New Orleans, USA, 2021
I waited in a COVID-enforced patience as the buffer wheel on my screen whirled. Slow internet connection has become one of many new normals thrust upon us living in lockdown while we wait for the virus to disappear and a vaccine to be rolled out. My browser was opened to Marco Polo, an app introduced to my extended family by a cousin in New Mexico to keep in touch with relatives in Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas. We are all pretty far-flung and, with busy lives, have rarely kept in touch. Now all of us, from our 20’s to 80’s, are getting reacquainted.
A finger gently traced the lines as Aunt Linda read my palm in a voice soft as swan’s down. Her words glided through the air rippling from the past to the present and future. Our past together had been interrupted in my childhood but we kept in touch intermittently after my high school graduation when she sent me a volume of Edna St. Vincent Millay poems. Although we had a limited relationship I felt intuitively drawn to her free and expansive spirit and loved hearing her soft voice, so intimate, so attentive. She had a unique way of giving advice without sounding judgey or lecturing. On this visit in the early 90’s, she shared her experience with herbs and aromatherapy which sparked a life-long interest in me. This was before the internet and long before aromatherapy became trendy. She was a modern day medicine woman who created and made potions, unguents, and aromatic elixirs using essential oils and botanicals with names like bergamot, neroli, and myrrh. We had a wonderful visit together. We perused The Pharmacy Museum on Royal Street marveling at strange diagnostic instruments and glassware containing questionable contents. We explored a dimly lit, slightly scary herbal pharmacopoeia on Magazine Street, before it was gentrified, where I was sure we’d come to no good. Incense permeated the store, candles flickered shadows on the walls even on that bright winter’s day. There were even more bottles full of questionable contents than at the museum and Aunt Linda knew the names and properties of many.
In August of 2020, I learned my aunt had ovarian cancer. I knew she’d been sick. That she had a rare autoimmune disease that was ravaging her beautiful skin and terrorizing her internally, but the realization that a possible result of her disease had actually come to pass was a blow. She chose to go into Hospice, avoiding the chemicals and prodding of treatment. She said she was ready. Her daughter moved her into her house in a room filled with her things: pictures, memories, and her four beloved dogs.
Days passed like children skipping down the sidewalk – within sight, then gone.
I texted her photos of my summer garden and my dogs with short messages and sometimes, on a good day, she’d reply. I shared poetry by my favorite contemporary poet, Dorianne Laux, that made her smile, according to her daughter who joined the family Marco Polo to keep us updated on her mother’s progress. I wanted to return the poetry favor she’d given me all those years ago.
At first Aunt Linda resisted showing herself on video and would pass messages through Melinda. Finally she would allow Melinda to show her when she felt up to it and would say a few words in her soft swan’s down voice that had become softer, like the memory of a feather floating in the twilight. She looked ethereal with her beautiful long silver hair spread like a halo on her pillow, all covered in soft white sheets. Looking at her was an ache, a beautiful and longing ache.
Who wouldn’t love this old-tooth moon,
this toilet-paper moon? This feral, flea-bitten moon
is that dog’s moon, too. Certain-of-nothing moon, bone
he can’t wait to sink his teeth into. Radio moon,
the white dial turned to static. Panic moon,
pulling clouds like blankets over its baby face.
Moon a portrait hung from a nail
in the starred hallway of the past.
Full moon that won’t last.
There were other poignant moments with her via text and Marco Polo but I keep them to myself, living in my heart and my mind’s eye next to meaningful conversations through the years. She passed away in November. As COVID-19 still ravages around us and gets all the attention, it’s noteworthy to realize people still die of a myriad of other causes and families are forced to mourn in an abstract way, unable to go through the traditional rituals of saying good-bye. While writing this I’ve scrolled back through Marco Polo revisiting videos of Aunt Linda, a bittersweet pilgrimage. I suppose we’ll have to create new mourning rituals during these strange days but humans are creative. We’ll find our way.
Excerpt from “Dog Moon” by Dorianne Laux used with permission.
Charlotte Hamrick’s creative work has been published in numerous online and print journals, including The Rumpus, Emerge Journal, Flash Frontier and New World Writing. She’s had nominations for the Pushcart Prize, Best Microfiction 2021, and was a Finalist for Micro Madness 2020. She is a Creative Nonfiction Editor for The Citron Review and was the former CNF Editor for Barren Magazine. She lives in New Orleans with her husband and a menagerie of rescued pets where she sometimes does things other than read and write.