To my loving, wonderful Aunt,
I’m angry, which is not an emotion that suits me. Which makes me feel an overwhelming sense of guilt because Cancer is not a disease that suits you. It doesn’t suit anyone, let alone an aunt who did nothing but love, care for, and spoil her nieces and nephews. Speaking of guilt, I’m sorry for the times when I was a teenager and snapped at you. Most of the time you (and the advice you offered) were right. It’s amazing how we hurt the ones we love because we believe they’ll always be around when we need them.
You won’t be around much longer. And that sucks. And what sucks more is that for all my problem-solving and issue-fixing talents, this is one outcome I can’t control. You are going to die, and it’ll most likely be soon. And yet here I am making it all about my feelings and my hurt. But I know what you’d say because I remember our late night conversations over German beers in Grafenwohr. You let me stay with you when I wanted to travel Europe during my spring break senior year of college. You paid for me to take a beautiful train ride through Austria to a private hostel you paid for me to stay in so I could see Vienna. You always took care of me, and I will never forget the most beautiful opera singer I heard while walking the streets of Vienna by myself at night; she was just standing there — a street performer — with her hypnotizing voice and a hat on the ground full of loose change from passersby. I wish you could’ve seen her. You would’ve put your hand on my shoulder and said nothing, but we both would’ve appreciated the moment.
The first sign of a long battle with sickness came while I was in Vienna. My mom called me and told me I had to fly to a remote part of Germany because you were transferred to a hospital at another base. This obviously came as a surprise to a young girl in a foreign country where she didn’t speak the language, but TJ — the nephew for whom you bought his first skateboard and for whom you lead down a path to meet some of his dearest friends — helped me book my flight to get to you. I still remember getting off the plane and into a taxi where I just kept repeating “Landstuhl, Landstuhl” to the driver because he spoke no English and I spoke no German. I never thought I’d be so relieved to hear Train’s “Drive By” on the radio. When I finally made it to you and you were all hooked up to machines because of a gestation on your heart valve, I couldn’t even ask you how you were feeling because you beat me to it. You were sorry you cut my trip in Vienna short, and that has stuck with me ever since.
I said before here I am making it all about my feelings and my hurt, but the reason I’m doing it is because I know what’d you say. It was something that resonated with me during our late-night conversation in Grafenwohr that seems to weigh much more heavily on me now. We spent hours talking about life — yours and mine — and our hopes and dreams and disappointments; you’ve always had this uncanny ability to get me to open up. Even at my Pop Pop’s funeral when I was sixteen, I remember feeling numb for most of it. It wasn’t until you showed up and just gave me the warmest hug I’ve ever felt that I was finally able to make sense of everything and just cry. What you said to me that night, though, was worth more than any other advice I’ve ever received. You were talking about the soldiers you worked on and how being an Army dentist was so rewarding to you. You always loved being a dentist, so although looking into people’s mouths all day wasn’t my cup of tea, your love for your craft didn’t surprise me. The thing you said was such a small thing to me at the time, but in the years since it has become one of the most poignant things you’ve ever said to me. You said that you loved helping the soldiers because no matter how badly they were bruised or scarred on the outside, you wanted to care for them so that their emotional pain could rest if even for only a few minutes.
You may or may not ever get to read this, and even if you do, we found out Monday that the Spindle Cell Sarcoma spread to your brain. You’re starting to forget things because of the Cancer’s attack on your frontal lobe. I talked to you about that restaurant you took me to in Germany because it was one you frequented once a week as they were kind to you, but you didn’t remember. Listen, you know I’m someone who hates losing control, so I feel like it’s some sort of ironic universe joke that it’s your brain’s control panel that’s under attack. I hope your moments of clarity allow you to see the irony of this situation. I’d like to think you’d laugh as the ridiculousness of it all.
And then I think about it more — the brain and this terrible Sarcoma. And I feel more guilt because I’m angry. Because I know the frontal lobe controls who you are: your emotional expression, your problem solving, your language, your judgment. Your memory. This. This, above everything else, is what makes me the most angry. It makes me angry because I don’t want you to forget. I don’t want you to forget holding my hand as a little girl when I was scared on the ferris wheel at Fantasy Island. I don’t want you to forget boogie boarding with me or watching the sunset at 5th Street Pavilion. I don’t want you to forget popovers at Jordan Pond or yelling “I AM WOMAN!” before diving into the pool in Bar Harbor. I don’t want you to forget the basil pesto pasta at Hotel Bohm or our late night conversations in Grafenwohr. I don’t want you to forget you had the highest intake rate of any dentist on your base. But most importantly, I don’t want you to forget how much I love you and how much you are loved by all the people you’ve touched — friends, family, patients, and the soliders I met who told me how much they loved you.
So yes, I’m angry. And sad. And hurt. And confused. But I am also like you, which helps me know I’ll be okay because you are loving and kind and strong… and those are all the things you taught me to be.
And the Sarcoma can take your brain and it can take your memories. And I’m slowly becoming as okay as I can be with that because your memories live on in me, and I won’t forget them. You’ve always encouraged me to look on the bright side. I don’t really think there is one to losing someone I love so much, but if there is one, maybe it’s that you’re losing some bad memories alongside the good ones. And if that’s the case, I hope whatever emotional pain you feel can rest… if even for only a few minutes.