Bartholomew liked his Aunt Josephine very much. She was warm and kind toward him, although in a subtly severe way. She often would bring over meals unannounced. Each surprise meal, although a little bland and dutiful, was big enough for two days worth of leftovers. But sometimes, when delivering food, Aunt Josephine would begin to talk about God, and Bartholomew would feel very uncomfortable. Bartholomew was not uncomfortable with the idea that God existed, but Bartholomew was uncomfortable with the way that Aunt Josephine talked about God. Bartholomew felt that when Aunt Josephine talked about God, it often was out of context with the current conversation, and she seemed to be trying to convince herself that God actually intervenes in this world – that death was not the end.
Whenever this happened, Bartholomew kept quiet and didn’t say much. If he did, it seemed like one thing would lead to another, and eventually Aunt Josephine would tell him that she was praying for him every night, and then she would start to tear up thinking about her dead sister, Bartholomew’s mother.
One day, Aunt Josephine went to a funeral of a college friend. The funeral was in a town several hours away. As she drove to the funeral by herself, she listened to classical music and thought of all of her friends from college. She wondered who would be there. She had not heard from many of them in the last five years, except her friend Ti whose funeral it was. Aunt Josephine tried to remember whether each of her roommates had married, had kids and what they were doing for jobs. Images of people dressed in sweaters on Christmas cards rolled through her head. She thought about funny, sad and crazy things that happened in college. She thought about Gwaine getting completely covered with chocolate when she stumbled into a chocolate fountain at a dance. Then there was Riva who would get up in the night and run down the hallway in her sleep. Jerri got locked out of the apartment in her underwear. Aunt Josephine, Ti, Prissy and Danielle all got so drunk at a girls-night-out party that none of them remembers how it happened, but the next day they all had words in permanent marker written all over their bodies. Aunt Josephine never allowed herself to get drunk after that. She also remembered the sad times, like when Riva’s boyfriend Charlie died in a car accident, when Jerri’s mom had cancer and when Gwaine became very depressed.
Her drive seemed to take no time at all. Aunt Josephine’s plan was to stay in a hotel that night, attend the funeral the next morning and then drive home directly after the service so that she could spend some time with Uncle Jeffrey before going to bed.
The next day, many of her friends from college were there. Ti was one of those people who kept in touch with everyone, and once she was your friend, she always was a friend. Jerri and Gwaine were there. They all talked and found out about each other’s lives. They also lamented that Riva was not at the funeral. Jerri mentioned that, last she heard, Riva was going to come and wondered what had happened to her.
After the funeral was over, people began to leave, but Aunt Josephine stayed around the cemetery for a while. She wanted to reminisce with people instead of starting her long ride home. When she finally walked to her car, she was approached by someone. It was Riva! They hugged.
“I’m so glad you’re here,” said Aunt Josephine. “We didn’t see you at the funeral. Jerri and Gwaine were here.”
“Yeah, I was keeping a low profile,” said Riva, “you know how emotional I get.”
“Jerri and Gwaine would have loved to see you. They were saying how they miss you.”
Riva just stared at Aunt Josephine.
“Would you mind, Aunt Josephine,” said Riva, “if I catch a ride home with you?”
“What?” asked Aunt Josephine.
“Can I get a ride home with you?”
“But I live six hours away. Why would you…is everything okay Riva? Are you and George okay?”
“Actually, I dumped George about a year ago. I’m on my way to see a friend who lives near you. My car is having issues,” Riva said rolling her eyes, “and I was going to take a bus, but it would be much nicer riding with you.”
“Absolutely, I would love the company!” said Josephine, unsure if Riva was being honest.
“Thanks,” said Riva.
“This is actually a relief,” said Aunt Josephine. “I was dreading the long ride home by myself and this will give us a chance to catch up.”
“That’s just what I want,” said Riva.
* * *
“So, what happened with you and George?” Aunt Josephine asked as they hit the highway just out of town with the Hobo Nephews of Uncle Frank playing on the radio.
“Oh, I just wasn’t happy with the way he couldn’t relate to me. I mean, isn’t there a purpose to being together, beyond routine sex and paying the bills?” Riva said. “So, eventually, when he didn’t really move in my direction, after a year of counseling, I decided I had had enough.”
“Didn’t he want to stay together?” asked Aunt Josephine.
“No, yes, well…yes. He did want to stay together but he also seemed to want to keep the relationship just like it was-- safe, easy, unchallenging. That wasn’t enough for me. So I divorced him.”
“I’m so sorry to hear that. It must have been very painful,” said Aunt Josephine with sympathy in her voice.
”It was, on one level. It was hard to end something that started fifteen years earlier. It was hard to give up on the person I had hoped to grow old with, the person I had built my life around. But on the other hand, it was a simple decision to make. We obviously did not want to head down the same road for the last half of our lives. I don’t think I would be able to live the life I want if we had stayed together. But that point is moot now.”
Aunt Josephine was silent and stared stone-faced at the road ahead.
“What, Aunt Josephine?” asked Riva in a slightly exasperated tone.
“What do you mean?” said Aunt Josephine.
“That kind of silence means you are thinking something but don’t want to say it. You haven’t changed that much since college,” said Riva, “so spill.”
“Well, I just think that if you felt you wouldn’t be able to live the life you wanted in the second half of your life, then you didn’t really build the first half of your life around George, like you said. I mean, either you did build your life around him or it was just convenient to be with him.”
“Well, why don’t you say what you really mean?” asked Riva sarcastically.
“I’m sorry,” said Aunt Josephine, “I don’t mean to offend, it’s just a question that came to mind.”
“Actually, this is why I wanted to drive home with you, Aunt Josephine,” said Riva, “I have a lot of questions, and I felt that a ride with you would help me clear my head about some of the things I am facing.”
Aunt Josephine stared out the windshield at the dashed line rushing toward her and underneath the car. She turned and looked at Riva, whose eyes were focused on Aunt Josephine with a mix of sweet calm and an anxious plea for help. Aunt Josephine recalled a twenty-year-old Riva who had been so confident—a young woman who would do what she felt like doing, whether anyone else supported her or not.
“What’s going on, Riva?” asked Aunt Josephine. “Why didn’t you show yourself at the funeral? Who is this friend you’re visiting, and what problems are you facing?”
Riva pushed her fingernail against a cuticle. She repeated this motion four more times on her left hand and then switched to her right.
“Aunt Josephine, why are you and Uncle Jeffrey still together?”
“Because we love each other,” answered Aunt Josephine reflexively.
“Sure, but what does that mean?” asked Riva.
“Well, for me, it means trying to give of myself to Uncle Jeffrey as much as I can and to continue to learn how to do that every day.”
“How do you give yourself over to someone like that? I mean, obviously, what Uncle Jeffrey wants and what you want is not always the same thing. What do you do then? And I don’t mean just on little things like leaving socks on the floor, I mean on big things, things that are the foundations of your life.”
“Well,” Aunt Josephine began, happy to have this opportunity to talk about her faith, “I pray to God for guidance on those things.”
“And what does God tell you?” Riva asked with only a slightly sarcastic tone.
“Well, actually, not much,’ said Aunt Josephine. “Most the time praying just delays me from acting long enough that problems blow over. But once in awhile, a scripture verse or some memory will come to mind that helps me understand things in a slightly different way that helps. Either way, when I pray about my problems with Uncle Jeffrey, I generally remember how much I love him and that always helps.”
“So, it may not be God, after all. I mean, when I had problems with George the same thing would happen to me, even though I wasn’t praying. I was just kind of problem solving in my head,” said Riva.
Aunt Josephine was silent. A question rolled around in her head and she thought it would be better not to ask it. Next thing she knew, she said, “Well, in the first place, how do you know it wasn’t God helping you, and second, and I don’t want to pass judgment on George, but I know that Uncle Jeffrey is doing the same thing that I am: trying to figure out how to be close and caring toward each other, despite our difficulties. Uncle Jeffrey has proven himself worthy of my love.”
Riva looked out the window at the farm fields rolling by and then noticed her ghostly reflection on the glass. She quickly adjusted her focus on a herd of cows in the distance lying down in the shade of a tree.
“Perhaps that was my problem – I was trying to love someone who, ultimately, wasn’t trying to love me. I chose someone who would rather watch television and play fantasy football than relate to me. Why didn’t I see it coming?” asked Riva, raising her eyes to the ceiling of the car.
Neither Aunt Josephine nor Riva said anything for a while as the car sailed through oceans of corn rising and falling beneath the summer sun.
“I’m going to take a little nap,” said Riva.
“Okay,” said Aunt Josephine, “I was thinking of stopping to eat in about an hour.”
“That would be nice,” said Riva as she turned her head and immediately fell into a deep sleep.
* * *
After eating (Riva only picked at her food while Aunt Josephine seemed to eat enough for both) the two friends headed back out onto the road. Aunt Josephine was driving. Although she was a bit tired, Aunt Josephine did not like riding in a car. She felt uncomfortable just sitting in the passenger’s seat while someone else did the work. She also couldn’t allow herself to fall asleep while riding because she always worried something might go wrong if she wasn’t paying attention.
“Aunt Josephine, how can you so willingly give away your life to someone else? I mean, don’t you have aspirations and dreams you want to fulfill?” asked Riva.
“Of course I have aspirations and dreams, although at our age they are becoming more realistic than when we were younger. I work hard at work and want to eventually move up to a better position and better pay. I like helping people. I don’t think I can change the world, but if I can make someone else’s life a little better, then I am happy. And I want to love someone as best I can, and be loved back. I think that is the most rewarding thing in life.”
Riva said nothing.
“What are you thinking?” asked Aunt Josephine.
“I …my career didn’t turn out like I wanted. I mean, there I was, putting in eight hours a day doing something as uncreative as cleaning people’s teeth. I always wanted to write and travel and meet more interesting people.”
“Honestly Riva, writing and traveling is what you wanted to do when we were in college. There’s a reason very few people end up living the life they dreamed up when they were in college. Life never does what we think it will. It’s more about compromise and finding what you like inside what you are doing. Not that I think life is about aiming low, but what did we really know about life when we were twenty?”
“You might be right, Aunt Josephine,” said Riva as she played with the rings on her fingers and looked out at a dilapidated barn with its roof half caved-in. “The most important thing in life is loving and being loved. I just didn’t figure that out until it was too late.” Riva raised a hand to cover her face. “But now I am realizing I never had the skills or ability within myself to give my life, to give myself, to anyone or anything.”
“Oh Riva, it’s never too late,” said Aunt Josephine, as she reassuringly put her hand on Riva’s leg. “I’m sure you will find someone else. It just takes time…and I’ll be praying for you.”
Riva put her hand on top of Aunt Josephine’s and looked at her with tears on her cheeks. Aunt Josephine thought Riva’s hand felt a bit cold. She noticed circles under Riva’s wet eyes that she didn’t notice before. Riva’s skin seemed a bit pale.
“Aunt Josephine,” Riva said with a trembling smile on her lips, “it is already too late. Very soon I am going to have to give my life away, and I have no practice, no ability… I have no comfort in doing this.”
Aunt Josephine cried. A few moments later, Riva had fallen asleep. She slept deeply, motionlessly.
* * *
As they were nearing Aunt Josephine’s hometown, Riva began to grab at her seat belt and thrash her legs. Then she woke up.
“Oh,” Riva breathed as she realized where she was.
“Are you okay?” asked Aunt Josephine.
“Uh, yeah,” said Riva as she readjusted herself in her seat and rubbed her face in her hands.
“Was that a bad dream?” asked Aunt Josephine.
“You could say so,” said Riva.
“If we were back in the dorm, would you have awakened running down the hall?” Aunt Josephine asked with a smile.
Riva smiled back, “Yeah, probably.”
Aunt Josephine said nothing as she turned the car off the highway, happy to be on the last stretch home.
“Did I ever tell you what was happening when I would wake up running down the hallway in college?”
“No. I just figured you were a very active sleep walker,” laughed Aunt Josephine.
“I was running from death,” said Riva as she pulled her hair back behind her head and secured it with a hair band. “I would be falling asleep, and just at that moment when I would lose consciousness, I would suddenly realize that when I die, that was it. I never would exist beyond that point and everything I knew – everything-- would be gone to me. I would peer into the great abyss of nothingness. So, that pretty much freaked me out, and, even though I was still asleep, I would get up and run away.”
Aunt Josephine was silent.
“Go ahead, tell me what you’re thinking. I can take it,” said Riva.
“Well,” Aunt Josephine started hesitantly, “I think that must have been really scary for you. Death is…scary. And to feel it so strongly must have been really…mind-blowing.” Aunt Josephine was disappointed she was unable to come up with a different phrase. “But you know there is a place after this world, after we die, don’t you? You don’t have to fear.”
“Aunt Josephine, it is because of these experiences that I have never believed in heaven or hell. These death dreams I have are so real and so strong that they are more believable than Bible stories. But now I am wondering. I mean, after all, how could God give His only Son so we can be together forever, yet, when the time comes to be with Him God says “sorry, you didn’t love Me enough — go burn in hell? Is that love?”
Aunt Josephine silently turned left at the Donkey Burger restaurant.
“What?” asked Riva.
Aunt Josephine hesitated. “But, isn’t that what you did to George?”
“What?” asked Riva.
“You told George that he didn’t love you enough and took yourself away from him. In this instance, I would think you understand God better than most.”
Riva said nothing. She wanted to cry, she wanted to kick and scream, but her body was becoming too weak to do anything.
“But surely, He will take me back? Won’t He? I mean God always sees the best in us, that part of us that is redeemable, doesn’t He? He can see what our souls cannot, what we have been incapable of seeing our whole lives? Can’t He?”
Aunt Josephine was silent again, but not because she wanted to say something she thought Riva wouldn’t want to hear. She was silent because she didn’t know what to say. She didn’t know what to think. She wasn’t sure what she believed. In her heart, she loved Riva and didn’t want her to go to hell. Aunt Josephine remembered all the wonderful things Riva did for her, meant to her, in college. Surely, she was worthy of eternal life. Would God see that?
“Can I tell you a little secret?” asked a very pale Riva as she leaned in toward Aunt Josephine to whisper to her. “This morning Death came for me. I had a death dream this morning, but I didn’t wake up running down the hall. My body didn’t wake up at all. My soul didn’t know what else to do, so it ran. It ran down my hall, out of my house. It ran to get away from Death and it ran to find you. I am here…and…and…I am still home in my bed.”
Aunt Josephine was silent, her eyes wide. She focused her attention on safely navigating the road while her mind raced wildly. Both women were silent for several blocks. As she pulled onto her street Aunt Josephine asked, “Why would you come to me when Death came for you?”
“Because you were the one who was comforting and supportive whenever I had a death dream in college. You were the one who was there when Charlie died in the car accident. When we were roommates with Gwaine, Jerri and Ti is when I felt most like I gave of myself. You were the four people to whom I have opened myself up and given my life to – more than anyone since. And especially you, Aunt Josephine. You’re the one who will have an answer for me. Tell me how to deal with Death. It’s coming for me, Aunt Josephine.”
The car pulled into the driveway, the key was turned, the engine stopped. Aunt Josephine unbuckled her seatbelt and turned toward Riva. She wanted to run, to leave Riva. This was all too much. Here she was, sitting in a car with a friend who is dead and asking her the answer to Death. Or, she was sitting in her car with an old dear friend who had gone mad.
“Death is coming and will take me away any time now. I need to know, Aunt Josephine, how do I give my life without any regrets? How do I lose my life in order to gain peace? You are the one who can tell me, you are the one who already does this.”
Aunt Josephine sat frozen, looking at Riva. This question went far beyond her pat answers. This was beyond her faith, her experience and her ability to even think. She sat there motionless, speechless. Riva suddenly looked beyond Aunt Josephine and appeared paler.
“Quick, Aunt Josephine, how do I give my life, what do I do? Death is here!”
Aunt Josephine looked behind her but saw nothing.
“You must help me, tell me quick!”
Riva became paler to the point of almost becoming translucent. She lunged forward and grabbed on to Aunt Josephine with all her might. Her arms and hands were frigid.
“No!” yelled Riva. “No, I’m not ready to go. Leave me alone! Aunt Josephine, what should I do? Tell me, now!”
Aunt Josephine was silent. As she sat in the driver’s seat of her car, in her driveway, in front of her home, she felt Death seep through her entire body. She felt Riva’s icy-cold grip burn her skin like frost-bite as it was torn away. She heard Riva scream in desperation as her body slowly faded just inches from Aunt Josephine’s face. The last word she heard from Riva’s pleading mouth was her name, “Aunt Josephine!” Then she was alone; alone in her car in her driveway in front of her home. She wanted to faint, but she couldn’t. She wanted to scream, but her lungs were so cold, no air could escape them. She sat there until she could finally recognize that life was somehow normal again. Aunt Josephine got out of her car and went to find Uncle Jeffrey and to love him, to hold him – to find her sanity.
* * *
Aunt Josephine never told this story to anyone, but Bartholomew could tell that something very important had happened to her on that trip. After the trip, she talked less about God to Bartholomew. It no longer seemed like she was trying to convince herself of anything. Bartholomew also noticed another change; when she cooked for him, the food was no longer bland and dutiful, it tasted rich and spicy and beautiful, like the food his mother used to make.
Written by Mark Granlund
Illustration by Marth Iserman