By Patrick McCarthy
I don’t see you as much of an aunt anymore. Sure, you have the same dark, thick hair as the rest of your siblings. You have the same sharp nose. The same creases on your face, running from your nose to the corners of your mouth. The same rigid jawline. The way you cackle, exposing your Long Island roots, matches the rest of the family. Yet my tongue struggles to place the word Aunt before your name. You seem like an old acquaintance.
Dad says that you’re manipulative. He has seen the way you corrode your siblings, has witnessed my mother fall under your hypnosis. Mom stays away from you. She says that you can tug at grandma’s loose strings until she rips open and gushes out cash. She describes how you used to stumble back home at 2 A.M reeking of vodka. She told me about when she called the cops on you. Told me about your first time in rehab, and your second, and your third. Told me how you would spit on her, and kick, and punch, and scream at her. She says that you stole her Beatles records when you were younger. “Probably pawned ‘em for drug money.”
A few years ago — around November — Mom sat me down at the kitchen table. She fumbled with her fingers as her throat began to twist. She said that you probably weren’t going to make it to Christmas.
An immediate silence rushed down the walls and filled up the room. My hands were the first in the room to respond. I trembled as I smeared snot into my sleeve. Tears seeped from my eyes like bubbling tar. I didn’t say anything; the air in my lungs was too thin to create words. Mom brought my chin to her shoulder. She held me in her hospitable embrace as I began to regain my composure. She didn’t tell me about familial dysautonomia, or about how your nerve cells were withering.
I didn’t visit you in the hospital. Mom didn’t want me to see how sick you were. She didn’t want me to hear the rattling of your emaciated ribcage. She didn’t want me to know how much of you had dwindled away.
So I wrote you a letter. I slowly pressed my pencil to the wide-ruled paper. I spent minutes on each word, making sure every curve and angle was drawn perfectly. I told you that I loved you and that you were going to get better. I don’t know if your achy fingers ever lifted the paper. I don’t know if your tired eyes ever crept through the sentences. I wonder if the letter helped you during recovery. If it helped you sneak past Christmas. Did my blind optimism ever nourish your starving muscles? Did my “I love you”s ever brighten the crimson of your blood?
The last time we spoke was at your daughter’s graduation. We hugged the moment we saw each other. Your shoulder blades pierced through your shirt and scraped my arms. Cigarette smoke plumed from your lips. Your voice crumbled into gravel. “You’ve gotten so tall,” you said with a sharp grin. Your coffee brown eyes were growing misty.
I wonder where you are now. Is my contact still on your phone? Are you still on Long Island? Are you still letting pills release fog into your skull? What tattered house are you inhabiting? Whose fingers are interlaced with yours? Who is falling in love with the deep milky white of your scars? Who are you screaming at with your shattered glass voice? What drink is rushing down your throat, stinging your esophagus and landing in your empty stomach? Do you know about your new niece? Do you know that she looks just like you? That she has your coffee brown eyes? That I feel sick when I stare into them.