Inside/Out is a project of the Creative Nonfiction course taught by Prof. Christopher Hallowell.
By Michael Machado
There are pictures of my Aunt Evelyn in a deck chair with me propped up against her waist, sticking out my tongue at the photographer.
She is dressed in a bright yellow shirt and black leggings that stop just under her knees. Her alabaster skin looks pale against her jet black hair, which is tied back in a bun. Her wide smile is framed by scarlet lips.
I think we are in Florida. I cannot remember this vacation. I was too young. But I remember that smile, even if I don’t remember our vacation. I saw it often over the course of the short time we spent together. Any amount of time is too short to the wanting child.
My earliest memories of my aunt are of her in bed. Whether in the early morning before I left for school, or in the afternoon when I returned, there she would be, the blankets wrapped around her. Her now nude lips always broke into a wide smile when she saw me. At the time we lived in a rented house in Bayside, Queens, with my family. My mother, father, sister and I lived in the large attic. My uncle and his wife and children occupied the main apartment. And my grandmother Maria lived in the basement apartment with Evelyn.
Both of my parents worked, so the task of watching me fell to my grandmother and Aunt Evelyn. My aunt had no children of her own, so all her adoration, all the love she had stored up was projected onto me. And so on the afternoons we spent together in the basement, that basement became a bubble outside of which nothing else existed. We read encyclopedias and played video games while my grandmother cooked and attended to us both.
Children can be exhausting, especially young ones, but despite my age and neediness my aunt remained indefatigable. The one instance I remember of her losing her temper with me was just that, an instant. In the very next her face was again adorned with her trademark smile and her eyes seemed to whisper an apology at having scolded me. Hers was a look of reassurance against the childish fear that I had exhausted not just her patience, but her love. It was a look that a mother would give her son.
Our days in the bubble didn’t last. After school, I would still run down to the basement. But now it was to wait with my sister and grandmother to be driven to the hospital. To this day I have a dread of hospitals. I have seen too many people in them, hooked up to machines, their life beeping away. Before I had turned 6 years old, I watched my aunt waste away, never knowing that she was dying.
Her death shook the foundation of my family. I was in someone’s bedroom when I was told. I don’t know if it was her bedroom or my mother’s, but I remember being surrounded by the women in my family. The best way I can describe the grief is to say it was like a shockwave, passing through everyone in the room. There were cries and fits of hysterical weeping. We were all left adrift, as if in the wake of some natural disaster. A few months later my parents separated.
My aunt died of HIV. She was 33. In the late 80s and early 90s the virus had hit epidemic proportions. Between 1990 and 1995 I lost three members of my family to the virus. I have since lost more. Today HIV., more treatable than it was in those days, is still a reality, but one from which this generation has become disconnected by a false sense of security.
Recently I went for a routine checkup. I was going out for drinks afterward, so I was dressed in a navy blue shawl collar blazer, a black shirt with jeans and black shoes. Once the examination was completed, the doctor asked if I needed anything else and casually remarked, “You don’t need an H.I.V test.” I told him I did. I hid my astonishment that a physician could be so cavalier, especially with a first-time patient. After all, death doesn’t discriminate, not in whom it takes and how it chooses to take them. All it takes is one bad decision.
I have often thought of my Evelyn in moments of irresponsibility, sexual and otherwise. She made one bad decision and it cost her her life; one bad decision and she was taken from me.
That was a very long time ago. Yet, the life and path of each member of my family was altered by her death. I still miss her. Time does not heal all wounds, and I lament the fact that she is not here to see how the boy she once adored has grown up, that we cannot talk as two adults. No, time does not heal all wounds. I’ve always disliked that expression. Time marches on whether we like it or not. With time, the pain I felt at my Evelyn’s passing has faded, but so too have the memories. They’ve become a little more unreliable, like trying to recall a dream long after you’ve awakened from it. Now, when I think about her, I have to look at pictures to recall her face. She has become more of a feeling than a person, a remembrance of love and the pain that comes along with it. Maybe it is a pain that will never leave. Maybe I am holding onto it because it feels like holding on to her.