My recent visit to the UK — specifically England— was an overdue reunion with a neglected friend. So much changed since we last saw each other in 2013, and where had all those years gone? I couldn’t blame the pandemic, my work schedule or my finances. The issue was procrastination and believing that loved ones would be present whenever I got around to that side of the pond. Reality humbled me fast.
In the last two years, two women I loved lost their lives to different cancers. Aunt Shirley was an aunt by circumstance, and Aunt Cynthia was my relative. I couldn’t make the funeral of the first, but I was determined to pay my respects to the second. Needless to say, the sojourn had a bitter taste, and it delivered a hard-hitting lesson on life and grief.
I’ve been going to England since childhood, but needed a moment to get acclimated to the tube, which services the London metro area, and the National Rail, which goes beyond. In true British fashion, it rained the day of my arrival, but it was clear when I went to Aunt Cynthia’s house for a family gathering.
Her beautiful home in the UK, in West Wickham, had undergone some renovations, but was mostly unchanged. I was greeted by the same pleasant scent; that of a home filled with love. I wandered through each room, thinking that my aunt would make an appearance, and we could share a hug. I would have loved nothing more. There wasn’t an inch of the house or the garden that wasn’t imbued with her presence. I took comfort in the company of relatives I hadn’t seen in ages. As we helped ourselves to refreshments, we all made the same remark. Shouldn’t the matriarch of the house be with us? It was the first time I’d been there without her.
I had a day to myself before the funeral, and hopped on the tube to Camden Town. This district is my favorite in all of London; colorful and pulsing with life whether rain or shine. Cafés and stores selling goth and punk attire stand side by side, and there’s the famous market; a dizzying labyrinth of stalls offering food, clothes and trinkets. There’s even a statue of Amy Winehouse, which was built not long after her untimely death. When I returned that night to my hotel, I had drinks with my cousin, her husband and their friend in the lobby. The laughs we shared were belied by the anxiety of what was to come the next morning.
It was sunny and brisk as we arrived at the church, not far from Aunt Cynthia’s home. I glanced around at the family, friends and colleagues assembled in the pews. There were hymns and tributes, and I offered a little speech of my own. Tears were shed by others, but I was stone-faced as I looked at the portrait of my aunt and beyond it, her closed casket, which appeared to be made of wicker instead of the traditional wood. She selected the hymns and left instructions on how to care for her garden, which she tended to with love for years. This seemed about right for a woman who was a stickler for order and detail.
I flipped through my Rolodex of memories. When I was a child, Aunt Cynthia took me to the park to feed the ducks and was amused by my eccentricities. I attended her 40th wedding anniversary party, and she surprised me in Barcelona for my 30th birthday. She introduced me to the English tradition of Christmas crackers; cardboard tubes that you pull apart to reveal little trinkets inside. My aunt didn’t squander her nearly 80 years. She was a nurse, ran her own business, and frequently traveled once she retired. When she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, she held fast to hope, though she knew what the outcome would be. The end of January was the last time I heard her voice and laugh. After that, she had no more energy to talk or send messages.
Instead of confronting my grief, I ran from it. I bounced all over London day and night; taking pictures, exploring side streets and partaking in the pub culture. I discovered Southwark, a historic district by the Thames that reminded me of South Street Seaport. I spent an afternoon in Shoreham by Sea, a town in West Sussex. The next day, I took the train to Aberystwyth in Wales, which has special significance. But there were complications on the way there. I remember the sudden sense of dread, restlessness, and the tremble in my hands. I masked it as best I could by breathing deeply and listening to music. It was through sheer will that I didn’t get off at the next stop and head back to London. There was catharsis waiting for me at the sea.
I couldn’t recall feeling so out of sorts before. Thankfully, it didn’t linger long, but it was quite the wake up call. Since I wouldn’t cry, my body found another way to force me to do something about the distress. But I was too embarrassed to make a scene in front of other passengers. Once in Aberystwyth, I found a quiet spot on the beach and finally let it all out. Even in that sleepy little town in a totally different country, Aunt Cynthia made her mark. She visited me when I was a graduate student at Aberystwyth University from 2009 to 2010.
Since returning to the US from the UK, I’ve gotten back into the flow of normal life, but there have been hiccups. I’ve wrestled with bouts of anxiety and depression, because it’s hard to fathom life without my aunt. I regret that so many of our plans went unrealized, even something as simple as sipping wine in the garden while wrapped in blankets. Sometimes, I send her messages on WhatsApp as though she’ll respond. We had fun in Spain and New York before the pandemic, but if only we could have done the same in England one last time.
Travel can be great therapy, but don’t make the mistake I did of constantly moving without pausing to rest and reflect. Cry if you need to. Lean on those in your circle, and look into professional help if grief hinders your ability to function. I’m making adjustments so that I can live a more purposeful and balanced life.
My aunt supported my endeavors with all her heart, and I hope she’ll be the wind at my back in the years ahead. In one of her last messages, she thanked me for being who I was and told me not to change.
I won’t, Aunt Cyn. You have my word.