In the funeral hall reception area, I watch aunt Eileen small, gentle, and old when I was young, sit, confused by the shapes and sounds that suggest activity beyond her understanding. Her cobalt-blue eyes never waver, but never settle on anything.
I find strange discomfort watching her, for I remember days of brownies and fudge that she’d sneak us when the family got together. We, cousins, reveled with her in conspiracy against our parents’ stuffiness. All brownies since then remind me of the stomachaches I got from too many on the sly. Milk would help, she warned, but I was often too far-gone and too close to giving it all back in a rush. Don’t you dare, she’d say, laughing behind her hand.
Even now, I spontaneously hold my stomach.
She was the naughty, youngest in my father’s family. Lil Eileen they called her until, although still little, she didn’t know who she was and they stopped. All through their childhood, my father protected her innocence and curiosity. Until the day he died, he was envious of her freedom and exuberance; of her openness and infectious laughter; of the love she had for her late husband, Max, who died from lip and jaw cancer. They kept the kids from him.
After Max passed, her joy went away for a while, but returned later to blaze in a room. It was my father, her brother, who brightened her eyes. While he was alive, they wrote letters and talked at get-togethers with a humor that no one else understood, as though they’d boarded a train together, leaving everyone else behind. They would laugh at their own jokes in their self-imposed isolation. My mother resented their casual, comfortable friendliness, their inside jokes, their secret language that invited no neophytes.
My cousin, Aunt Eileen’s son, interrupted my thoughts. “Too bad about Uncle Ben, huh, Dave?”
“I guess,” I said. “He went into extra innings, though. The commissioner just stepped in and made the whole thing official.”
“That’s cold. He was a nice guy,” he said.
“I was just looking at your mom and got depressed. It’s like a part of us, our childhood, is fading away with them.”
“How’s your mom doing? She looks so alone, sitting there. Makes me sad.”
“You might be sad, but she’s warm and fed. Why don’t you come over with me? You can say hi to her. You’ll see she’s not suffering.”
The two of us, grown men with families, passed unnoticed through the islands of relatives involved in funeral conversations.
Aunt Eileen, tastefully dressed, sits on a brocaded chair, backed by neutral drapes with sashes at proper angles. It is a regal arrangement of person and place, but the life in the picture misses the spark of curiosity.
My cousin leans forward and gently puts his hand on his mother’s shoulder. She tenses as though surprised in the night. “Mother?” he says quietly.
He turns to me and explains as though she’s not there, “We have to do everything slowly or she cries. The doctor thinks she’s afraid, you know, like a child in a new place.”
I nod with understanding, but begin to regret allowing myself to get so close to the shell of my favorite aunt.
“Mother?” he says again. “You have a visitor.” He stands and tries to have her follow his hand pointing in my direction.
My heart pounds as though taking a test for which I am unprepared. This very sad reunion weakens the muscles in my legs and dries the inside of my mouth. After all, what do you say into an empty well?
“Aunt Eileen,” I say. “It’s good to see you.”
I watch her eyes widen and focus, looking at the space in front of her. Then, she forces herself to center attention on me, my face.
I smile in defense.
She takes a deep breath and, with no assistance, stands by herself. I step back, startled, amazed, afraid of what might happen.
My relatives in the room stop talking and turn in our direction.
I watch as Aunt Eileen smiles. Tears well in her eyes and creep over her cheek, following a furrow made by a lifetime of laughter. Again she breathes deeply and says to me, “Harold? Where have you been?”
Harold, my father, and I had a strong family resemblance, but we were not identical. I watched her joy at seeing my dead father again.
“Eileen,” I say. “I’ve been away, but I’m here to see you now.”
She reaches out and takes my right hand in both of hers. Cold, thin, bony, old-lady hands squeeze mine in a burst of recognition and relief. Then she releases my hand and cradles my face, framing it with her hands, as she used to with us, her nieces and nephews. Gently holding me and my full attention, she invades my eyes, my soul, and asks, “How’s little Davy and what’s-her-name, you know, your wife?”
What’s-her-name. How perfect. It was always my father and me. When we got together, my mother became insignificant.
Her hands begin to quiver from effort and slid from my face to her side.
“They’re fine,” I say.
“Davy must be getting big. Is he here?” She looks around the room. “Don’t tell what’s-her-name, but I made a big batch of brownies. Tell Davy they’re in the kitchen, next to the sink.”
“I’ll tell him,” I say.
She looks over my shoulder, beyond me. “You know, Max and I are planning to take an Alaskan cruise this summer. Last year we tried to get reservations, but they were all booked up. I told him we shouldn’t have waited. He’s so stubborn. If we want to go, we should just do it. You never know what might happen. You know, a plane might fall on your head and screw everything up.” She chuckles at her own wisdom.
I look at my cousin, but he wasn’t aware of me. He was wrapped up with his mother.
“He’s right about the cruise,” I confide. “You never can tell.”
“It would be fun if you and the family could come along. Some day, I guess…” and her thoughts drift.
“Why don’t we sit here and talk,” I suggest. I hold her as she settles back onto the couch.
We sit, shoulder-to-shoulder, brother and sister, and chat about the kids.
We sit for the last time ever and talk about the future and her hopes for the trips they were going to take and the weddings they were looking forward to.
In that chapel, celebrating the life of a dead uncle, I sit with a dying aunt and become my father, a role I never wished for. We fill each other with the joy of rekindled love and uncompromised friendship.
After a brief time she says, “I don’t know what’s getting in to me, maybe a cold, but I’m really very tired.”
“Don’t let me keep you.”
“Well, brother, don’t be a stranger. It’s been good to see you,” she says.
“Be well, Eileen,” I say to her as I watch those tired eyes lose the glow that had lit the room.
“I am now,” she says and smiles.
My cousin, tears in his eyes, holds her elbow as she stands slowly. He leads her to the door and into the afternoon breezes. I sit on the couch and watch her leave.
David Sahl is a retired high school English teacher. He lives in the Boston area with his wife and daughter. Considering that he taught English for thirty-three years, he thought he knew all about writing. That was until he began attending summer writing seminars and realized there was more to it than having a good idea and runing with it. He's currently working on his third novel.