Stories for Lent: #6 Old Hands

CW/TW: Death

My great-aunt is in the hospital. There’s blood in her brain, in places where there’s not supposed to be. The doctors say her chances of recovery are slim.
I learn this through eavesdropping.
I’m thousands of miles away.
*
Whatever they tell you about distances shortening in the modern world, it’s bollocks. Even when you can fork out the pennies for WiFi, for a phone, for a plane ticket or a car, you still have to travel. You still have to make that connection. And when you make that connection, you have to work extra hard to recreate a semblance of closeness with your loved ones.
I should know. I’ve been coping with this feeling for six years now.
When I set out to study abroad, I didn’t have the foggiest idea what it would be like, to try and communicate with those I left behind. Friends moved on, getting stories and inside jokes I wasn’t allowed in on. Family tried to make up for the lack of physical presence with a flood of information. I drifted. I disconnected. Every once in a while, I would return and I would be a stranger to places that I used to navigate with my eyes closed.
There were consolations. I got some stories of my own. Funny stories, private stories, stories nobody at home wanted to hear, but stories that were mine regardless. I told myself it didn’t matter. I told myself I’m making connections of my own.
And then the death and illness notices start to come.
Over the phone, as my friend and I were returning from signing a contract on next year’s apartment.
Over Viber, right after the Christmas holiday.
Overheard as my parents discussed what was going on.
Pieced together from bits of conversation, and noticing how frail some of my relatives had gotten, seemingly overnight.
We are not an expressive family, and so I am not an expressive person. I keep my mouth shut, because what the fuck can I say to make this any better? I’m barely a quarter century old. Some of these people lived through a Communist regime and didn’t see it as a big deal. What words do I have to them, I, who don’t even share the same continent as them? What could I possibly say? And what good does crying do? I’m far away, separate, even when I’m in the same room.
*
It does no good to dwell on the past, and yet I do. I think of playing with my aunt’s cats under the summer sun, those half-wild beasts that were as likely to scratch me as they were to purr and rub against my leg. I think of my other aunt, joining us for coffee or tea last September, how she was distributing her things and souvenirs among her family, and how our last goodbye had such a strange finality to it. I think about my third aunt, and joining her and her son for lunch at her apartment, how lovely everything was, and how full of life we all are.
I think about myself as a child, and how often I could be short, or cruel, or small-minded, not intentionally (at least I hope not) but because I was a brat, and brats are selfish, to each and every one of those women.
I think about myself as an adult, and I wonder if I ever truly met them eye to eye, or if I was too busy running in my own head to notice when someone else was trying to make a connection.
I think of old hands, trembling hands, holding mine against tables and fences, and I feel tenderness and sadness and grief.
It does no good to dwell on the past. We accept death as part of life, but do we accept the dead as part of our memories?

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