I never told her goodbye. Not at the end. Not ever. We had a rule-because we were so close it seemed ridiculous to act as though it would ever end. Silly and unnecessary. But at this exact moment, my psyche needs a goodbye so that I can deal with the violence. I know I won’t get it. I’m aware on a logical level that it can’t happen, but I am stuck. Trapped with the knowledge that she didn’t pass on mercifully in her sleep or even in a hospital bed, doped up on some industrial-grade painkiller.
Nell wasn’t actually my Aunt, though anyone who knows me now would be shocked by that. We looked alike, but that is too facile an explanation of our connection. I moved out here at sixteen, completely alone, and all I had was my Dad’s emergency cash that he hid in the loose baseboard in the den. Not quite a grand. I rented her spare room with no expectation that I’d know her any more than I’d know the bus driver on my route.
She had a way of reaching out to a person-by making a lot of food and offering you a plate. I was always starving, both for food and for company, though I thought I came off as cool and independent. So, she cooked and I ate and I talked. She found me a job at the drug store nearby. I didn’t ask her for help, but she knew I needed it.
I learned over the following months about her past: her husband who had died just a few months after they wed, her flirtations with organized religion and most importantly, her devotion to her friends. I began to count on Nell in ways I never did with my own family. She was a confidant and a mentor, but also devilishly funny in her observations. Her take on my perceived problems usually set me straight as soon as I was able to stop laughing.
I lived with her until I was twenty-one. I guess at that point she was probably in her late fifties and she was still running her jewelry shop. She never said anything, but I got the distinct impression that she was upset that I moved out. I had a boyfriend and it was too hard to get comfortable and intimate in her house. I visited her every Saturday at the shop and we usually had dinner after she closed. She was warm and affectionate and so supportive of me, even if I was sure she didn’t approve. Like a mother, really.
Over the next decade, I tried to stay on a Saturday schedule with her as much as I could. It was hard with my jobs, but I enjoyed her company more as I got older. She walked me down the aisle at my little wedding, beaming with pride as I danced awkwardly in my second-hand gown, but I could see a cloud behind her eyes. Perhaps it was a bit of jealousy or just her wishing she’d gotten more time out of her marriage. It killed me to move to Sacramento. Three hours away by car and that meant I couldn’t see her very often. I noticed her memory slipping, but not her giving nature. She made these little dolls with uneven smiles for my daughter, Kelley.
I hadn’t seen her for just over a year when I got the email from a friend of hers that I had never met. I thought I knew a lot about her, but I recognize now that I mistook her caring and support for me as a sign that I was always going to be number one in her world. That wasn’t fair and it wasn’t necessary. Nell was the right friend for me at the right time and I wouldn’t be as content in my skin without her clear example of what a friend should be.
I can’t accept her death. I don’t see how I can imagine a future where she does not get to embrace my daughter or get a chance to whisper a secret in her ear. A goofy secret she knows about me. Because until I met her, I had secrets I couldn’t admit to anyone and when the first one tumbled out, I realized I could tell her all of them. It was freeing and I felt safe, at long last. I hope she is free now.
© 2021 Jeff E. Brown. All rights reserved.
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