I returned to my hometown of Rockford on New Year’s Eve. My great-aunt’s heart stopped two days prior; they rushed her to the hospital, but she never regained consciousness. On the evening of the second day of the new year, family gathered around her and shared stories, hymns, tears, and silence as she breathed her last breath.
The days before and immediately after are a blur in my memory. I’ve only referred to her as my great-aunt over the past few days so people would have a vague concept of her age before drawing their conclusions. She was always “Aunt Nita” to me. She’d been in my life since I could remember; trips to her house sometimes involved walks to the nearby pond. She kept strawberry-flavored hard candies in a dish in the hallway, they had a silver inner wrapper and a soft, gooey strawberry center. As the candies aged, the center stiffened a bit…still, even the taste of fresh ones reminds me of the sound the glass dish would make as I tried to sneak treats on lazy afternoons. There’ll never be a peach cobbler that matches hers, and her potato salad was the stuff of legend.
That said, Vernita Watts was not the type of woman to mess with. She didn’t play around with finances, and wasn’t one to mince words when she thought someone was acting foolish. As I got older, I appreciated more of her role as a person outside of being my aunt, the travels she’d taken, the lives she’d led when she shared stories. Still, these ideas didn’t truly come into focus until looking at her memory board during the funeral: a spread of photos showcasing a mother. A wife. A scholar. An educator. A truly wonderful cook. A woman with no roles…just a woman, just a person. Just Vernita.
Every funeral I’ve been to feels different, not just because of the different people who’ve passed, but because of my own evolving understanding of mortality (if it can even be called an “understanding”). I’m nearly 30 years old now; I know that’s not old, but it definitely disqualified me from a seat at the kids’ table during the post-burial luncheon. I looked around the room, saw children running around tables with paper hats the caterers had given them. Just a few feet away, my newly-widowed Uncle Rick sat with other folks his age: people in their 60s, 70s, 80s, who looked on this experience with completely different eyes: ones that were saddened, familiar, knowing, but also smiling and enjoying the time together. Perhaps such is life at that age.
Four days prior many of us stood around my aunt’s bedside in the hospital. My cousin, Beth, Aunt Nita’s only child, pulled out a pile of photos from her purse. She passed them to me, and I passed them to my grandmother, who shared them with my sister beside her. One photo in particular sticks out in my memory, though its details are already fuzzy: one titled “2007 Rock Stars” at the bottom, something like that. Around 30 people were in the picture, standing in three neat rows like for a class photo, all seniors.
What sticks out to me is my grandmother’s reaction. “Oh, I remember this picture,” she said. She sighed and looked at it for a second, then started pointing at various faces. “He’s gone. He’s gone. She’s gone.” Her finger traced from the bottom-left to the right, curving upwards and looping back to the top-left. “He’s gone. She’s gone. She’s gone…I’m not gone, of course!” she says with a slight laugh as she points to her own image at the end of the imaginary path. We said nothing of her sister’s image on the opposite side of the picture, Aunt Nita herself laying arm’s reach from us, neither gone nor here.
As I get older I wish I more and more that I’d take the time to learn lessons “the easy way:” to not just hear recommendations to slow down, to not worry about work so much. Call home more often, ask questions of my elders, write down their stories and recipes. Work harder at loving those around me instead of trying to gain the love of those who aren’t. And yet, even when told these lessons a million times, pieces seem to click into place in my head only when loss rears its head, when doors that were once open become shut.
If I could find some way to catch this feeling in a pill or a booster shot, prescribe it to the world…maybe that would help steer our focus away from hatred, from anger, from vitriol, from violence. And still I fear that I’ll forget this feeling…forget it until the next time life prescribes it to me at another funeral service.
My aunt left behind an amazing photo collection. Decades of history encapsulated on various papers, some sepia-toned, others black-and-white, others full-color, none of those results “filters.” She had a knack for organization that I never appreciated when I was younger: the photos she left behind were sorted meticulously by name, highlighting relatives, friends, vacation locations. The memory board was just a small sample of her life, and even that collection of albums and boxes was only a piece of her life. Even with the organization and sorting, there were people, places, contexts that nobody recalled when they passed the photos…memories lost to time.
“Sonder” is a term coined by The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows to mean the feeling of understanding just how complex other people’s lives truly are, lives equally complex and nuanced as our own. I’d passingly read a post on Facebook that mentioned it, lost the word, and my sister’s boyfriend looked it up while we talking. Neither Merriam-Webster nor Dictionary.com sanction it as an actual “word.” The feeling persists…I can admit, this doesn’t seem like the right word for the feeling.
“Sonder” sounds inherently somber, depressing, a comprehension of complexity so vast while still focusing on the self: a reminder that we are near the smallest of blips to the universe. But I think about all that Aunt Nita must have experienced: the laughter, the tears, the friendships, enmity, pride, sorrow…the boredom, frustration, the just plain spacing-out where maybe she felt nothing at all, just waiting for the next moment.
When I think about her living decades all of that…it’s more akin to “wonder,” another word nearby “sonder,” but somehow feels more distant. And when I think about how those decades years stretched out and affected the lives of those she came into contact with… I know not all of those interactions were perfect, but thinking about that isn’t depressing.
At Aunt Nita’s service, a woman stood up to talk about my aunt’s effect on the life of her daughter. My aunt was a para-professional in the local public school district and worked with children with disabilities. She reached out to this woman’s daughter beyond the classroom, giving her a Bible and taking her to church in the fashion of her faith. These practices might be frowned upon in many modern climates, but the woman said that those actions changed her daughter’s life. She said my aunt instilled in her daughter a love and respect of learning, traits which she’s now passing down to her own two-year old daughter. She said that my aunt lives on in her daughter, and now in her granddaughter.
She lives on in her husband, in her own daughter, her husband, and their three children. She lives on in my grandmother and great-uncle, her younger sister and brother. She lives on in my twin uncles, my mother, and all her other nieces and nephews. She lives on in me, my sister, our cousins. She lives on in countless friends, family members, coworkers, and more than I’ll never know. My Aunt Nita, Vernita Watts lives on in all of us, and in all of the lives we touch.
Brief as our lives may be, we reach far beyond.
Rest easy, Aunt Nita, and thank you.