Loss is so impossible. How in the world can we actually “get it” that someone, so woven into the very fabric of our lives, can just disappear? After the death of my aunt, I floundered in a sea of feelings. There was sadness, disbelief, anger, confusion. And there was also regret. After she was gone, I couldn’t help but look back at my time with Aunt Min, and note the many things I hadn’t done. Or that I had done begrudgingly, in the midst of many care-management chores. I felt that there were so many opportunities, in that long time of helping her, to have deeper, more open conversations about what was happening – about how she saw herself, and what she wanted from that final chapter of her life .
Of course, some of that happened in and through our everyday conversations. I listened to the stories of her teaching years, of her travels, of her childhood in Hahnville. I listened to her wisdom of 100+ years of life. But she was a very private person, and there were certain territories we didn’t travel through easily.
In looking back, I can see that the regrets were just another way to hold on – another emotion to fill in the empty space where she had been.
The following are a couple of excerpts on regrets from the letters –
From Year 1
Dear Aunt Min,
In the cemetery, on my morning walk to see the pond, I pass the many headstones and think of you. And feel, again, a little guilt. How many days in that last, hard year did I wish you were gone? How many rough times did I slog through, wrestling with all the details of taking care of you, trying to leave your dignity intact, from so far away? How many crazy conversations did I have with your impassioned helper, and end up wishing that you would hurry along toward your next life, toward whatever mystery was waiting for you, that final good-bye?
Now my heart feels weak and cowardly, but what was I to do? Trying to hold up the head of my own life, all the while keeping you above water; it just got to be too much.
I’m so sorry. I’m sorry I couldn’t somehow figure out a way to do it all, for longer. I’m sorry I didn’t insist earlier, in some ridiculously cheery and positive way, that you come up to Maine when you could still have made new friends. Maybe I could have been sneakier, tricked you into loving a new life here. But I didn’t. I didn’t, and you wouldn’t, and so there we were—and now, here we are: finished. All the chances dried up, fading into themselves, impossible.
And yet…maybe it was just all that it could be. In these odd times, nothing is predictable, not even the planet, or life, or the money you tucked away, thinking it would save you somehow from uncertainty, from the kind of living and dying you didn’t want. Nothing was certain, so you left.
From Year 3
A rosy dawn. A dream with so many parts: You are in a nursing facility and I am doing work for you. You’ve been sharp and bright and talkative, still seem to be healthy. Then the nurses tell me that you have stabbed seven of the workers. You seemed fine, then your black eyes glittered and you slashed at them. I feel relieved that people know this about you, because then you can stay in the hospital, and I won’t have to keep figuring out what to do.
What does this mean? Am I trying to get rid of you, and be done—or did you do this to me? Kill me off in a small way no one could see? Well, my health did fall apart when I was trying to live both our lives. And here I am now, trying to recover.
I feel guilty about dreaming this, even though we can’t control our dreams. Maybe I’m sorting out all the conflicting emotions and realities around having helped, and been so mad at, and loved so fiercely, and then lost, you.