A Death in the Family

As I noted yesterday, I spent most of last week in travel for the loss of a family member. I’ve lost a few family members in recent years, and as someone who hasn’t had to deal with a lot of death in his life, I’ve learned that I’m pretty darn bad at it. And considering the struggles I’ve had with my family and my place in it, well, this past week has been somewhat of an emotional rollercoaster. A rollercoaster that I simply haven’t had the time to fully dig in and reflect upon. A rollercoaster that I’ve been trying to deflect so I can make sure to be there for my family members in whatever capacity they needed. A rollercoaster that I’ve honestly been trying to hide from because I simply don’t know how I’m going to feel about the ride.

But now I’m home, and although things have been incredibly busy trying to do all the things that didn’t get done while I was out of town, I needed to take a second to breathe and try to reflect on what all has been going on in my mind since I learned of my aunt’s passing a week ago.

Like I said, I’ve long struggled with my family and how I fit into it. On my dad’s side, I’ve felt like an outcast ever since I left the church they all belong in (very likely a self-imposed feeling), and on my mom’s, there was a rift which kept some of us separated from the others for so long that I’ve never exactly been sure of my role in the family. This was the side that suffered a loss this past week.

These people mean the world to me. Even though there is a troubled history between us, they are still some of my favorite people in the world. In fact, although there was a rift, I rarely allowed that to get in my way of interacting with them, and often crossed the divide simply because of how much I wanted them in my life. But, stupidly, although I feel like my relationship with these people was strong, I’ve still struggled with the concept of feeling as though they accept me as their family. Even though they introduce me to their friends as Cousin Adam, I found myself questioning whether they were including me when they said the “family” would be headed into the back of the church prior to the start of the funeral.

My aunt was family, I viewed her as family, I had no reason to believe she felt any differently about me, but for whatever reason, because of something that really had nothing to do with me, I always questioned whether she or her kids actually felt the same about me.

And this was the primary thought going through my mind as I traveled to South Carolina to celebrate the life of my aunt. That I somehow didn’t belong there. That although I was spending a ton of money to make sure I was there, they didn’t actually want me there. I spent the first few days after learning of my aunt’s passing, feeling as though I wasn’t family enough to be family.

I was so deep into this thought, so worried about this rift which, by all accounts, has been resolved for years, and a rift that I have always felt able to walk across without problem, that I simply wasn’t capable of comprehending the actual issue at hand for me.

I missed my aunt.

It wouldn’t be until halfway through the ceremony, when the soloist was singing his gorgeous song, that I realized how I’d never be able to see my aunt again. And in the course of approximately five minutes, I went through all of the emotions possible. You see, although I’ve felt close to the rest of my family on that side for years, the reality is that me and my aunt didn’t have a great relationship for most of my life. Not only was there this rift between our families, but she was also my teacher from third to eighth grade. I had baggage. And because I had baggage, and acted on that baggage from time to time, I know she also had baggage. And it took me decades to deal with that baggage.

In fact, it probably wasn’t until within the last few years that the two of us really started interacting one on one like adults. After years of feeling regret for not having a relationship with her, I reached out and she responded as though there was never a reason for us to not feel the closest. Her immediate and gracious response caused me to question if maybe I was the one who had caused all of this baggage to exist in the first place. If maybe this constant insecurity about my place in my family had caused me to imagine being pushed away. And for the sake of remembering the deceased in the best light, let’s go with that. Because it honestly doesn’t matter. Regardless of the past, I felt like I had my aunt again. I felt like I had my family again. I had no idea of how much this reconnection would mean to me until last week. Really, until the soloist sang his song and I was finally left there, alone with my thoughts, with nothing to distract myself from them. Just there, recognizing that I would no longer have the ability to see her again. Happy for knowing that we had reconnected, wishing we had had more time together afterwards.

June would be the last time I would talk to her. I was traveling south for our annual peach fundraiser and the two of us chose to have lunch together during my incredibly brief period in town. She had been suffering from her health issues for a while already at this point. Everyone knew she was on the way out. I had been hearing about it for months how she didn’t have long to live. But I know the women on that side of the family. They don’t go until they’re ready to go. I honestly didn’t believe she would ever be ready.

We had a nice chat. Ate friend chicken. And I realized how much she had weakened since I had last seen her at my granddaddy’s (her father’s) memorial service a year earlier. Something inside of me realized that she might not have as long as I had expected, in opposition from everything I had been told.

Yet, here we are, nearly six months later, before she finally gave in. She would travel plenty in those last few months, looking progressively sicker, but never wanting to lose a possible moment with her kids and grandchildren.

I could go through and give all sorts of memories of my aunt. Things like proudly watching her graduate from nursing school after years as a grade school teacher (before groaning at the awkwardness of her graduating class singing A Whole New World from Aladdin). Or how I have this incredibly vague early memory of her shooting off bottle rockets from a 2-liter Diet Coke bottle with an almost metronomic rhythm. Or of her teaching me how to make coffee at the school, ultimately so that she wouldn’t have to make it for herself. Or when she helped me plow through a year’s worth of math so that I could get ahead a year and be better prepared for high school.

And most stories like this go that way, remembering the moments shared in a lifetime of moments. But I don’t even have those. Not enough to be worth focusing on. What I do have is that even with our families being split apart, she was always there. And even when I felt as though my relationship with her was more adversarial than friendly, she was always working to move me forward, to become a better human. Regardless of the insecurities I felt about our families, and how I viewed our relationship, she constantly worked in my favor, pushing me forward to be the person I needed to be.

And I might not have realized this until the exact moment I was forced to be alone with my thoughts as a young man sang a song he wrote for the occasion. A young man whose life had also been touched by my aunt. Just like so many people who filled the church I was in. I don’t need to tell stories about my aunt, because the stories other people tell are just so much better than my own. Because I didn’t even fully realize what I had, until she was gone.

And for that, I feel even worse. Because even if not all the times we shared together were the best, I never took the time to thank her for the ones that were.

And I’m really glad that I got to reconnect with her again as an adult.


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