Things that aren’t secrets but that I haven’t found the right time to say:
My uncle Scott was someone I loved very dearly. He was 46 years old when he died. He died of blood cancer when I was in 8th grade and all of my peers knew. I went to a small Catholic middle school where every grade was one class of kids and the faculty heard all the gossip.
When Scott died I felt like I shouldn’t, or couldn’t grieve loudly. It tore my mother apart. He was the brother she was closest to, until he married that woman [aunt Gale]. Uncle Scott and Aunt Gale had met in undergrad through their acting program and went on to start a theater in Chicago, which they later shut down in order to move closer to Scott’s parents [Elizabeth and Worthington Smith, my grandparents.] He had always been the favorite child. As an only child, I can half understand that. The job of an only child is balancing between being the favorite and the least favorite.
Aunt Gale forced Scott to continue having chemotherapy a year past when he wanted to. This is something that I consider unforgivable. He withered away like a leaf. His laughs became wisps of air and his smiles were shadows. Have you seen pictures of archaeological digs uncovering mummies? He started to look like that. I think it scared me because it was the first realization I had that that’s what we all ultimately look like. Bones draped in thin flesh, hollow and elongated faces, empty eyes.
The day before he died he left a voicemail for me and my mother. It was Fall. He lived in Montana with Gale and his son Sean, a ten minute drive from Elizabeth and Worthington.
He was sitting in his living room looking through the backdoor into the yard. I can see him there now.
He’s wearing old jeans, a loose button up flannel, and he’s probably next to his box turtles. He’s staring at the leaves outside, crumpling on the trees, about to make their descent to the ground. They’ll fall and decompose and leave behind only frail skeletons resting in the grass.
He’s leaving his last ever voicemail, a voicemail to his favorite sister and favorite [only] niece. He’s saying “I love you girls. The leaves look so bright! So bright…” Blood cancer is difficult because it grows tumors wherever it pleases and without warning. A tumor has taken hold behind Scott’s left eye and muddled his brain. Once a professor who gave lectures for giant university classes of theater students, he now has trouble stringing sentences together. But he persists: “The leaves are orange and yellow. I think I’m going… for a walk. I love you both. I’ll see you soon” click.
A couple weeks later a small brown box comes in the mail addressed to me in Scott’s shaky writing. A note inside says “Anna. This necklace shines, the way you shine.” Tucked in brown paper is a gold leaf necklace, a leaf from a tree called the Silver Linden or tilia tomentosa. The Silver Linden tree has leaves that are dark green on their topside and bright silver on their bottom side so that even in the slightest wind, the entire tree shimmers.
We couldn’t afford to fly out for Scott’s funeral. I think that was the worst part of everything for my mother.
Later that year, a soccer coach in my middle school community died and I attended his funeral to show support. Somewhere in the service I realized that I couldn’t stop crying. It was the only moment of closure I was given access to.
Perhaps I should have written down my thoughts and feelings more. But those moments, that whole string of years, I was all stopped up inside. Growth was hard for me and I was cautious. It’s easier to pave over bad foundations and build on top of them rather than dig under and repair the rot first.
And so I grew up and graduated college with a degree in theater and moved as soon as I could to Chicago to create. I wear my Silver Linden necklace, my tilia tomentosa to the opening and closing nights of every show I work on. And so Scott is still here and still creating and still alive, this gold leaf sitting next to my collarbone like a disembodied heart. And so even in the slightest moment, the slightest wind, he shimmers too.