December 8, 2011

Superheroes & Angels

Grief is a weird thing. It's strange, unpredictable, terrifying, and sometimes awkward. 

It's easy to feel comforted by family and by laughter of happy memories, but on a moment's notice the laughs quickly turn to tears. Maybe it's an expression in a photo, or a memory lingering in your mind that reminds you things aren't the same. For me, the moments when I notice the absence of a laugh or the spark of a story are the ones that weigh most heavy.

My aunt passed away on Monday after bravely beating back cancer for six years. Without a doubt, she is the bravest person I've ever known. She lived her best life; loving with all she had and enduring unimaginable pain with a gracious smile, all so that we could enjoy her for as long as she could possibly handle it.

She was a superhero, a warrior...and over the course of the last few years, she made people around her believe she was unbeatable. Incredibly, she did it all with grace and acceptance. She could have been bitter or angry and dwelled on the unfairness of it all, but that attitude would have killed her a long time ago. Instead, she proceeded with her kind reserve and spunk for which we all knew her best. Along the way, she inspired all those around her to live more intentionally, boldly, and graciously.

I knew before I even answered my phone at 5:45 Monday morning. As soon as I saw my mom's caller ID, my brain rushed through a panicky thought I know what this must be, but if I don't answer the call maybe it won't be real. Maybe my mom forgot about the time change? I hope this isn't what I think... "Hello?" I said in a groveled, half-asleep voice.

And so the week of tears, hugs, plane tickets, work arrangements, and missed calls with accompanying voice messages of love and support began... 

As much as I knew I needed to be home, part of me was terrified. It's almost as if being in a faraway place keeps the gravity of the situation off in the distance. It's scary anticipating the wall of emotion that you know will inevitably hit you the instant you're physically in a place in which your loved one spent a lot of time.

Awful as they may be, they are emotions that need to be felt, recognized, and healed through the love and support of family and friends.

Three years ago, my aunt, uncle, and cousins came to visit me during my last week in Rome. We stayed in a rented apartment just a block away from the Spanish Steps and I proudly paraded my family around the city I was head over heels for. We cooked beautiful, huge dinners in the apartment and haphazardly slept on pullout couches and mattresses. (And nearly every night I had something outrageous to say in my sleep, which gave everyone a good laugh in the morning).

I cherish that trip so much. It was during that period when I realized that even though cancer has the power to eat through a body, it can't come close to a soul. Even as my aunt's disease spread, shrunk, grew, and morphed inside her body, she was transforming her life outside her skin. She was living in exultation, genuinely cherishing her family and friends and soaking in the scenery and smells every single day. 

She was perseverance, grace, kindness, and love. Those are things that no disease -- not even cancer -- can ever, ever take away.