BY LYDIA A. CYRUS
I have only taken communion twice in my life. Both times at a church in Georgia when I was visiting with relatives. I grew up in a Baptist church that didn’t take communion. We did, however, have a Sunday school lesson on it once. The bread symbolizes the body of Christ and the wine is His blood. We drew wine glasses and bread loafs on Styrofoam plates and in purple crayon wrote: do this in remembrance of me across the rim of the plate. Those plates hung in our youth room from purple ribbons. I remember that cream colored carpet, the sliding glass door that overlooked the yard. Our youth room was a part of an old house that had been converted into a church building. There were grey filing cabinets too. I remember many things.
I think I’m going to give up alcohol for good now. It’s not that I have a problem with it; I’ve never so much as finished off a bottle of beer on my own. It’s something else, something bigger, that’s led me to make this choice. The last time I had a drop of booze was in August, now it’s December. I want to stay sober because someone I loved dearly died in December of last year and because for months after that I abused myself and took advantage of sleeping aids. I just wanted some sleep. I know that. It was hard to close my eyes for more than ten minutes when one of the women who raised me was dying in her bedroom. Then it became impossible to sleep after I sat in her bedroom with her the moment she died.
I never felt like an adult woman until the night she died. Just like that, I was grown and responsible and had to get my life together any way I could. I was the only grandchild in the house with her when she died and it was my job to walk to the neighbor’s house to tell all of the other "kids" that she died. I remember opening the door and seeing them all playing a card game and somehow they knew when they saw me that it had happened. When the undertaker came to take her, my uncle hustled everyone back across the road. You don’t need to see this he said but then he left me there. I watched them take her out on the gurney in a bag. If I had known, if I had had any clue what it would do to me, I would have walked home.
Aunt Martha was always a stable fixture in my childhood. My father’s aunt, she lived in just two houses away from my own home. She was my first babysitter. She used to tell me stories about how she would lay me on a blanket in the floor and let her cat, Tigger, watch over me. The cat wouldn’t let anyone touch me nor would he let me crawl very far before he would get someone’s attention. Aunt Martha used to sew quilts when she was still able to, before her hands became too brittle for it. I wonder sometimes if she saw patterns in me: as she watched me lay in the floor and again later as I grew up in front of her.
I remember one occasion when I spent the night with her. Her granddaughter, Katie, had come to visit from North Carolina. We slept side by side on the futon after spending hours whispering to each other after Aunt Martha went to bed. Her bedroom was just a few steps away from us as we talked about how Katie’s family had ties to the Blackfoot tribe. When we woke up the next morning, Aunt Martha made us homemade pancakes from Jiffy mix and chocolate chips. The pancakes were thin and bubbly and tasted a lot like cornbread. I remember my grandmother laughing about it and telling me that that was the only way Martha knew how to make pancakes.
My mother says that she feels the presence of my aunt a lot. Something in the way the curtains move and shake when the wind blows makes my mother feel her there. I’ve never experienced that. A month ago, however, I experienced something else. I had dreams about her often after she died. In the beginning, it felt kind of her to show up like that. Despite the experience of watching her die and then seeing her body leave, I never had nightmares. It was always dreams about her talking to me and being confused over my crying. Even in my dreams I would cry because I was aware of it being a dream.
The last dream, the worst dream, came shortly after the bank repossessed her empty home. Her children have fought with each other since she passed away and no one made payments. They tore the house in half and dragged it away. Pink clouds of insulation were caught in the trees and in the ditches. It broke my heart in such a profound way that I sobbed uncontrollably the night they did it. It felt like she had died twice and both times I got watch it happen. In the dream, she was standing on what is left of the side porch. She was wearing her windbreaker and green sweat pants with a cigarette in her hand. She had her glasses on and her hair was coifed the way she always wore it.
Again, I cried. She crossed the space between us quickly and reached out for my hand and was concerned over my tears. I woke up immediately in real tears. It won’t ever matter how old I am—how old I feel—I will always cry for her. My mother caught me going to the bathroom to splash cold water on my face and she asked what was wrong. When I told her what had happened I cried even harder. I miss her so much, it still hurts so much. My mother said, "She just wanted to see you. She just wanted you to know she’s okay."
When Aunt Martha started dying, I wasn’t prepared. A week before she got sick we made Chex Mix together. Chex Mix I would throw together into red Tupperware containers and pass along to friends. We watched the news together a lot then. I would walk to her house to watch political debates because I didn’t have cable at home. Many things were changing in America then, in our lives too. There was talk about Aunt Martha being moved into a home with one of her kids. Getting too frail to live alone. The tiny cuts and bruises all over her arms and legs proved that. We ignored it, she and I. We both knew better.
The night she died I was sitting in the room with her when it happened. Her black hair was flat against her forehead and her mouth was open. I was tasked with the job of walking to the neighbor’s house to tell all of the other grandchildren what had happened. I opened the door and didn’t know how to say it. But my lack of voice and tears were enough. I remember all of us crammed into this tiny house and everyone rung with grief. No surface left untouched by the massive loss. I remember waking up the next day and knowing that she was gone but hoping it hadn’t really happened.
Anyone will tell you that a wound will never heal if you continue to pick the scab. So I can’t help but wonder if I’ll ever cope with the loss of her if she continues to visit me this way. Maybe it’s because I took one of her pillows when she died and I sleep with it every night. Maybe if I gave it away or set it aside this wouldn’t be the case anymore. But I can’t part with it. I can’t part with her candles, her Christmas ornaments, or even her silverware.
The night that she died my cousin John disappeared. John and I are ten months apart and grew up like siblings: he was always a better brother to me than my own brother was. I taught him how to drive and bought him cigars when he was younger. He loved our aunt just as much as I did, maybe even more. He got drunk, really drunk, and took off in his pickup truck. He crashed too. Into a ditch and no one ever told me until months and months after. I remember seeing pine tree branches in the grill of his truck and asking about it. I remember him getting angry and walking away from me.
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After she died, John got deployed to Hawaii with the army. He would call and text constantly over the summer in tears telling me that he had an alcohol problem. He could be completely wasted by nine in the morning and it interfered with his job as a truck driver. I couldn’t handle it. He was so far away from me, there in Hawaii, and I lashed out at him. I was so hard on him with the way I said no one is going to stick around and watch you become a drunk. I told him he needed to go to therapy and talk about it all with someone. What I want to say to him now, what I should have said then, was please don’t do what I have done. Baby Brother, please don’t waste your body and throw it away. Because I did wrong too. I drove faster than I should have. I took pills to sleep at night for months. I was ragged all over for months and never told anyone. Now we’re separated by an ocean and we never got the time to grieve together. He got drunk, I got some sleep. Neither of us did it right.
The first few weeks felt like they would never pass. She died just two weeks before Christmas. I had already picked out gifts for her, gifts that sat under our tree untouched. I remember that my parents were gone a lot to visit another ailing family members in the hospital. One day I accidentally toppled over a box of random bathroom trinkets. A bottle of denture cleaner spilled onto to my barefoot. I got a chemical burn from it. I remember running to the bathroom and back trying to run cold water over it to stop the burning. It felt so much like the flesh was being ate to the bone. I didn’t know what to do then, that had never happened before.
I cried not from the physical pain but from the pain of remembering all of the times I had done something wrong and had to turn to someone. All the times I turned to Aunt Martha and she knew what to do. She would’ve known what to do. Instead I settled for a phone call with my mother, as she was in another state in a hospital room telling me how to treat the wound. I sat on the couch wrapped in blankets with my foot in a bowl of ice water.
Everyone assumed I missed my aunt but no one ever asked. As angry as I get with myself sometimes I can’t help but point out that no one ever asked. She died, her children fought over money and who got to keep what. Her sister, my grandmother, banned me from taking anything out of the house and refused to give me anything. I tried hard to remember every time my aunt had ever hugged me, kissed me, or told me she loved me. But I found that I couldn’t remember much. I felt so empty that I lost weight, I lost friends, I lost sense of myself. I lost.
During the summer months, I used to sit on her porch and swing with her. This summer, the first without her, I would walk to her house alone. It’s not like no one could see me, I just think we all pretended that it wasn’t happening. I would stand on the porch and look into the sliding glass door. I would make myself stand up straight and think to myself if you won’t take care of yourself, no one else ever will. As much as I think I became a woman the moment she died, I know it was in moments where I was staring at my reflection in tears that I really aged the most.
The day after she died all of the granddaughters were supposed to go out to lunch together. It was planned in advance so that everyone would be included: all of us. We were going to go to the local Mexican restaurant to eat together while we had the chance to. I remember putting on makeup and being a little excited. Excitement I tried to swallow as it came at a time when no one should have been anything other than sad. Except, it didn’t work out the way we planned it. All of the other grandkids made other plans without my knowledge of doing so.
So when my mother and I pulled into the empty parking lot of the Mexican restaurant I started to weep. I just want to go home, please take me home. I wasn’t hungry anymore. It hurt too much to be left out, to be missing someone who had died. It was raining and it was cold. I remember sitting in that restaurant alone with my mother and how we couldn’t look at each other. I was the one in the room with her when she died and I watched them take her away. I spent every day with her for years. Years when her kids weren’t around, when their children hated her. All I ever did was love them all. I loved them more in those moments after she died and they made sure I ate lunch alone.
I want to tell her so many things. John lives in Hawaii now and he drinks. He’ll get to come home for Christmas and it’ll be the first time we’ve seen each other in a year. I wonder if he’ll look different or if I’ll look different to him. I cut my hair off in March, so short that it didn’t touch my neck anymore. Everyone kept telling me I looked mature. They didn’t speculate about how the last time I cut my hair, in November, my aunt ran her fingers through my curls and remarked on how much she loved it. Then I lost my aunt and I lost the desire to brush my hair. So I cut it off.
I want to tell her how our cousin Hayley got married too. I was a bridesmaid in that wedding. I missed my aunt then too and I wondered what a wedding of my own would be like without her there. I wondered how I could possibly celebrate graduating from college without her. She always wanted to see that happen so badly that now that she can’t…I don’t know if I can. She died on December sixteenth. Nothing felt right about the poinsettias people left for her or the metallic wrapping paper we had wrapped her gifts in. Her house still smelled like the cheesecake wax tarts I had given her just two weeks before. Walmart doesn’t sell those tarts anymore and I know because I’ve searched high and low for them.
I don’t think it’s right to be full-grown at twenty-two. There’s still so much youth left for me. I didn’t think she would be gone from my life at twenty-one. It’s possible that I’m not really an adult yet: I’m just pretending to be. Maybe grief lasts forever and it’ll never be finished with me, with any of us. In the coming years, the grass is going to start growing over the empty dirt where her house used to stand. The debris left behind will disappear too and everything will go back to the way it was before we were even here. Nature returns all things and consumes all things just like grief.
It may happen that one life is all there is and that I won’t see her again. But even that isn’t right because I have seen her several times since she died. She visits me in dreams every so often. Never when I want her to and always when it’s not expected. For my mother, she lives in this house and moves in it. I guess we believe in whatever we need to in order to get over it. We drink and we consume and we move on. In this way, I became a flawed adult at the age of twenty-one.
I’ve decided to give up alcohol because it makes sense. It doesn’t bring me anything other than heaviness. I’ve given up taking pills to get to sleep at night because it’s been a year now and the memory of someone dying isn’t as sharp now. It just makes sense now. I have to take care of myself because no one else will. I have to start building my life again. I just wish I hadn’t lost so much in order to want that for myself. I wish that every single day my aunt hadn’t died all while knowing damn well that she did. She died and life goes on and finding the way to live through that has been the hardest part. That’s just part of it.
I don’t go to church anymore, I haven’t since I was sixteen. There is no communion in that way. I suspect when John drinks he thinks it’s a sacrament of different kinds. In the same way I would crawl into bed and wait for my eyes to get heavy. She loved honey buns and coffee. She smoked Marlboros Special Blend 100’s. She read trashy romance novels and watched NCIS every night before bed. She had a dog named Ginger. My own dog, Bear, cried and ran through her house after she died. He couldn’t find her there. I could only say baby, I know.
I can’t wait for my brother to come home. He’ll be home on December 17th. The day after the one-year anniversary of her death. We’re going out to eat. He asked are you going to do shots with me? And I said no. I said no and I don’t drink anymore, I don’t do anything like that anymore.
Lydia A. Cyrus is a creative nonfiction writer and poet from Huntington, West Virginia. Her work as been featured in Thoreau's Rooster, Adelaide Literary Magazine, The Albion Review, and Luna Luna. Her essay "We Love You Anyway," was featured in the 2017 anthology Family Don't End with Blood which chronicles the lives of fans and actors from the television show Supernatural.
She lives and works in Huntington where she spends her time being politically active and volunteering. She is a proud Mountain Woman who strives to make positive change in Southern Appalachia. She enjoys the color red and all things Wonder Woman related! You can usually find her walking around the woods and surrounding areas as she strives to find solitude in the natural world. Twitter: @lydiaacyrus