She was the first one to see me, as I rounded toward the table with the name tags. Yes, our family reunion requires name tags.
"Leigh," Aunt Sue squealed with arms held open to embrace me, her pleasure evident. I half skipped into her embrace, my smile stretched across my face. Happy to be hugging my "favorite" aunt. We hadn't seen each other since my last big trip home at Christmas.
I greeted a few other family members. I'd arrived a little bit early so as to maximize my time there. From the reunion, I'd head home to Nashville but that was still several hours away.
I snagged Aunt Sue again for some quality catching up time. We sat at one of the many tables under the canopy and talked about the latest and greatest. I thought I need to get a picture with her but then we got distracted and I figured we'd do it later.
I took plenty of pictures that sunny afternoon in between eating and talking with as many people as possible. Each family group took a picture commemorating the 100th anniversary of the farm. We have plenty of commemorations from that day.
But I forgot to take that picture with Aunt Sue.
I shrugged about it then. We'd take a picture at Christmas.
I didn't know it would be the last time I saw her.
Two weeks ago, late Sunday or Monday, I was washing my face and getting ready for bed. Aunt Sue popped into my head.
"I need to email her," I thought. I missed her. She'd told me to email her when I left the reunion but I hadn't. I still forgot she'd embraced technology this past year and actually read and responded to messages now.
It was late and I was tempted to wait until the next day. But then I figured I'd forget all over again. So I pulled my laptop over and typed out an email in the dark. Just a breezy message with a few updates and noting I was bummed I wouldn't make it home for Thanksgiving. I asked how she was, asked how treatment had been going. I hit send and then padded into my bedroom.
A few days passed.
And then I learned she was in the hospital. Aunt Sue's multiple myeloma had been caught early a year prior. Her treatment went well the whole time, even achieving remission. There was no warning before this hospitalization.
No warning of how terribly wrong it would all go.
She died one week ago today.
I don't know if she read the email before everything changed. I hope she did.
Aunt Sue was loved by so many, they held the visitation at the church hall. About 800 people filed through before the day ended. I stepped into the hall and glimpsed the picture collages and the knickknacks representing my beloved aunt and it was almost more than I could bear.
I held the tears at bay until my cousin, one of her three sons, arrived. He folded me into his arms and we cried together.
Later I roamed the tables, looking over the ceramic chickens and the picture of us wearing Santa hats. I kept thinking she would come up behind me, put her arms around me, and tell me everything would be OK. She should have been there. But she wasn't. She never will be again.
It doesn't make sense.
First, Grandma. And now Aunt Sue. There is no replacing them.
Someone passed me and said, "don't look so glum, she'd want us to celebrate!" And I nodded mechanically, hating this so-called advice.
I can't celebrate someone's life until I've grieved their death. And to grieve their death, I must first accept they've died.
I celebrate Aunt Sue and what she meant to me and so many others.
I know she died but I haven't truly accepted it yet. I don't think any of us have. The shock runs too deep, just as the chasm she leaves behind.
This too shall pass. The days will turn into weeks and then into months and we'll adjust to life without her.
For now, I will remember her laugh, her smirk, the flow of new, delicious recipes.
I will remember all of our talks at the kitchen table, the couch, the swing, the way she always had time for me.
I will remember her encouragement, her wisdom, her focus on the ones before her.
I will wonder what our family will look like without her. I will support her children and grandchildren. We will remember together.
I will grieve our loss.
Linking up with Just Write over at Heather of the EO. Bear with me, friends. Things may be a bit quiet here.