It was the summer of 2011, when my father’s older sister — my Aunt Kathy — died.
When my aunt was healthy, she always had a smile on her face. She was fairly short with bright blue eyes, a trait my whole family possesses. In all my memories of her, she is smiling and laughing. The odd trait that sticks in my mind about my aunt is that she would always wear flip flops. Even in the snow. I still think that that is the silliest thing.
In July, as far as I knew, everything was fine with Aunt Kathy because my parents told me so. I wouldn’t have known the difference because I hadn’t seen her in a while. Although she had breast cancer about a year earlier, she was in remission. That August, she was in the hospital because of an ulcer that burst. My cousin Kamille was staying with us while Kathy was in the hospital. This was exciting for me because we grew up together.
One day we were joking around and having fun. For the first time that week, we were not busy with school work, so we went to Cafe Rio before we visited my aunt. Then my mom asked, “Do you guys want to go check on her in the hospital?”
We drove to the hospital in silence and took the all-too-familiar elevator ride to the thirteenth floor, labeled fourteenth because all hospitals skip the thirteenth. It seemed we’d never get out of that stuffy little elevator. When we finally reached Kathy’s floor, Kamille started to fidget, and her eyes glazed over.
That was the first day we could see my aunt in person. When I went in to see my aunt, she looked very pale and much thinner. My cousin’s face instantly darkened. It occurred to me that she looked exactly how I felt, but for her it must have been a hundred times worse. Nothing was funny anymore.
As we walked to the waiting area Kamille stopped and said, “I can’t go in. I can’t do it.”
While my mom walked to my aunt’s room, Kamille stayed in the waiting area because she was too scared to go into the hospital room. She wanted to tell her mom that she loved her, so she called on the phone, saying, “I love you, I love…” When Kathy didn’t respond, she freaked out and broke into tears.
I think this was the moment Kamille realized her mother wasn’t going to be with us much longer. My entire family sat in the Intensive Care Unit and prayed for her recovery. All day we sat in that waiting room. People would get up and leave, only to come back minutes later with cups of watered-down hospital coffee.
Two days later, on the day before my twelfth birthday, I was in dance class. My mom ran into the studio and said in a shaky voice, “I need to take Maddie!”
As we drove she said she didn’t know what was going on. She only knew we needed to be at the hospital. Then, when we were five minutes away, my dad called to tell us that Kathy had died. I felt I should have been thinking about my aunt, but I could only think about Kamille.
As soon as we pulled up, I jumped out of the car and ran to the front of the hospital where Kamille was sitting next to a water fountain. For a minute she didn’t realize I was standing right in front of her. When she finally looked up, I couldn’t help it; I started crying, too. She looked so lost. She kept moving around, just beside herself with sadness. My heart felt like it was being ripped in half. That night, Kamille, our other cousin, and I, slept in the basement curled next to each other.
"My heart felt like it was being ripped in half."
A few short days later, it was time to go back to school. Kamille was starting sixth grade and I was going into seventh grade. I knew she felt scared and uncomfortable because this was a whole new school for her. That first day of school I told her I had her back no matter what.
That year was hard for me. Since Kamille is just a year younger, she knew all of my friends. She was the little cousin that my friends adored. I was annoyed because they would come over and Kamille would spend time with us, but at the same time I understood how much she needed to be loved. The thing I struggled with the most was how my parents changed — that first year, all their attention was on Kamille. Looking back now I do not think they treated me differently, but it felt like my life did a 180-degree turn.
My sadness and frustration were hard to deal with for a long time. Sometimes I wouldn’t even understand why I felt a certain way. There were moments when I was so mad that Kamille took alone time with my parents away from me. Then there were other times, like the first Christmas we spent together, when we decided we would “sleep” downstairs. Instead, we stayed up all night, laughing for hours. Before we knew it, it was 5:00 a.m. There were many other nights like this over break; we made up dances to our favorite songs and watched the same movie five times in one week. The truth is we brought out the best in each other.
After two years of laughing, crying, and dancing, Kamille left to live with her dad. Today she lives in Boise, Idaho, a 5-hour drive from where I live. I still talk to her all the time. Sometimes I miss her so much and wish she were here for our late night talks.
I can’t believe that I now see this time as a blessing because it was also filled with pain at the loss of my aunt. Yet this experience bonded Kamille and me in a way that couldn’t have happened in any other circumstance. Looking back on this time has been a great learning experience for me. Now I regret ever being jealous of my cousin. I feel very selfish for not being able to see how badly she needed a mom and a dad. It took distance from the situation for me to understand how lucky I am to have lived with my best friend for two years.
This experience has taught me so much. Most importantly, I have learned about compassion and understanding. At the time this entire situation seemed so awful. My family seemed like they would never be the same. But it has brought us closer. To this day Kamille and I still text each other and fill each other in on what is new in our lives. It may be hard to believe that, sometimes, the good and bad are all mixed into one experience.
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