Sadness leaks in like the cold. You bundle up, prepared for it. Ready for the onslaught. But it comes in wisps – icy fingers that make you shiver at first. Then you choke as they tighten around your throat.
I stare at the text message, the orange glow of my phone in the dark of a strange hotel room in the middle of the country. I can’t read the letters on the screen, but the message has pierced the sleepy shrouds, the covers over me on the bed, the t-shirt I’m wearing, the skin of my chest and my heart.I don’t know what woke me early in the morning to check my phone, to see the text from my sister, but I felt a deep sense of discomfort and foreboding.
She was that one aunt. That one aunt who spoiled you, who made you feel like you were the whole world. The praises she gave, the same she told to every niece and nephew, but that you took to heart, because she was your favorite, and surely you were hers.
She was all smile, her whole face, her body a smile that rolled up into the top of her head and lit up any area she inhabited.
Of course I love my other aunts, but she was that one aunt who watches out for you your whole life, until today, when she’s no longer a presence here on earth but watching out from somewhere that isn’t here.
I get up and try to think, but the grief is there, and I’m alone in a dark hotel room. I open the curtains to a gray and rainy dawn, and grief is staring at me through the window.
I want to let it in and just get it over with, but I hide in the shower and look through myself on the mirror and go numb for awhile.
I dress and focus on the little tasks. I pack my clothes and some souvenirs in my bag and tie my shoes and unplug my phones.
I look over my shoulder at the room and glance around for something left behind. And I see grief coming in through the glass, so I slam the door and race down the hallway to the elevator.
And down and down and outside to a car that is waiting to take me to a meeting. And now that I’m moving and my brain is firing, I bury it all down inside.
Little things come back to me, like a cobalt-blue vase in the window of an apartment next to the Starbucks where I get a cup of tea and hide away from grief that is circling the blocks of downtown Des Moines.
She loved blue glass and gave much of her collection to my wife several years ago. And now I’m dreading going home to see it, because it’s another entry point for grief.
And now I’m in the dungeons of an old building talking to some very nice people who’ve just experienced the loss of a co-worker, so I don’t pile on with my story of loss, because grief is distracted with them, and that suits me just fine.
I struggle through lunch, the tom kha gai and healthy rolls are a few minutes of reprieve, then it’s on to the airport and the blessed distraction of TSA and a pat down, because the machine says there is something on my right butt cheek. It’s probably grief stealing away with me in my back pocket.
And to the gate and a long delay. I sit and worry about grief, and I push so hard against it, that a solitary tear escapes.
I stand up, unplug my devices and walk until my face dries and I can hold the cascade back and not have to look anyone in the eyes.
I walk and walk through the small Des Moines airport and write in my head the words that will alleviate the grief.
They call my flight number, and I write furiously in my head as I board the plane, because I know grief will fly with me.
Window seat. Nobody next to me. I let my shoulders down for the first time all day. I’m not relaxed, but the words forming in my mind help release that pressure.
And I stare out over the vast American West, and it comforts me, the canyons and arroyos are veins, and the crusty soul of the world is laid bare there 30,000 feet below me.
Gin and tonic, because it’s late afternoon, and alcohol dulls the feelings that come with the words, but it’s a depressant, so I look over my shoulder to see if grief is lurking.
It’s 100-degrees in Phoenix, as I run off the plane trying to catch my Portland connection. I run and want to cry. But there is a smiling gate agent saying it’s all good, I’ll make my flight home, no problem.
I watch my parents talking through video on an app we use to communicate when they travel overseas, and I pull the earphones out before grief can find its way in like an earwig.
I work a little, answering questions, writing emails, but I feel it welling up again like nausea, so I swallow and order another gin and tonic and stare at the blue glass Bombay bottle and watch the woman next to me order champagne.
And I let go and fall into memories.
As we fly over the lights of Bend, Oregon, I’m transported back to the 1990s, to Chelsea Lane, to pan-seared green beans in butter and brandy. To long weekends talking and laughing with Raissa and Jim at their home along the Deschutes River.
And further back, to foggy Pacifica, California. Big, family gatherings around tables full of Russian and Central Asian food. And my auntie teasing me in my adolescence.
And further back, to an old picture in a newspaper of a big-eyed, sweet little girl fresh off the boat in San Fransisco, a city that would define her life from that day on.
And all the memories in between, the good memories of everything that encompasses life. The good and the bad all rolled into one beautiful life.
And the wheels touchdown in Portland, and I’m awake now and almost home. I’m tired, and in my own way I have grieved a little today. I will grieve some more tomorrow and for the rest of my days without my aunt Raissa.