My Aunt Donna would have turned 60 years old today. She died in May, a few days after my 35th birthday, 6 months after being diagnosed with lung cancer.
It happened fast. It happened painfully. But she’s not here anymore, so it feels like all that really matters is: It happened.
I remember the day my mom gathered our family together to tell us about Aunt Donna’s diagnosis. I either jumped immediately into denial or actually, literally believed she would be fine because of course she would. I was heartbroken that she would have to suffer, but I never really thought she was going to die. Aunt Donna was a runner and perhaps the most physically fit person in our family. She was strong in mind, body, and spirit — the most positive, vibrant person I’ve ever met. I never thought it would happen, and certainly never thought it would happen so quickly.
But it did.
* * *
I like to think of myself as a naturally introspective person. I’ve gone through enough therapy to know that processing experiences and emotions is a good and healthy thing. I try not to let things sit long enough to collect dust because I know I’ll feel better if I can plot the timeline or map the causes-and-effects. Working to make sense of the painful and complicated can often prove to be a fool’s errand, but it rarely stops me from trying.
But the reality that Aunt Donna isn’t here anymore has, for the better part of the last 5 months, felt too heavy to push through the stages of grief.
My parents have this electronic frame that cycles through photos our family has uploaded to it. When I stayed at their house for a week while they assisted my uncle with post-hospital preparations that no grieving person should have to endure, her photo popped up on the frame over and over and over:
We were smiling together, celebrating St. Patrick’s Day, wearing dorky, oversized shamrock headbands.
We were side by side in front of a waterfall near her home in the Tennessee mountains. As usual, she was wearing a bag across her body, carrying her beloved teacup yorkie Ella inside.
She was smiling with my mom. With our family. She was right there.
I had to turn the frame around because I couldn’t bear to be sad. I couldn’t bring myself to sit with the pain and reflect on what a beautiful person she was. I couldn’t look at her face, happy and alive. I couldn’t be thankful for the time we did have together because I was angry that we would never get to have more. I was angry for my uncle. I was angry for her. I was angry at God.
In July, my mom brought home a box of her belongings and asked if we wanted any of her stuff. Aunt Donna had given me so many gifts over the years, and I cherish them so much: jewelry, trinkets that reminded her of me, a blanket she crocheted. But when I watched my mom sift through the box of her clothes and shoes, I knew I wouldn’t be ok walking away with anything Aunt Donna didn’t give me herself. I knew I wouldn’t be able to wear it or even look at it without thinking I only have this because she’s dead.
* * *
Aunt Donna planned her own funeral, which she insisted we call a Celebration of Life. My siblings, cousins, and I performed the music for the service — all songs she picked out herself. I knew it would be difficult no matter which songs she had chosen, but hearing the lyrics for the first time only compounded the resentment that had been building inside of me.
I know You’re able and I know You can save through the fire with Your mighty hand
But even if You don’t, my hope is You alone
I know the sorrow, and I know the hurt would all go away if You’d just say the word
But even if You don’t, my hope is You alone
Translation: God, I know you have the full capability to heal me and spare us all from this heartbreaking tragedy, but it’s totally ok if you decide not to. I still love you anyway.
To say that I wasn’t on board with that sentiment is an understatement. I played it for her, of course, but believing those words felt like acceptance that it was Aunt Donna’s time to go — that she was supposed to die too young and I’m supposed to praise God for it. Even now, I still refuse to believe that her death “happened for a reason” or any other trite consolation a song could try to push on me.
She was the brightest light in a dark world. A dozen people stood up at her
funeral Celebration of Life to share stories and beautiful descriptions of Aunt Donna, and they weren’t just doing it out of kindness or obligation. Every single word they said about her generosity, positivity, inclusivity, and deep, genuine love for people and life and God — it was all completely true.
Aunt Donna was the first person I ever knew who talked openly and lovingly about her gay friends.
She proudly helped raise a child and grandchildren that weren’t biologically hers with the fiercest of loves.
She was the first person (Only person?) I knew who owned a thong bathing suit. “It’s my pool! If people want to look, that’s their problem!” — a motto I have adopted to justify walking around my own house in my underwear with the blinds open.
She helped me cut down my first Christmas tree.
She learned Vietnamese words so she could communicate with the women who gave her pedicures.
She learned everyone’s names and made every single person feel known and loved. I remember when she called to order a pizza and ended up chatting with the woman who was taking her order, because, of course Donna knew her.
She took my sister to get her first tattoo.
She hosted 30+ members of our extended family in her home for days at a time for multiple years when my grandparents passed away so we could continue to celebrate Christmas together.
She would often look over at me, make direct eye contact, and tell me I was beautiful. When I tried to refuse her compliments, she always said, “Say thank you!” with a glimmer in her eye. And I always did.
Every time someone told her they loved her, her automatic response was, “I love you more.”
She was the life of every party and was always 100% herself. She was endlessly kind but tolerated no bullshittery. She was the best. I wish you could have known her.
So, no, I didn’t feel like telling God it was ok that He could have made it all go away but He didn’t. And when we transitioned into It Is Well, her favorite hymn (and mine), the thought that repeated in my mind was the only one that made sense: It’s not fucking well.
* * *
This summer I spotted a purple flower in the very center of my front yard. I noticed it one day as I was backing out of the driveway and was so confused because it was just one single flower that grew tall above the grass surrounding it. Where did it even come from? It was a little mystery that made me smile, a surprise diamond in the rough.
During the next couple of weeks, I kept an eye on it and watered it when I could. Purple was Aunt Donna’s favorite color, so something about a purple flower popping up in the middle of the yard made me hope she was sending me a sign. I so badly wanted it to stay alive.
When leaves started falling from the two huge trees on either side of it, they buried my purple flower each day. When I came home from work, I would clear away the layers of leaves, but the damage was already done due to lack of sunlight. Over the course of the next few days, I watched it wither and droop low to the ground until, finally, it was completely gone.
I was hoping that if Aunt Donna were to send me a sign that it would last a little longer. It felt cruel to discover a tiny bit of hope that would ultimately die too soon. It was just another reminder.
* * *
Recently, a video of Stephen Colbert and Anderson Cooper having a conversation about grief was trending online. Colbert’s dad and brothers passed away in a plane crash when he was 10, and I think the conversation was recorded shortly after Cooper’s mother died.
Their interactions were honest and eloquent, as is to be expected from TV personalities. But the most extraordinary exchange came when Anderson Cooper questioned Stephen Colbert about a statement he had made in the past.
Anderson Cooper: “You once said, “What punishment of gods are not gifts?” Do you really believe that?”
Stephen Colbert: “Yes, it’s a gift to exist, and with existence comes suffering. There’s no escaping that. I don’t want it to have happened. I want it to not have happened. But if you’re grateful for your life – and I’m not always – then you have to be grateful for all of it.”
So, if you’re grateful for your life, then you have to be grateful for all of it, including all of the terrible things that have happened so far and all of the ones that are still to come. Ugh.
I’ve spent a lot of time wrestling with Colbert’s answer, trying to decide to what degree I agree with him. Everything in me wants believe in it so badly that I’d get it tattooed on my arm. But I’m still circling around somewhere in my disorganized cycle of grief, so I can’t do it yet. I reject the idea that I have to be grateful that Aunt Donna died. I am angry at the thought that I’ll ever have to get to a place where I accept and believe that.
* * *
In the midst of my resentment and questioning, I went to see Rob Bell on his speaking tour, “An Introduction to Joy.” Rob Bell is one of my spiritual beacons, a renowned heretical theologian whose progressive views on scripture make sense to me but tick a lot of evangelicals off. I had no idea what he was going to speak about, and when he started in with what felt like random anecdotes, I thought the rest would be difficult to navigate.
But then he said it, the thesis of the whole shebang:
Joy can wrap its arms around the full spectrum of the human experience.
The full spectrum: from innocence, delight, love, celebration, connection, and contentment to disappointment, heartbreak, confusion, depression, death, and grief — all of it can be covered under an umbrella of joy.
I won’t lie and say that I was immediately pumped about his statement, given that I’ve had to wade through so many messages telling me to rejoice in my pain. But as I continued to listen and the more I let it sink in, the more it felt like I was finally given permission to be mad, even mad at God. The message wasn’t that I had to embrace joy, it was that I could embrace joy — when I’m ready. And if I haven’t already made it abundantly clear: I’m not ready.
But I might be someday. I hope I will be someday.
* * *
For now, I’m still trying to figure out how to push through the heaviness. I’m trying to allow myself to see and appreciate a photo of Aunt Donna instead of brushing past it because I don’t want to sit in my sadness and anger. I’m trying to determine whether I can ever accept suffering as a gift of my existence. I’m trying to believe whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say: It is well, it is well with my soul!
I’m trying to remember that she was a person who brought joy to everyone who knew her — a singular purple flower among a million blades of grass. She grew tall and beautiful, strong and true, right down until her very last breath. Her light was snuffed out by the falling leaves, forces none of us could have controlled — but I’m trying to remember the time she spent here with us, fully and overwhelmingly alive.
I’m writing this in the kitchen of what we now refer to as my uncle’s house. It’s not “Uncle Bill and Aunt Donna’s” anymore, it’s just Uncle Bill’s. It’s the dream house they spent years planning and building — a house she never got to live in. I’m looking out the window at fog dissipating over the mountains, at two chairs on the porch, facing the sun. It’s not fair that she’s not here. It’s not right. But today, on her birthday, I’m trying to let joy wrap its arms around this house, my uncle, my family, around me.
Happy birthday, Aunt Donna. I love you more.