A heart full of love

My aunt died on Christmas Eve of course. In my mind she is all but inseparable from the winter holiday.

I knew her for my entire life — 34 years — which is not long enough. I knew her as my aunt, which is to say not well enough. Selfishly, we call them “relatives.” We know and understand them only in relation to ourselves. 

We get to know them more fully when the grim accounting begins. Certain essential things must be found while still in the midst of grief. The accumulation of a life must be sorted and handled — what should be kept, what can be donated.

In the end, we cannot take any of these things with us. Now we know better than the pharaohs who passed into the land of the dead surrounded by their possessions. Death strips all away. We enter the world with nothing and leave it just the same. And yet, the things left behind tell us so much about the one who is gone. The presence of things, the absence of things — the amount of things. The lifeless objects speak to us. In a drawer were the unfinished manuscripts of novels: hopes, dreams — these intangibles are things as well. Important things. On a wall, a beautiful painting. Shelves of music — art — which is the highest form of expression of human souls.

There were boxes of letters from nieces and nephews, thank-you notes and Christmas cards. Handwritten pages in capital letters from her father. Memories. Albums of photos. We display things that matter and some that don’t. And we bury in closets and basements our cherished treasures and deep regrets. I’ve found all of these things so far.

There were all sorts of books: mystery novels, Westerns, royal histories and genealogies. There were books asking questions, flagstones on the path of faith. Where is God now? No faith is unflagging; not even Christ’s was. But someone as kind-hearted and generous as my aunt was should have nothing to fear from a benevolent God.

The great American novelist James Salter wrote that without books, “the past would completely vanish, and we would be left with nothing, we would be naked on earth.” My aunt was well-clothed. The books spilled off the shelves in her home. They filled drawers. She had to keep an index to manage her personal collection. She was a librarian for the Chicago Public Library. The written word for her was as a flock is to a shepherd. Books cannot defend themselves. They must be protected — from time, from changing tastes and ignorance. That is a librarian’s duty. And it is an honorable one.

She enjoyed and appreciated domestic pleasures, a well-set table. An elegantly decorated house. The pursuit of perfection is never frivolous. Now I recognize within her the impulse of writers and artists. There’s nothing so frivolous as a solitary individual agonizing over a single, perfect word, which is unlikely to be noticed. Such effort isn’t wasted, but rather should be admired. She always made the effort, whether preparing a table or an entire house. And in her case, that effort came from love. She had an abundance of love to give.

I’ve done things she might have liked to. I’ve seen places she would have wanted to. But she did things that impressed me. She bore a divine burden, caregiver to her mother whose needs late in life required boundless dedication.

I’ve told you hardly anything so far. About the music she loved: Her Walkman was left connected to the stereo. The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” was stopped halfway through. I’ve hardly told you about what a wonderful host she was, or about lying on a trundle bed at my grandparents’ house waiting for sleep and thinking of tomorrow’s games to be played with my sister a few feet away on a futon mattress and my aunt in the “real” bed next to us while a beagle paced in the kitchen. The beautiful cards she sent me. Her waving goodbye from the doorway after every visit, waving still as our car rolled down the driveway and drove into the night.

Presidents and senators, famous actors are entitled to endless eulogies, column inches and retrospectives. Why should we care? Were their hearts full of love? No one asks that. No one tells us what we need to know.

I will tell you. My aunt’s heart was full of love.

We were supposed to video chat on Christmas Eve but that didn’t happen. … Allow me to digress, just one more time: Even more than Christmas Day, I look forward to Christmas Eve — the snow sifting down, the sentimental songs, the family bonds, the foods that flood us with memories, like Marcel Proust’s madeleines (my aunt would appreciate that most literary allusion). The ancient Greeks believed that so long as your name is spoken you can never die. So I suppose I’m grateful that it happened on that day, the most important one my family has. We will always have occasion to be together and remember her, the flaws and virtues, the things that make us human.

Her heart was full of love.

This piece originally appeared in the Aspen Daily News as an opinion column.