Before my Aunt Cathy died of stomach cancer on New Year's Day at only 34, she'd invite me to her attic where we'd spend long afternoons in the company of her Victorian doll collection. We would take the dolls down from their metal stands, rotate their delicate outfits, brush their synthetic hair. The attic was hot, lacking ventilation. We would open a small window to let a breeze blow through the room.
My mom's younger sister Cathy was petite and sophisticated with long brown hair set in a spiral perm. Her home in Atlanta was clean and bright, carefully decorated, with cats hiding under beds and couches. Out back, her yard was shaded by a line of oak trees. As a young girl, I hoped that I would grow up to look and be just like her.
At Christmas time, we went shopping together at the Gwinnett Place Mall. It was the mid-Nineties, and shopping malls were at their height with multi-level waterfall fountains and stained-glass ceilings. The sun's rays projected a kaleidoscope of color onto the tile floors as we walked from store to store.
My aunt was not a spendthrift, but she encouraged me to be. In early elementary school, I was given a dollar-a-week allowance, and anytime I picked up a tube of glittered lip gloss from Limited Too or a Beanie Baby from the Hallmark store, my aunt would caress my small shoulders with her hands and say, "Oh, Anna, just get it. You know you want to."
Getting ready for dinner one evening, my aunt and I stood together in front of her full-length bedroom mirror. She handed me a pair of fuchsia clip-on earrings, large plastic stones glued onto cheap metal clasps. I attached them to the lobes of my ears. They were heavy and itchy, but I smiled at the reflection of my aunt smiling at me.
"Tell your mother they're real," she said to me with a lightness. "Tell her we decided to get your ears pierced this afternoon."
I would do just that at the restaurant as I consumed, three, four, five pieces of oil-drenched bread. I was so innocent, my ears not yet scarred, eating so much bread without worry or care. Later that evening, I overheard my aunt tell my mother, "She's like my own daughter — the daughter that I don't have."
"I guess Anna will be like my daughter," my aunt whispered to my mother.
Several years later, when my aunt was pregnant with my cousin, I felt jealous. I knew what a new baby meant, that it was not just a doll to outfit, to gaze at sweetly and then return to the shelf. Of course, I was relieved to hear she was expecting a boy. I would not be replaced, not completely.
My cousin was a toddler when Aunt Cathy was diagnosed with stomach cancer. I knew she wanted more children. I learned this through eavesdropping. We were at Stone Mountain Village, bundled in coats and scarves to buy hot coffee and chocolates from a store with aged beans, stale candies. Outside, it was dark. Twinkling lights decorated the row of storefronts. Aunt Cathy sat on a cushioned bench. The light of the shop highlighted the tears on her cheeks.
"I guess Anna will be like my daughter," my aunt whispered to my mother. Though the tumor was in her stomach, her treatment would involve the removal of her ovaries. Upon hearing this, I felt excited — like I'd won a prize. I was, perhaps, the only one who felt emboldened by my aunt's stolen fertility.
Shortly after she had her ovaries removed, Aunt Cathy was given tickets to visit Benny Hinn at one of his healing conventions. These tickets were a birthday gift from church members, the Southern Baptist's alternative medicine.
"It's worth a shot," the ladies at church told my aunt. They spoke of people who had been healed from chronic diabetes, from the debilitating pain of car accidents.
"I'm not getting my hopes up," my aunt said, after she wrote to Benny Hinn's organization, giving notice of her future attendance: 30-something mom of a young toddler, stomach cancer, several rounds of chemo and radiation, ovaries just removed. She never received a reply. Those healed in the service were heavily made up, dripping emotion, performative plants.
"I should have known better," she said angrily to my mom over the phone. All she had left were her doctor's appointments and her diminishing medical options. Hope began to seem just as ridiculous as Benny Hinn.
She was on her final round of chemo during one of our last visits to the mall. She threw up repeatedly into a plastic Ingles bag during our short car ride. She now wore a short brown bob, chin-length, a shade lighter than her hair before cancer. She joked about purchasing a crazy-looking wig in a fun color: platinum blonde, bright blue. But she chose a style just a touch more conservative than her hair before.
After cleaning herself up, we walked from store to store. She was quiet, distracted. I tried to draw her back to my world, picking up a floral minidress, holding it against my chest. She smiled, as if under duress, and said nothing at all.
The Gwinnett Place Mall is a dead mall today, as are so many malls. The mall was used as a set for the third season of "Stranger Things." Monstrous aliens were filmed in violent pursuit of the dorky adolescent cast, just steps away from where my pretty aunt, decades before, stroked my hair and told me — gangly, big glasses, brunette-banged me – that nothing I wanted was silly, none of my desires were too much.
Just before Aunt Cathy's death, we visited her at home. There were several strange men in her bedroom: a doctor, a church elder. I waited for my aunt to express delight at my presence, to give me a clue about the Christmas present she had picked out for me. We barely made eye contact. She swallowed a handful of pills. Minutes later, she rushed out of bed and threw up violently in a bucket. I could see the sharp edges of her hipbones through her floral satin pajama pants. I heard my mom whisper that my aunt was down to 70 pounds. In the dark that night, I stepped on the bathroom scale and saw that she and I were the same size.
I felt like I was being offered the solution to my problem, which was grief; maybe the world would improve if I took more care about what I put in my mouth.
Aunt Cathy passed away on New Year's Day. I was nine years old. My mom mused on the cancer's cause for years: Maybe the tumor was because of paint fumes in the poorly ventilated studios where she worked as an art student. Or maybe it was because of the hot dogs she ate so often in elementary school, all those nitrates in the preserved meat. What was it that led to those tumors in her belly? What did she consume that led to her early, tragic death?
Her death made me realize that youth was not some sort of guarantee against mortal pain. The world, fate, seemed capricious, without reward for good behavior or careful living. I could not express my grief in words. Instead, I pressed my own stomach's flesh down repeatedly, punching it like dough, slapping it with an anger I didn't know how to channel.
The day after her death, the television was turned on for background noise. All the talking heads on "Today" spoke of their New Year's resolutions, the penance they promised to pay for the indulgences of past weeks.
I listened to them talk. These newscasters seemed so happy with white teeth and big smiles. I felt like I was being offered the solution to my problem, which was grief; maybe the world would improve if I took more care about what I put in my mouth.
"Let's play a game!" I said to my cousin. "Let's see how many laps we can run around the house. We're going to get healthy!" And we ran and ran until we were dizzy and distracted.
"Let's eat lots of carrots for lunch," I suggested, and we dug a bag of dry carrots out of the crisper. We peeled them over the sink and took big bites. Each crunch felt like a movement closer to life than death.
After my Aunt Cathy's death, my grandmother stopped decorating for Christmas. The first year, she downgraded to a small, artificial tree, barely as tall as a toddler, the kind that could be purchased in the same grocery store aisle as decorative brooms that smell of cinnamon. Soon, she wouldn't even make an attempt — wouldn't even place a pine wreath on the door.
Each New Year's, I am reminded of what I learned through her passing: That grit cannot erase grief. That no amount of resolve can solve the problem of being human.
We rarely left the house when visiting my grandmother after Aunt Cathy's death. The mornings started slow. My mother and grandmother sat on creaky wooden chairs with pink cushions tied to the spindles. They drank their coffee and ate microwaved Sara Lee danish. Time would pass. They spoke of those in the periphery of their lives.
I began to avoid the conversations at the kitchen table. They were always the same. I spent the Christmas after Aunt Cathy's death in a dark bedroom. I adjusted the antennas of a small television set and watched figure skaters perform in noncompetitive holiday specials. I did sit-ups on the floor as the athletes glided gracefully across the screen. Aunt Cathy's stomach had betrayed her, and since then, I had become fixated on my own. I completed the sit-ups in sets, keeping track of the numbers in my mind, aiming each day to make it into the thousands.
I finished the holiday break with a rug burn on the skin of my spine. In January, I sat at my desk in school massaging the damaged skin on my back with quiet pride.
This year, I'm 34 — the same age my Aunt Cathy was when she died. I still miss her presence at our holiday dinner table. And each New Year's, I am reminded of what I learned through her passing: That grit cannot erase grief. That no amount of resolve can solve the problem of being human.
Today, I have the multiple children she prayed for but did not receive. Recently, my two children helped me unpack the holiday heirlooms I inherited from Aunt Cathy — a set of small Victorian dolls that she kept in a glass curio cabinet. They are porcelain figures the size of an adult hand. Nearly all of them are holiday themed.
Together, we wiped the dust from each delicate girl with a rag, placing them on the mantle above our fireplace. One girl's arms were extended holding ornaments, ready to trim a tree. Another wore figure skates, hands hidden in fur muffs. Another's limbs were carrying a load of holly wreaths. Each wore pin curls, period-appropriate dresses, large hats. I glanced at my sons and back to the fragile girls. All had expressions of such joy with cheeks so rosy, so plump.