Yesterday I heard the sad news that Aunt Fanny, my mother’s sister, is extremely ill and might not be around for long. I read her daughter’s email. The pain was a clear reminder of what we went through when our mother was dying. There are no words to console the pain they’re feeling now, but if I could I’d show them a glimpse of the peace I now feel in my heart whenever I think of my mother’s last days. The fear of the future, and the sense of loss get transformed with time. And I’ve had proof, time and time again, that those we love are very much present in our lives after their physical death.
As a child I spent my summers visiting Aunt Fanny’s house in the country. Her home was on the second-story of a building, and had a lot of space and natural light. The sunny terrace was my favorite spot. Its walls were lined with shaded cages where her husband kept a large collection of colorful singing birds. My aunt, like my mother and grandmother, spent a lot of time sitting at the sewing machine. She kept her green parrot on her shoulder, and encouraged it to talk while she was working. The parrot, called Cotica, would start singing the Cuban national anthem and halfway through it would switch to Guantanamera, bringing a smile to her face. Her house looked and felt like her. The bed covers were made by her, and every frame and ornament was in the perfect place and seemed to have a story attached to it.
I was four years old when I embarrassed her in front of her friends. She called me out of the bedroom to come play with her friend’s daughter who was about my age. Her exact words were, “Klara, come play with this little girl,” and when I met the family and stared at the young girl all I saw was her skin color. I said, “What girl? She’s a negrita.” My aunt knew that wasn’t something I’d learned from our family. But what she didn’t know was that at the time I was trying to understand why people had different skin colors, and how it was possible that I could love my neighbor Felicia, like a big sister, even though she was dark-skinned and didn’t look anything like me. I embarrassed her beyond words and I’m not sure how she got out of that horrible situation.
When Aunt Fanny’s husband died we weren’t sure if she had what it took to survive. He was far from perfect, but he was the love of her life and stood by him through thick and thin like few women do nowadays. It was the passion she felt for the wellbeing of her family that helped her carry on. From her I’ve learned about strength and resilience.
The day after my father died I woke up at dawn and found Aunt Fanny sitting in our living room with a worn-out tote on the floor next to her. The lines on her face looked deeper than usual and reminded me of my father’s funeral later that day. My mother sat by me and asked me if I wanted to see his body one last time, but I told her I’d prefer to remember him full of life. My aunt pulled a red fruit from her bag and handed it to me. I was eleven years old and I’d never seen an apple. I took a bite and grimaced, handing the bitten fruit to my mother. The bitterness dissolved like ashes in my mouth.
That day I couldn’t recognize the sweet aftertaste of the fruit, but life has presented me with many apples, and I’ve learned to appreciate (if not accept) its flavor.
When our mother became ill, Aunt Fanny came from Cuba to be with her sister until the end. Having a mother figure to keep us grounded when our world seemed to collapse brought us great comfort. There were tears and laughs, but mostly tears. The cancer that was taking our mother was also drilling a bottomless hole in each one of our hearts. Aunt Fanny held our mother by the hand, as she must have done countless times when they were young girls, and accompanied her as far as she could in this earthly journey.
I wish my cousins had the certainty that I have at this moment, that our mother’s hand will be waiting for Aunt Fanny on the other side of the veil to guide her first steps into the unknown. A new adventure for two sisters that have always been very close. Yes, there will be laughs and tears, but mostly laughs. And yes, there will be a bottomless hole in each one of my cousins’ hearts, but that is necessary.
You see, the seed of a mother’s love is always present, even in the darkest of places. The hole must be deep for the roots to grow deep and the branches to reach high. And time will do its thing. It will cover that void with small grains of Hope, making the ground fertile. The day will come when they’ll realize that where the bottomless hole once was, now stands a majestic fruit-bearing tree. Its fruit teaches us the hard lessons in life, but its seed is the immeasurable treasure can be passed down to generations to come.