I had summer at Thanksgiving. Summer in the dead of winter. Summer during January thaw. Summer for my March birthday. And like Auntie, I never got tired of it and I was never down in the dumps like a lot of people in New England, frustrated by the ever-changing weather and dreary winter days. For all I had to do was enter Summer House and summer chased the blues away.
Auntie and I had a favorite game. While I was at school, she would often paint a new flower somewhere and when I got there it was my challenge to find it. Where would it be, what would it be? Would it be a barrel cactus in bloom? A hollyhock? A forsythia? Or would it be a sunflower, a begonia, or some crazy breed of rose or orchid that Auntie had seen somewhere in her life? I learned all about flowers and trees from Auntie. And I learned about life from her too, which seemed only fitting, since she had certainly lived it: she had hitchhiked around the world two times, had been around a third time by boat, she knew what it was like to be both rich and poor, and she was academically educated, with a Master’s of Fine Art from UCLA. Auntie had endless stories about her abundance of experiences.
I couldn’t have asked for a better friend. Even now that I am as old as Auntie was when she came home from Palm Springs, I never stop thinking about her.
This is where my story becomes extremely painful for me to tell.
Because I lost her. As easily and as naturally as I found her, I lost her.
The bliss lasted into my high school years. Auntie never seemed to age a day. But sometimes, when she thought I wasn’t looking, I could catch the end of a grimace or she would blink her eyes in obvious pain. Her lovely face would seem to sag and her eyes would look like a deer that knows it’s about to be the victim of a hunter. Sometimes I would hear my mother on the phone with someone at night. I didn’t want to believe it was her, because my mother would beg her to “seek help, please, before it’s too late.” Months went by before I got up the nerve to ask Auntie what these phone calls were all about.
She smiled tenderly at me, stroking my hair.
“I knew this day would come when I would have to tell you, Carrie.”
“Tell me what?”
“Carrie, I have an inoperable brain tumor. Do you know what that means?”
At that moment it seemed as though all the blood left my body, draining out through my toes. I started to shiver. But Auntie…she was so calm. Serene. Even happy.
“It means…you’re gonna die.”
“Yes, that’s true. We all are, Carrie.”
“There must be something that can be done, Auntie! An operation, or some medicine…”
She put her finger to her lips. “Shh…I don’t want to hear any of that. I’m not going to die a human skeleton with a bald head. I’m going to die looking like endless summer,” she whispered, as if telling a secret, and then she laughed even as I threw myself into her long, thin arms and bawled, lamenting about the unfairness of it all. And I was angry at her, so angry that I would not go to Summer House for over a month. That month was a long one and I worried about her constantly.