By Leila Baez / Matthew staff || Edited by Giulia Leo
Aunt Lia was the princess of our family. While the family argues and takes every excuse to disconnect, she is the one thing we all agree on. She was sweet, gentle, kind, and so very important. She was the person who held you until you felt better with a silent smile and empathetic eyes. No one could forget a day spent with her, I know I will never forget the last time I saw her.
I was eight years old and it was my last day in South Carolina. It was late at night on October 22, ten days after my birthday. I did not understand why I was allowed to be awake so long after my bedtime, or why Aunt Lia was not able to leave the bed. She never spoke words, only quiet noises. I asked my mother why and she replied with “she isn’t feeling well, she won’t talk because she’s too tired.” It made sense to me at the time. The person everyone affectionately called Sleeping Beauty was tired. She was everyone’s Sleeping Beauty, and that night no one, except her, slept, not even me. I pretended to as I sat at her bedside and held her hand while I laid my head on her forearm. I was too chubby to fit in the bed with her like I wanted, but she kept a gentle but secure hold on me. I could feel her hand on my head, soft attempts to comb through that thick mass of chocolate hued hair I used to have.
There were a few times throughout the night when she tried to speak, but her mouth was too dry. Mother had to lather her lips with half melted ice cubes to keep her hydrated. I noticed, even then, how my mother and aunts, even the nurses who would come to check on her every so often, were trying so hard to distract her. I figured, perhaps they were trying to help her fall asleep, she was tired after all. I did not understand, but I wanted to help. I read every passage of my fairytale sticker book to her as a bedtime story.
Many people say young children are much more in tune with auras, energies, and souls than their elders. Thinking back on this memory, on her, I have come to agree with them. While I read to her, I came across Snow White’s page. I read about the princess, the seven dwarves, the prince, even the evil queen. She jolted when I read about the poisoned apple. I dropped my book and held her hand in my little ones.
“It’s okay Titi Lia. It’s just a story, there’s no poisoned apple. Snow White was okay, the prince woke her up and they lived happily ever after!”
She calmed down, her eyes no longer wide, now a gentle relaxed gaze once again. Those bright seafoam eyes I could never forget. Mother left me in the room with her and came back with a bright purple box of Mike & Ike’s, Aunt Lia’s favorite candy. I ate some with Aunt Lia. I should say I ate some but Aunt Lia smiled as she watched. Eventually the sun came streaming in through the windows and it was time to leave. I had not realized we stayed up through the night. It was the first time and the last time I would get to experience something as magical as watching the sunrise with Aunt Lia. My mother came to me and said we had to leave for the airport. Our flight back to New Jersey left at nine thirty and it was almost seven. We were a half hour drive from the airport and getting to the terminal would take at least an hour.
I cried. I cried when I had to leave Aunt Lia’s side. My aunt and I were so inseparable that everyone in the family had sworn she was my true mother, or at least, that she tore off a piece of her soul when I was born and placed it into me. I did not want to leave her. Something in me knew this was the last time I would get to see her, even if I did not yet understand the concept of death. But we had to go, just like she did. I refused to acknowledge that fact as I hugged my Titi Lia one last time, one giant bear hug for the road and long travels.
“I’ll see you later Titi, I love you. See you soon, get well soon!”
Mother could not look me in the eyes, but smiled when I put my favorite Flounder sticker on the little get well soon card attached to the vase of rainbow daisies we left on her bedside table. On the taxi ride from the hospital to the airport, Mother got a call. It was short and she hung up in less than two minutes. She held me close and I could feel my hair getting dampened.
“She’s gone sweetie… She’s gone now.”
Some subconscious part of me knew what she meant, so I cried with her. Everything seemed to go by in hazy slow motion. I cannot remember most of the airport, but I do remember that every step felt like a mile long trek. The haze faded away and time returned to its normal speed two hours later. While walking down the terminal, the plane door open at the end of the long glass-walled hall, I looked out and saw a double rainbow. One last goodbye.
It was one of those moments most people will only ever know of in fairytales and hard to believe memoir chapters. Like one of those serene reflective moments at the climax of a Disney film. It was the moment where the princess or hero sees what they have wanted for so long, and that they have finally received their happy ending. That peace in the air made me smile and press a hand to one of those glass panels. It held the warmth of the sun, the warmth of her.
“Bye Bye Titi Lia! I’ll see you soon!”