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Whatever bit of joy you can muster

by Jeff Sykes

We lost my Aunt Julia to the ages in late October.

I can’t rightly say that she “lost” her battle with colorectal cancer when she ultimately slipped into eternity on a gorgeous October day because she was the one who won. She kicked that disease’s ass for five long years, three years longer, I believe, than her doctors had told her she would be around to enjoy her five grandchildren and the glow of her mid 60s. She did it with a grace and dignity that was a wonder to behold. Never complaining, even in the end as the chemo had taken its toll on her vocal chords and as her body became ever thinner. She even mustered the will to attend a garden wedding in late September, leaving us with one last set of pictures anchored by her gentle smile.

It’s difficult for any writer, let alone one such as I who is prone to overwhelming waves of emotion at times, to not personalize a tragedy. All through that October afternoon, and again as I drove on the Saturday before Thanksgiving to attend her memorial service, I was pounded by intense memories of Julia, of my mother, of my grandmother, of the three of them together in some previous moment before they all were gone.

I held it together for most of the drive to the north side of Winston-Salem””the Old Town and Bethania areas our families lived in since the mid-1970s””but a single tear did slide across my quivering cheekbone as the car floated along NC 66 toward Highway 8. It probably began as we crossed Baux Mountain Road and I remembered those wonderful days I spent way out near the Stokes County line at the little house my grandparents owned. It was my little secret garden of happiness then, and remains so now, tucked away in my most sacred long-term memory.

Regaining my composure, I entered into Becks Baptist Church”” where I once attended vacation Bible school as a child””hugged my cousins Jennifer and Jonathan and simply took a seat at the left end of a church pew. I thought I had it under control.

But it welled up in me, this fount of grief or sorrow or regret at wasted time, whatever it was and overran my meek defenses. I began to heave. I covered my face with my hand and turned to the wall trying to hold it in. My body quivered. My voice broke and I let out small cries of anguish as I attempted to ride the wave without attracting the attention of the hundred or more people gathered in silence in the church sanctuary as we waited for the service to begin.

It was my son in all 10 of his wise years on this earth, who put his hand on my sleeve and asked me if I was crying. I knew it would be impossible to turn to my right, toward a Baptist church full of my aunt’s friends and coworkers from her days as a veteran nurse at Medical Park Hospital, and luckily I think my wife must have distracted him with a mint or stick of gum as one part of the grief within me found a means of escape.

I pulled it together and righted myself as the service began.

I owed Julia that much. She was my mother’s older sister and had shepherded her through a life of trauma and shame, through the chaos of living with a mother scorned and with the consequences of poor life choices.

She’d done the same for me, this aunt whom I resented as a child for her sternness and the way she never spoiled me as my mother and grandmother had. As the difficulties of my teens turned into serious life challenges in my 20s, after all, it was Julia who stood by me even as the rest had written me off as a life-long loser.

Even into my late 20s as I remained frozen in place with social stigma and a robust appetite for destruction, it was Julia who charged into my dark place with a sword of commitment and a beacon of hope, which turned out to be a path to a college degree and a last chance to bridge the chasm of bad decisions I’d made up to that point.

I’m halfway to 90 now and though I have earned every ounce of stability that exists in my reality today, I’d be nothing without my Aunt Julia and her commitment to life, family and, in her words, “whatever bit of joy you can muster.” !

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