister is dead. I ask how his mother and father are handling it. It’s a stupid question, a phrase we tentatively toss about as is if death is a spade whose handle we can wield. He assures me they are both fine. My throat feels thick and gummy. “Why aren’t you upset,” I accuse. “I’m a nurse and I see death all the time,” he says. “She wasn’t your patient, she was your sister,” I argue. A bloom of doubt is beginning to unfurl itself in my chest, confirming what I think I’ve known for years.
I last saw my father eight years ago, and we only talk every few months on the phone. It’s a relationship of choice, but we rarely choose each other. Our history is a complicated book of misgivings we are writing together. We inscribe into its fleshy pages the other’s transgressions. My father, who was not present at my birth—he was a stalwart Marine always deployed—made up for that and future absences with bicycle rides and popcorn and movies and silly stories and songs on a guitar as I drifted off to sleep at night. He exceled at being a father. But when he and my mother divorced and she, a few years later, remarried, he exited our family without a fight. He went to war and fought harder for a country that could not put its arms around me when I was afraid and was not deft at removing splinters with my hand, than he did for me. We fractured at the heart.
Though she was only a few years older, my aunt seemed to me a woman I tried but could not emulate. When I was twelve I spent a week listening to her talk about boys and school and driving permits. She treated me like the woman I wanted to become. I idolized her bedroom: walls tacked with pictures of friends, computer with a Mariah Carey screensaver that crooned high-pitched tunes all night, queen-sized bed with rumpled sheets and clothes tossed about. She seemed not the aunt, but chic older cousin.
The last time I saw her she was nineteen, newly married and covered in tattoos. It was one of the few times I spent an entire week with my father during the summer—traditionally I saw him for a few hours a year during a single afternoon at a Denny’s or Claim Jumpers. She arrived at my father’s house, and it seemed impossible to me that they were brother and sister. He was formidable, tall and always standing at attention, hands rigid at his side. She was a free-spirit. A wild child. She’d long been defiant, and the new husband and tattoos testified to that. She ignored me, instead talking to my step-sister, who was closer in age with a serious boyfriend of her own. They talked about cell-phones and apartment living and car payments and college while I stood off to one side awkwardly scratching at my acne-covered face. My father leaned uncomfortably against his kitchen sink, trying to give his kid-sister advice she wouldn’t follow. In a few years she would divorce and later remarry. I would watch her life unfold sporadically through social media. There she is in pictures, same face, belly just slightly swollen with her second child. Another: smiling into the camera, her eyes hidden behind sunglasses. The last: She’s reclining in a chair by a pool. She tilts her head towards whoever is taking the picture; she radiates life. Her skin is a beautiful Scandinavian pale, the same as my father, as my own.
After my father calls to tell me, I write my grandmother a letter. I haven’t seen her in fifteen years. Her response is dutiful. Beautiful looped cursive sprawls across the pages that doesn’t convey the pain she’s in. She talks about the unexpected diagnosis and quick decline, my aunt’s decision to put herself in hospice, and the hardiness of her granddaughters. She says, “How blessed I am to have known her for thirty-one years, to have been there when she took her first breath and her last.” She knows she will see her daughter again. My father had said the same thing. He wasn’t sad, he’d told me, because he’d see her in Heaven. I chastise him for this line of thought though. For my father it’s a way out, an excuse for not choosing the presence of today with me. For his mother, it’s the last bit of hope of their eventual reunification she clings to.
On the phone with my father I say, “This is what will happen when I die, isn’t it,” although it’s not a question. Perhaps it’s the ache of the moment that lets such a harsh accusation slip from between the places in my chest. I hear his sharp intake and then a long stream of reassurances. He tells me their difference in age meant he’d never had a real relationship with her; he was on his way to boot camp when she was three. I remind him we have our own gaps in age, our own spatial and relational differences that make it impossible for us to draw close to each other. The silence in the phone deafens.
Death muddles the mind. Families disintegrate after its hot flash. This is true when my aunt dies. My father and his mother stop speaking. The tongues of my father and his brother become dull blades, go numb. If a family’s history is a book we are all contributing to, then my aunt was the single stitch binding holding us together. When she dies, pages loose and fall apart. Her death reveals. And the truest pain I uncover is not that she is gone, but that my father will not miss me when I am.