I stirred the spaghetti, threw together a salad, and set out plates while pausing to send texts back and forth to Kevin, Sue's oldest child. We coordinated our schedules and firmed up our plans.
"Leaving now to pick you up!" I texted, as I gave my four kids some last minute instructions. Hoping that they would remember what I needed each of them to do while I was gone, I slid behind the wheel of my freezing cold van and pulled out of the driveway. As I drove carefully along our icy neighborhood roads, my heart and mind changed gears. I left the role of "mom" and switched over to "aunt".
It's one of the greatest pleasures of my life, being an aunt, and I don't set aside as much time to focus on it as I should. But the drive allowed me a few minutes to think about what being an aunt has meant to me. My mind ran like a film projector, images of Kevin as a cuddly newborn, a chubby-faced toddler learning to say "Auntie!", a fourth grader excitedly telling me stories about his teacher...
Then, some hard memories: I remember stopping to check on him while his mom lay dying in the next room. I picture snuggling next to him on the couch as he tried to begin to process the news he had heard moments before, "She's gone". I can recall the pain on his face as I glanced down at him while I was delivering his mother's eulogy.
We have been through a lot, our family, this boy and me. And today he turns 18. He's an adult now. It makes no sense, he was just a tiny, chicken-legged creature who fit perfectly in my arms. But it makes complete sense, this boy who studies hard every day, all the time, who plans to become a doctor, has the life experience of a much older person. He handles all life has given him with grace, humility, and humor.
We set out to begin our evening, just the two of us. There are plans to eat dinner at one of his mom's favorite restaurants, then see a movie. Later we find ourselves sipping root beer floats, and flitting from topic to topic. Our discussions range from an in-depth critique of the movie, to how we each handle our day to day struggles with grief.
He hugs me goodbye as I drop him off at his door, and I wait to be sure he gets safely inside. And as I drive away, I let the tears slip down both of my cheeks. But this time I am not feeling sadness and despair. This time the tears are tiny drops of pure thankfulness and joy at the gift my sister has left me, the gift of being Auntie.