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September 21, 2013

Seeking light amid fall's darkness

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The Daily Star

---- — I came across a card from my late aunt the other day. At first glance, it’s nothing extraordinary. But I’ve kept it for more than 10 years for reasons that are complicated to explain.

Written on both sides of a small, blank greeting card with an image of a flower on the front, the card contains some standard pleasantries, and a request. My aunt knew I enjoyed shopping at thrift stores, and wanted me to look for something for her. She wrote that a smock, with pockets, would be useful to her when she was gardening, and if it wasn’t too much trouble, she would appreciate it if I would keep my eye out.

My aunt died a few months later. She never got her smock.

Truth be told, I don’t think I ever really looked for one. I’m sure I went to a few thrift stores in between the time she sent her card, and when she died. But I don’t remember ever actually thinking of her, of taking the time to do what she had asked. And every time I see the pale yellow flower on the front of that greeting card, I am overwhelmed with shame and guilt.

I am sure my aunt did not go to her grave thinking, “I wish Emily had bought me that smock.” I’m sure she had more important things on her mind. And yet, this unfinished task rankles, if only because it can never be completed.

Had she lived, my aunt would have celebrated her 69th birthday earlier this month. But she will never be 69. Instead, she died 11 years ago, and is stuck in time forever as a 58-year-old.

My grandparents died when I was in elementary school. Their death was sudden and shocking and I remember, somewhere amid my own grief, realizing with horror that my father was now an orphan. The thought was so appalling to me that I tried to push it away. But when my aunt, and years later my uncle, died as well, I was painfully aware that my father, who was the youngest of the three siblings, had become the oldest member of his family.

My grandparents, too, remain fixed in time, and my memories of them grow more and more fixed as well. What I have are mostly snapshots, sense memories. My grandmother’s quiet hands placing card upon card in a game of solitaire; the taste of jelly beans and gumdrops, of vanilla ice cream dipped in sprinkles; the smell of the screen door and the rasp of red-winged blackbirds high in the oak trees along the driveway; my grandfather’s lean profile, bent over the organ as he picked out tunes for the children to dance to. And I am forever a child, seeing them through a child’s eyes.

As fall moves haltingly in, I find myself thinking of my aunt and my grandparents, whose deaths happened around this time of year. And I wonder if that is not why I cannot abide this season, when the life seems to be slipping out of everything to be replaced by darkness and dry husks of matter. The autumns of my childhood were not the exuberant affairs we experience locally; rather, falls were wet and chilly; dark and brown. Despite having lived here for more than a decade, I can’t seem to adjust my mental state to match my surroundings.

In a world that is full of infinite mystery, death is perhaps one of the most difficult to get one’s head around. Nature abhors a vacuum, and there is a reason that contemplating nothingness is an exercise in meditation. We talk about “coming to terms” with death, but do we ever, really? There will always be an absence, a place where something once was that remains vacant. 

If I could go back, I would buy my aunt that smock. If I could change the past, I would give myself the chance to know my grandparents as one adult to another, rather than as a child. But I cannot. 

Instead, I choose to fill the absence left behind in other ways. The questions I can’t ask the dead, I ask the living. Will this make their deaths any more knowable, any easier to grasp? I doubt it. But having conversations with my mother and father now means I won’t regret not having after they are gone. And perhaps that is enough.

Emily F. Text ColorSwatch/NoneStrokeStyle/$ID/SolidText ColorSwatch/NoneStrokeStyle/$ID/Solid$ID/NothingText ColorText Color$ID/NothingText ColorText ColorPopek is assistant editor of The Daily Star. She can be reached at 432-1000, ext. 217, or epopek@thedailystar.com.