It’s been over a year since my great aunt passed away. There was the purchase of an emergency plane ticket to try and make it home to say all the things I had left to say, the phone call that informed me that it was too late and the preparations to return for the funeral instead, a eulogy that felt chilled and prescribed, and finally a burial that laid her to rest next to her husband, whom she had lost two years before. I returned to Oregon dazed by the event, but jumped back into life, distracted by work and preparing to have a baby in a few months. It didn’t really feel like I actively mourned her death, rather I simply checked it off a to-do list.

To be honest, it felt like I had lost my aunt months before she physically passed away. It was after a phone call in November, a few weeks shy of my 32nd birthday. We tried to talk, but the conversation was filled with long silences and she kept saying, “I’m sorry hon, I can’t understand you.” I tried calling her back on my mom’s cell phone, with the volume as high as it would go, but it yielded the same result. I hung up and sobbed. It felt as if I had lost her when we could no longer communicate, when she no longer asked me questions about work or could tell me what she ate for lunch.

Between November and April, I mourned the loss of this relationship in different ways. I wrote about her, trying to capture every memory in as many details as I could scrape up. I did this before she died so she could read my words, though I never heard whether she read it, or understood it, or what she thought. I cooked her recipes and used her dishes to serve them to people I loved. I urged e to have seconds and thirds, the way she always did. And as if it were a closing chapter in a book, I sobbed in my mother’s arms as we stood in front of her open casket. At first it felt complete.

In the wake of her real death, came the eventual revelation of my great aunt’s trust. Though the details of which don’t need to be shared, suffice it to say, everything of sentimental value was not left to anyone in my immediate family. And soon, the gloves of politeness and feigned interest quickly came off, leaving a bare knuckle fight between siblings through lawyers and formal letters. The finality of my aunt’s death severed the dangling thread which tied our extended family together for over twenty years and exposed an ugly reality in all of us. Anger, jealousy, and unforgiveness all bubbled to the surface of our grief like a sulfurous mud pot.

In June, I went home to visit family. On my way to my sister’s house, I drove past my aunt and uncle’s farm. The brick house stood there a few hundred feet away. The bushes were neatly trimmed below the window where she and my uncle would always wave goodbye. I could almost see her come out the front door to water the nonexistent geraniums. I wanted to pull in, to sneak behind the house and look, just in case there was a dishtowel on the clothes line or some sign of life. But I couldn’t pull into the drive. Just like in a hundred dreams I’ve had since she passed away, I feared the cops would be called and I’d be escorted out. I feared they’d know. 

As I drove away, it felt as if the wind was knocked out of me. The reality of her being gone had hit me like a ton of bricks. I would never again sit on the couch in the den, or fiddle with the keys in the dish by the back door, or help set the table with the largest glass set out for my uncle’s milk. I would never again sleep in the guest bed with the sage green headboard. The bed I shared, three abreast with my cousin and my sister. The bed my aunt bought for her mother to use when she came to stay. The one she said I could have. It felt like such a robbery.

And in between each raw feeling of loss was a layer of guilt. Am I really that greedy? Why do I care about all these THINGS? My aunt had already given me so much. I didn’t need or necessarily deserve anything more. I felt like a four year old throwing a tantrum because she didn’t get a pony for her birthday even though the gifts were piled high. On top of all of this was a heaping spoonful of resentment. Not only do I not have those things but they have them. And they will probably just throw things out because they don’t know the story behind them. They are clearly heartless and pure evil.

When my father died, I would go into his closet and smell his shirts. I would stand in his workshop in the basement and study his tools on the wall. I collected all the pictures I could find of him and put them in a box next to my bed. But with my aunt, it was as if I stood on one side of a cliff where a bridge once existed. On the other side, I saw all the material things that I once felt ownership over. A grandfather clock, a cottage on a lake, a child’s rocking chair. The gaping, impossible precipice that was created in between made me weep and feel desperate because most days my memories don’t feel as if they are enough. I miss her so much…but it is more than just this word “miss”. I miss eating cheese and getting snail mail letters. Miss doesn’t quite cut it when it comes to a person.

A few years ago, I bought a coffee table book for my sister called Lost in Translation. Included with cute little pictures were words that can’t be directly translated into English. Amid the Norwegian “Palegg” which apparently means anything you put on a slice of bread and the Arabic “Gurfa” which is the amount of water you can hold in your hand, a Portuguese word stuck out to me. Saudade. It’s used in a rough sense to describe missing something that you will never have again or homesickness for a place to which you will never return. But that is not exactly what it means, since it can’t really be translated. I had been thinking about this word in relation to my aunt when a friend of mine posted pictures of her trip home to Brazil on Facebook. At the top of one of her posts there was that word, “Saudades”. Curious, I decided to ask her what it really means. She explained,


Yes. This. When she explained it to me, it’s as if a light came on. This word describes perfectly what I have been feeling this last year.

Losing my aunt has given me so much saudade I feel a bit over-emotional most days. Like, the first strum of a guitar string causing the water-works to immediately flow, kind of emotional. I’m realizing that beyond missing my aunt, I miss home. Not in the sense of a particular location, home as in a feeling, a sound, a smell. The bristly fake grass carpet that scratched my shoulders while lying on the floating dock at Higgins lake, the taste of strawberries picked directly from the patch, the sound of a speed boat on the water very early in the morning, the smell of the hot truck tire my dad used to make a sandbox for us. In moments where living life feels like one more dirty dish in the sink and the eery expectation of depressing evening news, I have saudade for these things, for my childhood, for innocence.

I think then about the other part of my friend’s definition when she said that saudade is “a solidified and eternal feeling.” For some reason, this gives me peace. It’s not like the paralysis of fresh grief. It’s not something I carry with me, separate from me, a weight necessarily. I will grieve the loss of the physical things and that feeling will eventually go. But I will have saudade forever. It’s become a part of my bones.

© 2016 D. Willson

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