My aunt Carole died on this weekend 30 years ago. She was on a return trip home, likely from the grocery store, when the car she was driving slammed into the back of a truck. She was nearly home. Carole was 40 and she left two young boys, a husband, parents, siblings, and a host of family and friends struggling to make sense of her sudden departure. I know that “host” is an accurate description of those she left behind because I vividly recall the line of people stretching out the door of the funeral home and down the sidewalk waiting to pay their respects.
I was thirteen when Aunt Carole died and, though I no longer grieve for her, I can say without hesitation that her death still haunts me today. I didn’t fully understand her loss until I regularly began seeing a therapist a few years ago in an attempt to rein in an anxiety disorder. In my first session the therapist asked about my family and Aunt Carole was the first person who came to my mind. At that point, she had been gone for more than 20 years. I wept for and about her for the next hour. Her sudden death at an age that I was quickly approaching, with a young child of my own, had become a shadow looming over my life. When I tried to pick apart why this had become an issue so many years after her departure I could only reason that I finally understood exactly what she left behind and how much I, in a position not dissimilar from hers, stood to lose. Every trip to the grocery store had become a gamble with death. I lived in a constant state of panic. I said “goodbye” and “I love you” more times than necessary. She didn’t get the chance to say those words one last time and I was determined to not leave them unsaid.
As I worked through my fears, I tried to remember my aunt when she was alive. To my frustration, I couldn’t recall conversations with her and I couldn’t think of any words she had said. All I could remember was laughter. Time and again, I could imagine her throwing her head back in a fit of boisterous laughter. And every single time her face seemed to glow. My only memories of my aunt, whether real, imagined, or a combination of the two are of her glowing with laughter.
I have gradually let go of some fear but, in doing so, I had to stop dwelling on unknown and unseen futures. I had to stop worrying about what could happen and revel, instead, in what is. When I began to focus on the warmth of the sun on my face, the conversation of the elderly couple sitting in the booth next to me, or the feel of my daughter’s hand in mine the fear fell away.
A group of friends was recently asked by another friend to describe a perfect day. In a life where I focus on what is, I found it impossible to write about what could be. There would be too many things to do and too many people to see in one day for it to be perfect. Picking just a few would always leave me wanting more. I could not think about a perfect day but I wrote, instead, about perfect moments. This, then, has become the legacy of my beloved aunt. She has taught me in death what she never had a chance to teach me in life; to live, to love, to laugh, and to do it all without fear of what lurks around the corner. Because around the corner is the next moment and that, my friends, is a thing that might not belong to us anyway. What we do have is now and we must treasure it.
Today I’m remembering Aunt Carole, her smile, and her laughter. I’m also reminding myself to enjoy this moment. I hope you can do the same.