Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Student Nonfiction Writing Contest
by Janice Esguerra
My aunt died nearly a year ago and my mother still keeps her last voicemail.
Her memorial service consisted of unfamiliar faces and soft lighting. An attendant greeted me solemnly. I wondered how much she was getting paid to look sad. The repeating track of a lilting violin played as people trickled into the room where the service was being held. Vaguely scented tissues dabbed at tears from those who mourned the loss of a woman they claimed to love; one woman showed me a photo on her tablet of my aunt, rigid and powdered, lying in her coffin. She had taken several photos because some were blurry (“I just bought it, I’m trying to get used to the camera function... My son has one too, you know”). A priest came in partway through to toss in a few words about how God had taken another angel from earth. I kept hearing the wrinkling of a granola bar wrapper. At some point he began to lead a prayer, which I remained open-eyed for. A young couple came in for the last part of the service to sample the sandwich and dessert trays laid out on platters across linen-draped dining tables. I picked up the last turkey-Swiss sandwich from a silver plate that was too light and shiny to be real silver. I flipped it over. “Made In Taiwan.”
It didn’t surprise me that barely anyone had come to her funeral or memorial service. My aunt was a woman who was hard to care for. She headed a hotel cleaning business, and her workers were often underpaid. Over the span of a few years, she had quickly become overweight, with bulbous pockets of flesh spilling from her waistband. She passionately hated her sisters. She was sarcastic and spiteful, and had a grand total of three friends. One of those three she didn’t even really like much. Another was a nurse who took pity on her. The last of the three was my mother.
The night Aunt Liza’s husband left her, she called my mother but I picked up. Her tormented sobs were unintelligible and I was a ten-year-old who had no idea how to offer comfort. Years later, I would look back at that moment and wish I had said something. I wish I had told her that she did not need a husband, that no man who laid his hands on her should have ever been able to cradle her, and that anyone who dared to spit on her with the same mouth that said “I do” wasn’t worthy of her love. My parents visited Aunt Liza that night, and her apartment was a pillaged town. My aunt was found sitting amid the mess, clutching a wedding photo. The memory of white roses within the faded gold frame numbed her against the pain of the deep purple bruises now blooming around her neck.
From that point on, she never bothered to clean the apartment up, and the photo was put on the shelf again. She ate obsessively and excessively, wanting nothing but to ruin the body she had chosen to give to someone who did not want it. Aunt Liza called my mother too often out of loneliness, and the hospital became her second home. Sugared drinks and cheap desserts anesthetized her body and mind, but the recollection of her husband’s honeyed words kept her up at night waiting for his return. She began getting weekly dialysis treatments to filter the poison she was willingly pumping into herself, and would return home only to drown herself in frozen dinners and late-night television. The bright game shows and lively infomercials reflected off the lenses of her glasses, covering eyes that grew bleaker and emptier with each day. She begged the wedding photo to bring her husband back. She called my mother only to cry into the phone. On April 30, 2014, my aunt was found dead in her home from a heart attack.
I knew even before her heart attack that she had died long ago. Her life ended that night when she sat among the rubble, salvaging the one photo she had of a moment that she yearned to relive. Anything from that point on — pushing her family away, crying into the phone, overeating — all these things were just attempts to resuscitate a heart that had assigned itself an expiration date. Without him, she was a nun with no God who hid her vodka underneath the pews, taking swigs between prayers. Without him, she was a plastic surgeon who took a scalpel to her face so she could look like her first patient. Without him, she was a war amputee who refused prosthetics and dreamed of battle. There was no “her” without “him.”
When I found out she had died, I was secretly relieved. Happy, even. Thank God that was over. The woman obviously wasn’t enjoying herself, and so I tried to find solace in her death. I think everyone who knew her felt a sense of comfort, whether or not they admitted it. No one wanted to acknowledge the fact that Aunt Liza died next to her wedding photo, or that everything from the millions of dollars’ worth of property to the specks of dust on her living room floor went to her husband. No one wanted to admit her suffering because no one did enough to stop it. Instead we saw her pain as an obstacle to enjoying our own lives and saw her memorial service as an opportunity to sample goat cheese appetizers. She was gone, and so were our concerns for her. No more underpaid cleaning workers. No more dinner conversations spent dodging her name. No more weepy phone calls.
But acting like her death didn’t bother me wasn’t working as well as I hoped it would. I had knowingly built a house on a cracked foundation, thinking that new skylights and glossy hardwood floors would distract me from the mildew throbbing underneath. Eventually, I tore apart the house I had built and listened to the fissures in the foundation; I kneeled and dug between the cracks, sifting through filth to find a flower. I searched for signs of life, pressing my ear to the earth. There had to be something I could salvage from the wreckage that was my aunt’s life. I barely knew her, and what little I knew of her wasn’t enough for me. She had to be more than her husband and her sadness.
My mother knew Aunt Liza better than anyone else did. As I began to talk to her more and more about my aunt, the more evident it became that she had lived a life before her husband became her universe. I learned that she was — and always had been — exceptionally intellectual. She won an international creative writing competition when she was just ten years old. My Aunt Liza went to the University of the Philippines, the top educational institution in a country of poverty, on a full-ride scholarship. She had full, articulate opinions and theories on religion, science, and politics. She occupied her time by reading books on Darwin, Freud, and Abelard. Aunt Liza took pride in her thriving mind, despite the fact that she was a victim of recurrent sexist attacks on her choice to pursue higher education rather than settling on being a housewife. She was intrigued by the depth of the human mind and constantly strived to test her own knowledge of anything and everything. Aunt Liza didn’t love widely, but she loved deeply.
So why is it that everyone who knew her chose to remember her as a snivelling shell of a woman who clung to her abusive husband? At some point, she was a happy person. A content one. I was sure of that. But her sadness had been emphasized and picked out so often that that’s all people seemed to remember about her. The last tragic months of her life were bolded, italicized, and underlined, and all other aspects of her character were put in parentheses. People chose to see her as her flaws because this helped them feel better about moving on. No one seemed ready to admit that they could have visited her in the hospital, taken her out for dinner, or dropped by her apartment and helped her clean up. I didn’t pretend to pray during her memorial service because I knew that no amount of prayer could ever help her. She didn’t need the hand of a divine being to part the clouds and bring her to some holy kingdom the way the priest suggested; all she needed was the hand of a friend to help her cope with the hell in her head. The Westboro Baptist Church believes the Devil to be the cause of all sin on earth. Everyone who knew Aunt Liza blamed everything on her husband. But the Devil doesn’t murder, we do.
I don’t know where her grave is. I don’t even know if she was buried or cremated. I don’t know if she preferred Beethoven over Bach or if she hated both. I don’t know if she thought pacifism was charming or childish, or if she believed in God. I don’t know what books she found comfort in or what her favourite flower was. And that’s where I could have done more. When her husband left her and she called crying, I should have asked her what courses she took in university. I should have asked her about how it felt to win that writing competition, or how proud her family was when she got that full-ride scholarship. I should have told her about the boy in my class that I had a crush on, so that she could tell me I didn’t need him. Maybe then she would realize she didn’t need him, either.
Janice Esguerra is in grade 12 at Templeton Secondary School. A theatre enthusiast, she also enjoys acting, writing, and drawing. Her favourite poets are William Blake and Sylvia Plath, and her favourite authors are Stephen Chbosky, John Green, and Paulo Coelho.