Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Live for the Moment: The Death of a Loved One Can Remind Us to Stop Worrying about the Past and Focus on the Present

Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Live for the Moment: The Death of a Loved One Can Remind Us to Stop Worrying about the Past and Focus on the Present

Article excerpt

Death comes into the family circle bearing more than loss and grief. It also brings with it a tide of memories swirling and eddying around the corners of every heart. Some of us remember the good times, full of love and promise. Others recall only unredressed injury and unresolved injustice. Many of us find, in the sweep of memories disturbed from the archives of the past, a chaotic juxtaposition of what we did and what we failed to do, what was done and what was left undone.

When my aunt died this past year, it was like that for most of us. She had been the matriarch of the family for almost two decades. Each generation had its own memories of this woman. The youngest children recalled only a gray-haired elderly woman sitting quietly at the table during family reunions. Others of us remembered her as an alert, articulate, vibrant person, quick with a joke, tough to beat at canasta, showing up on holidays as the final honored guest everyone anticipated with eagerness.

My aunt had helped her foreign-born mother learn English just as she herself was learning to speak it in school at the age of 6. She was the first person in that generation of our family to go to college. She loved books and learning, traveled quite a bit, and had an air of assurance about her place in the world that the rest of us more sheltered members lacked. My father, the baby of the family, viewed her as a second mother who had played a significant role in his upbringing. Her younger sister remembers her as a caregiver during illnesses and a companion during the long late years that would have otherwise been solitary for both of them.

Quite frankly, I adored my aunt. No matter how busy and engaged she was at the grown-up table, she turned to me immediately when I wriggled my child body between elbows and coffee cups and ashtrays near enough to gain her attention. She would sweep an arm around me lovingly, pull me in closer, and ask how I was doing. Never mind the roars of protest from the cardplayers or storytellers at the table: She always gave me her full attention as if this conversation we were having was the only one worth having, as if this tiny edge of our multigenerational family world was all that mattered.

Often she brought me books to read, which were always the best ones I got my hands on. If she showed up only once in a year, that day glowed on the calendar. Because there was a 35-year difference in our ages, I little appreciated the circumstances of her life. Her first beloved husband died suddenly and young. Her three children then had to be provided for. She moved her family back in with her own parents so that she could go to college to earn a sufficient living. The difficulties facing a woman in academia at that time meant that she fought for everything she had. Her children grew up with a dead father and mostly absent mother. The years weren't kind to that little branch of the family tree: Relationships frayed and splintered, and not all would be repaired.

There was a second marriage for my aunt late in life, entered into on a wave of romanticism. Just as quickly, it expired on the low tide of reality. She developed chronic health issues that cumulatively led to a downward spiral of physical and mental deterioration, little by little eroding her vigor and joy. She became, uncharacteristically, a worrier. Her last letters to me before she stopped writing altogether were mournful backward glances. Things hadn't gone as she planned. She regretted much.

As we lost this good woman in stages in her final years, I took comfort in St. …

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