This isn't your typical love story. It isn't about a boy and a girl, or a boy and a boy, or a girl and a girl. It isn't even about a person who is still alive. But it is a good love story, nonetheless, in which wrongs are forgiven, and love is forever. This story is about my Aunt Karen, my Granddad, and me.
My father's youngest sister was fantastic. She was tall, and loud, and funny, and always had big earrings and crazy haircuts. As an almost terminally shy little girl, there were few people in my life that could make me feel at ease around them. My mom of course, and my dad, and then there was my Aunt Karen. She was one of the only adults I knew who treated me like I was cool, like I was as much a buddy as I was a niece. With my frizzy hair, clumsy gawkishness, big glasses, and braces, I didn't feel that way very much, and I treasured every moment when I did. Because we lived so far away, I didn't get to see her that often, but I thought Aunt Karen hung the moon.
Karen got brain cancer in 2002, suddenly and inexplicably. After a rigorous treatment, the cancer went into remission, and our family breathed a sigh of relief. But then in 2003, as my sister Umulu and I were traveling together in South America, it came back. Somewhere in the Brazilian rainforest we found an internet cafe and logged on to read a note from my father saying that the cancer had come back, and it had come back hard. Doctors didn't expect her to last more than a few more days. Umulu and I, deep into our trip, had to choose whether to return to the States to say goodbye, or to keep traveling. We went back and forth for a while, but ultimately, at our family's urging, we decided to keep traveling. Without going into too much detail, the decision made logical sense at the time, but I've never felt worse about making a rational choice. She died while we were still in Brazil, and I felt guilty for years for not being there to say goodbye, to thank her, to kiss her, and tell her how much I would miss her. I don't mean guilty like a little guilty. I mean gut-churning, hot-in-the-face, I-feel-nauseated guilty for my selfishness. I didn't want to leave Brazil, you see. It was Carnaval, and a million and one other excuses. Ugh.
So here's where the love story part comes in. (Sorry for bringing it down, but this is where it gets kind of cool.) About two years after she died, I had a dream one night. I hadn't thought about Karen, or my guilty secret, in a long time, and there was no reason for me to dream this when I did. I don't really know what I believe about God, an afterlife, ghosts, etc. In fact, on most days, I'd say I don't really believe in anything except maybe some karmic energy recycling program that tries to balance out good and bad in the universe. This dream, however... it makes me wonder.
Karen's death was really bad for my Granddad. In some ways, he just sort of refused to acknowledge that she'd passed on, except for the fact that she wasn't here anymore. He talks about her frequently in the present tense, and in so doing, keeps her alive in his mind. In my dream, my Granddad and I were walking down a beach at the foot of the White Cliffs of Dover (no idea why there). It was late afternoon, the sunlight was golden, the breeze was warm and delicious, and we strolled along holding hands. I told him about how guilty I felt about staying in Brazil when Karen died, and he looked at me and said, "I know, honey. That's why we're taking this walk." I was confused, but then at the end of the beach I saw this beautiful round sandstone tower. He pointed to it and said, "There's someone in there that wants to talk to you." Magically, we were inside the tower, then, standing outside a door. I got really scared, and I was begging him not to make me go in there, but he opened the door and pushed me into this clean white room with high ceilings and big windows that opened onto the outside of the tower, looking out over the sea. In the middle of the room, sitting in a ladder-back chair, was my Aunt Karen, somehow much larger than life. She wore a hospital gown, and her hair was gone, and she looked like she looked in the pictures I'd seen from her last days. She looked terrible and wonderful at the same time. I started to cry when I saw her, and she smiled at me, held out her arms, and said, "Come here." I went running over to her, and crawled up into her lap, sobbing, telling her how sorry I was, and she just held me and smiled, and told me that it was all right, that she knew, and she forgave me, and she wished I'd stop feeling so bad. A sense of peace and warmth and light filled me up like I'd never felt before, and have never felt since. It felt like what I imagine heaven feels like, if there is a heaven. I took deep breaths of that peaceful feeling, and felt my guilt sliding away.
My grandfather took my arm after a little while, and said, "OK, it's time for you to go." So I went over to the window and started to climb out so I could rock climb down the stone tower wall (hey, it's a dream. I didn't say it would make sense). But then I noticed that Graddad wasn't coming with me, and I started to panic. "Hey! You've got to come, too! If I've got to go, you have to go. You can't stay!" He smiled and said, "It's okay. I'll come along in a little bit. I'm just going to spend a little time with her here before I go." And that's the end of the dream. I climbed down the tower, and then I woke up.
I know some folks will say that it was just my subconscious's way of resolving my guilt. My brain might even agree. But in my heart, which is, after all, what Valentine's Day is all about, I know that my Aunt Karen came back to tell me that I was loved, and I was forgiven. And in my heart I know that she and my Granddad still hang out in a beautiful tower by the sea, while everybody else is sleeping.