The last time I drank this tea I was sitting in a wooden rocking chair on the front porch of the home where I grew up. It was 2016. I had just finished my second year of college and summer stretched before me in endless glory. As I took my first sip, sunlight glinted off of my week-old engagement ring and my heart filled with so much joy I thought I might burst. That was the last time I drank this tea, and when I sip it now, those are the sweet memories that make my life now taste bitter by comparison.
The last time I drank this tea, my family was whole and healthy. We spent the summer gathered around the pool sipping sparkling juice and coconut water, splashing around on pool noodles and watching our skin turn dark in the sunshine. Lately, I’ve found myself thinking about those perfect days, wondering if the cancer had already started to form in my aunt’s belly, a covert operative hiding undercover inside her cells.
That summer, I worked with my Uncle Lee, sitting in an office beside him with a laptop and giddy excitement to talk to him about wedding planning and future career moves and the seven habits of highly effective people (naturally.) Now, as I sit in the same office where he worked for seven years, staring at a gray wall that he and my aunt painted together, I find myself subconsciously searching those summer memories for any mention of chest pains or heartburn, any clue of what was to come.
When I was younger I overheard my parents talking about the moments between when a person dies and when that person’s family knows about their death. The moments between the death and the knowing, they decided, were moments of false happiness. Now I think about their hushed conversation, their careful words and broken eye contact, and I feel jaded. If the cancer was there, if it had already started to grow and destroy her body, was the whole summer a false happiness?
It has been seven months since we buried my aunt’s body in the ground, her belly swollen with the cancer that had gained enough strength in less than a year to destroy us all. Shockingly and suddenly my uncle died less than three months later from a heart attack, something none of us imagined or thought possible. We had already experienced so much pain, so much heartbreak, and we were brought low once again. Now, as I sip this tea for the first time since that summer in 2016 when everything was good and right and whole, I taste the bitterness of it.
There’s an old Classic Crime song I listened to that summer, singing along in my car with the windows rolled down and the music turned up loud. She's got a solar powered life / She dies without direct sunlight. Sometimes I think that’s me. The sun is just so hopeful and warm and bright. When spring came this year I thought to myself, “Yes. Everything will be better now.”
If I’m honest, most things have been better. It’s easier to laugh, my chest feels lighter and I can take long walks outside again. We have friends over to sit on our porch and talk, and the daylight stretches long in front of us so that time seems warped into an excuse to sit lazily and talk forever.
Even with the warmth and the longer days, the sunlight and the laughter, life doesn’t feel as easy as it did two years ago. One of the strangest things about grief is the tension that surrounds each moment. When I experience these moments of joy and happiness - sitting on the porch and laughing with friends, eating barbecue with my family, tilting my face toward the sunshine on a warm day - it is difficult to enter into them. Shame is ever ready to remind me of my loss and the moments of joy feel awkward, like empty shells of what they once were. I feel guilty for feeling happy without them, and I feel guilty for not being able to fully experience the happiness in the moment.
Tomorrow, in true summer fashion, my family and I will be leaving for a vacation to Disney World. Disney World is the happiest place on earth, and for us, that has always been true. This trip, though, I think the happiness will be more complex. There will be two people missing and their absence will be tangibly felt like the Florida humidity. We will laugh and ride all the rides and buy Mickey-shaped ice cream and wear mouse ears on our heads, but we will also miss them.
The presence of conflicting emotions doesn’t mean either is less true. Joy and sorrow, happiness and sadness, pain and elation, these are the complex and oftentimes simultaneous feelings of being human in a broken world. I think I am learning to live in this tension of feeling joy and sorrow together like two notes on a sheet of music, or two flavors mixed together in a familiar cup of tea.