June 14th, 2011 - E.B. Bartels
I didn’t realize how sick Christine was. It was my first year post-college, my first teaching job. I was preoccupied with thirty middle schoolers I was allegedly helping mold into functioning humans—while barely one myself—and hadn’t thought much about my aunt up in Maine, as I graded vocab tests, reread Harriet the Spy, planned museum field trips. I was living in Boston for the first time, training for a half-marathon, and staying up until 3 am. And I was twenty-three. It was hard to notice much outside my apartment, let alone 265 miles up the coast.
Then a scan revealed tumors in her liver; a visit to a specialist planned for June 17, but it became clear Christine wasn’t going to make it to that appointment. It didn’t seem like Christine would make it through the week. Mom told me to skip school that Tuesday: we were driving to Ellsworth to see her sister, my aunt Christine, for The Last Time. She was forty-nine.
Christine moved to Maine ten years prior, when I was in middle school—the beginning of finding my own life, my own self. In a way, Christine was doing that, too. Her move had been controversial; my grandmother was hurt one of her two children wanted to live so far away. I joked that daughters who love their mothers live in MA while daughters who love themselves live in ME. Once Christine left, I saw her on her visits back down, but I only visited Maine once. Not because we weren’t close—we emailed, called, sent cards and packages. In particular I’d send her fun novelty socks. But I also was a teenager. I was busy with me.
As Mom barreled up 95 North that Tuesday towards Maine Coast Memorial, I realized this was only the second time I visited Christine. During this visit, my always-petite aunt appeared even tinier, wrapped in IV tubes, full of morphine. As soon as I as saw her, I knew this visit was The Last Time. Never before had I known a Last Time. Everyone else before died unexpected, unplanned.
Christine wouldn’t be at Thanksgiving, Christmas, birthdays. I had become an aunt myself three years earlier when my niece was born. I thought about how much I loved being an aunt, taking pleasure in her milestones—words, steps—and how I wanted to be there for all of it. I had just started my life in Boston, and now Christine wasn’t going to get to be part of it.
I wish I remembered every word of our conversation. I tried to write it down when I got back home that night, but my brain was fuzzy from ten hours of driving and grief. I remembered telling Christine about the painting lessons I wanted to take, inspired by her love of watercolors, and she said she’d guide my brush. She cried when she said she wished she could keep all those silly socks forever. I told her how I admired her for always doing what she wanted to do, how she could still love her family, but also live the way she wanted. The way life should be—Maine’s motto. I remembered how Christine said she’d miss me the most and asked if I wanted her to visit from beyond. I said please. When she asked me to give her a real hug, I was afraid to bump her port, so I draped myself over her right shoulder. “You will be amazing at everything you do,” was the last thing she said to me.
In the ten years since, I’ve worn Christine’s college ring and hung up her watercolors. So many things in my life she’d think were amazing: my kind fiancé, our menagerie of pets, the years I lived in New York, my book that will be published next summer. And how I’ve been an aunt to my niece and two nephews—attending softball games, recommending books, swimming in Atlantic waves. I hope I make it past forty-nine. I want to see each of them past twenty-three. I want to see the places they move, the things they study, the work they create. I want to sing at their birthdays and dance at their weddings. But all you can do is enjoy the time you have, whether you know it is The Last Time or not.
That’s the way life should be.
E.B. Bartels is a writer, editor, and teacher from Massachusetts. She has an MFA from Columbia University, and her work has appeared in Catapult, The Believer Logger, Electric Literature, The Rumpus, and The Toast, among others. E.B.’s book, GOOD GRIEF: ON LOVING PETS, HERE AND HEREAFTER, about the ways we mourn and remember the animals we love, is forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in August 2022. E.B. is an instructor at the creative writing center GrubStreet, and she lives outside Boston with her fiancé, Richie, and their pets.
E. B. would like you to learn more about the Dorcas Library in Prospect Harbor, Maine, which her aunt Christine loved. The Dorcas Library is currently raising funds to increase their current hours, offered services, and book collections.
Author photo credit: Small Circle Studio