I don’t know how to talk about what has happened recently, this complete turnaround of circumstances. I’ve been trying to think of something to say that means anything, but all I can come up with is something contrite to fill the space—how grateful I am to be writing for a living now; how happy I am to be living in a peaceful neighborhood where, during my morning walks, barely a car passes me; how lucky I feel to have a backyard where I can read in a hammock that Jamie hung between two trees, while our dog rolls on his back in a pile of pollen and comes up yellow.
When it happened—when it all happened—I drove home from work at my retail job for what would be the last time and, after a second of absolute bliss, slammed myself back down to earth.
Watch me die on my way home now, I thought. That would be just fucking perfect.
I watched a video recently of a speech my aunt gave at her church. The recording is a shaky one that a friend of hers filmed from the back row. Half the time she is partially blocked by someone’s shoulder, the other half by someone’s Midwest nineties hair. The speech she gave is about faith and finding it again in her life, but mostly it is about cancer. How it tested her faith and made it stronger. In the speech she talks about when she was diagnosed with cancer for the second time, after a few years full of health and love. In between her first and second diagnoses she had met a man with a baby girl whose biological mother had died from cancer just months before. She says in the speech that, after she married that man and adopted his daughter, “I thought God wouldn’t do that to them twice. He wouldn’t take away another mother from this little girl and another wife from this man. So I had faith that I would be spared.”
I didn’t die on the way home that day. I am still here.
My aunt isn’t, though. She died not long after that speech was filmed judging from the thickness of her hair and the way her skin looks as she stands at that lectern and talks about how shallow that type of faith is, believing that there are reasons for why we are spared and why we are not, why we succeed and why we do not. Some grand scale in the sky zeroing out all of our suffering, all of our loss, all of the struggle we endure.
There is not. We are not owed anything for our suffering, for our loss, for our good deeds, for our hard work.
My aunt talks in the speech about living with cancer, and how it makes her death feel like it was always right there. In the video she gestures as she says this to the space next to her at the lectern, next to her beautifully alive and breathing body and for a second I can see it, her death, because I have seen her body when it was not alive, when it was not breathing. The proximity of those two binaries illuminated each other in my mind as they must have in her life then, making the other more real than either of them would ever be on their own. Life and death. Salvation and loss. Suffering and ease.
My aunt was an artist (“an artist of life” is what her headstone reads), and the only one I knew for most of my life. The thing I think about now—always, everyday—is how she found a way to create art in spite of everything else. In spite of not making it in L.A., in spite of not making it in New York, in spite of low self-esteem, and losing love, and addiction, and cancer.
“It might not look like how you once imagined it,” I remember her saying to me when I was fourteen and desperate to be an actress. She had been telling me about how her voice-acting career had taken off after giving up on L.A. and moving back to Minneapolis. “If you love it enough, you will find a way to make it your life.”
Ever since all of this good fortune happened, I can’t help but think it is somehow because of her, even though I know it’s not. I know it’s because I worked hard and dedicated the past three years to my writing and was determined to build a life around that.
Still. I know it's not just that.
I found a feather in my path in the park the other day and couldn’t help but think it was her, even though I knew it was not. I knew it was because there were ducks nearby and an eagle in the tree and a chicken coop across the street.
I couldn’t help it. I stopped and picked it up and took it home to keep.