Dear Auntie,

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You’ve been gone for almost 18 years, and I miss you every day. There is so much I would tell you if you were here to challenge me to a game of Scrabble over a box of donuts. Remember the day we practically made ourselves sick? We didn’t eat all the donuts. We had some semblance of self-respect, nibbling a little on each flavor to take it all in without literally taking it all in.

Remember the day we shoplifted earrings and makeup from Woolworth’s? We used our stealth, our sly desire for cheap, criminal beauty to slide those silver, dangling things and plastic-wrapped lipsticks into our purses. I was a thief but also a bolt of lightning, coming alive under fluorescent lights, following your lead. Ethics aside, you taught me to lay down my fear so I could hold excitement in my hands. At your apartment, we counted our loot, and somehow, the lipstick I’d lifted didn’t make it home. We retraced our steps to the car and under the seats and floor mats. I didn’t acknowledge then the irony of my dismay. I didn’t deserve that lipstick. I hadn’t earned it. But what I got was the memory—the sweet rebel memory of being with you.

When we discovered you’d died, Phil and I arrived at your place to clean it up and divide your belongings. Strangers had already been there, rifling through your things like trash. The air in your apartment stunk of death—you had left, but you still remained. You lingered there like a foul perfume, like a soul angry about the life you’d lived and furious about when and how you’d died. I held my breath as I stepped over the stain of you, the spot where you fell, trying not to get you on the soles of my white Adidas. My mind rattled—and my teeth and my chest. I heaved and tried to pass through the thought of you like a shadow through the mist. My task was to clean up, clear out, and move on as if you’d never existed. That was how I was supposed to get it done.

Phil and his friend Tim rented a U-Haul, and they had everything under control—everything but me—so I left them standing in your space, their hands on your glass animal menagerie, Elvis vinyl, and the couch where Mom tried to strangle me in my sleep. I left them alone because they had each other, and I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t be an adult, couldn’t be responsible enough to do the stoic and objective job of throwing you away.

When I look back on that moment, I wish I’d been made of stone and steel. My brother grieved the loss of you, too, but he was built out of resolve and duty, love and respect. So he let me go. He knew that your death had broken. I wish I’d had that bolt of lightning in me so I could have blasted through the project, lifted your precious items from your home, and reinforced my love for you with inner strength. But I was weak and small. I cried in my car, letting the 80 degree weather layer through me like the fire of great loss.

You were my favorite. You, with your frizzy hair and chip-toothed smile. You, with your easy laugh as you danced to Gary Numan’s “Cars.” You, with your non-judgmental eyes and unconditional support. And your untimely death showed me a new kind of loneliness.

Sometimes I daydream you’re here with me. We stroll through the mall and lift lipstick and shiny earrings delicately from unsupervised counters. We make it home with everything and each other. And there is no death, no fear, no facing the day without you. But those are dreams. You’re gone, but the memory of you is so thick I can almost touch it. Thank you for hanging on. Don’t ever let me go.

Love, Me

photo: David Taffet

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