He looked like a frightened five-year-old that’d just been pricked with a pin.
The closeness of passengers on a train journey means you can’t help but pay attention to the people around you, and the sharp change in his look meant he wasn’t just playing with his phone. He’d received some news that had clearly upset him.
I can still see it vividly: his eyes scanning the text, reaching the point where the bad news from the illuminated screen hit his brain. The sharp intake of breath. The eyes filling with tears.
He didn’t self-consciously check around to see who was watching, but you could see the mechanism click in as clearly as if it were a computer command written across his forehead. Don’t cry in public.
He swallowed, his adam’s apple moving up and down as he slowly typed a reply to the text.
A day later, I saw two young women sitting on a bench as I approached a bus stop. One was in tears. The other had her arm around, comforting her. Her friend glanced up at me protectively as I passed, as if to warn me off: don’t interrupt, this is a private moment. She’s crying in public.
A few minutes later, the crying woman said her goodbyes and crossed the road into the petrol station. She didn’t fade away into nothing, of course, but in my memory that’s exactly what she did – ghostlike, the same as the photographer in the closing frames of “Blow Up”. Her friend watched her go, face filled with concern.
I flew home to Auckland this weekend to visit Aunty Colleen. I didn’t tell the family I was coming, because I wanted it to be a surprise.
When I spoke to her on the phone Friday morning, my mother told me that even if she appears asleep, she reaches her hands out for the phone if she hears I am on the line. I booked the flights as soon as I hung up.
Dean told me to be prepared when we arrived at the house, because she’s all skin and bone now. And very tired. This is a woman who used to beat up school bullies when they picked on her younger brother.
Her eyes are closed, but there are moments of lucidity where she opens her eyes and looks straight at you. Her normally verbose and lively personality has been reduced to a barely audible sound, just above a whisper, little more than sentences.
Most of our family are with her right now, including her two sons – the closest I have to brothers, as an only child – her husband, her sister-in-law, my mother. My mother and Aunty Colleen’s sister-in-law Yvonne do the palliative work. The rest of us take turns spending time in the bedroom that has become her world.
As I held her hand and watched her breathing, I could feel the waves of emotion swelling and bubbling up my throat, just as they are while I’m typing this. Her eyes were closed at the time, and I looked away to compose myself. Don’t cry now, she has enough misery to contemplate without having to look at this too.
But I knew I had things to say. By the afternoon of the second day I’d composed myself enough to be able to get through most of it without crying.
I told her how much she shaped my growing up, and what an important part of my life she is. How much I loved coming to visit and stay, as I did most weekends when I was younger. “We had lots of fun,” she said, her eyes still closed.
She was getting sleepier, and the words came out flat. I told her she was my second mum, and there were a few gentle, symmetrical breaths before she responded that I was like her son.
I said I would miss her very much, and she said she would still be with me. I hope she believes that right now. She is religious, I am not.
Not long after that, my cousin Mark came in. I swapped places with him so I could go outside. There’s a small garden above the driveway where you can see over the whole house. We used to spend so much time here as kids. Climbing on the roof of the house even though we weren’t supposed to. My cousin Phillip clambered all over the tiles as if he were on solid ground. I was more cautious. One of us become a builder, the other didn’t.
I realised I wasn’t just saying goodbye to Aunty Colleen, but to a whole section of my life that had been so very happy. Things would never be the same.
I cried in that garden because it felt safe, away from everyone. You don’t cry in public. My mother, wondering where I was, came and joined me. She is losing her best friend.
We held each other and cried together.
As awful as this moment felt, there was something strangely positive about it. After years of depression and dark moods, at least this time I was crying for a tangible reason.
I can add that to the list of gifts that Aunty Colleen gave me, like the lovingly hand-packed gift bags at Christmas that she made Dean and I for at least the last ten years.
Dean bought her a Coke with her name on it. It’s still in the fridge, because she can’t drink it. I cry again when I think about it, probably not the intended reaction when some marketing executive dreamed up the idea of personalising soft drink for the express purpose of making more money from the iGeneration.
I can’t share a coke with Colleen anymore. But I can cry in public if I want to.