On Thursday before last I awoke to a text message that my aunt had passed. We had been expecting this. She had been battling lung and brain cancer for three years and upon reading the text my heart sank. My aunt was as southern as one can be; at least a modern southern woman. We grew up at her house with my cousins playing at my grandmothers eating loads of different types of hamburger helper, and other assorted hot list items in the late 90’s and early 2000’s. My parents had also forbade my brother and I from watching the Harry Potter series so we would beg to stay with my aunt so that we could sneak and catch the latest cinematic experience that everyone at school was talking about. I have fond memories of being with her and sharing in laughter. I remember her laugh most, and her zest for her home. She was, and is, a second mother to me. While I was exploring my gender expression she never questioned my choices of clothing. She always made me feel welcome. Something that would, and continues, to prove hard for my deep Appalachian family. Burying her was difficult on one hand as I was singing a piece of my childhood across Jordan, and on the other there was a sense of relief because she had been suffering for several months. As the brain tumor grew, my aunts personality left us day by day.
I worked my spiritual program as best as I could, trying to be of service, attending to my own emotional needs, as well as trying to manage my professional life, and my other commitments. I kept in contact with my mentors throughout the process and kept close to my spiritual kin.
A friend had stayed with me that night we buried her unbeknownst of what was to unfold that Sunday morning. I had gotten up early on that Sunday following the burial of my aunt and had made my way back to my bed to wait for water to heat to make coffee. My brother rang my phone, he was in town for the funeral, and I hesitated answering thinking that he was just confirming lunch plans at my grandmothers house that afternoon. My brothers voice cracked from the other end of the telephone when he told me that our sister had been killed in a car accident earlier that morning. My friend asked what was wrong and the words fell out of my mouth, “My sister was killed last night.” I made my way to the porch to gather myself and smoke a cigarette.
I wont go into a detailed bullet list of events and emotions that transpired after that, but what I will tell you is that all the layers of denial, shock, grief, sorrow, and disbelief were present in those initial first moments. Cheyanne was twenty two years old and was to graduate from North Carolina State University and then follow her education to Duke University to get her PhD in bio-medical engineering.
The impact of Cheyanne’s death was felt not only in my family, but in the whole community. I have seen a great outpouring of support and love from a great many folks in the hills in which we dwell. I am reminded gently of the Spirit that was poured out on the disciples in the Christian tradition.
I am a firm believer in communal healing, and feel strongly that salvation, healing, and their counterparts of wounds, are communal events, and not wholly isolated within the individual. I was also reminded as another family member died after Cheyanne of the passage of Job. I remember how the oppressor came upon the family of Job and caused a great many tragedies to befall them. I remember how steadfast Job was in his faith of a cosmic plan. How Job wished that he had never been born, but he did not curse the nature of life. Job knew, in his wisdom and devotion, that life was just that; life. That terrible things happen to people and that sometimes we have to be willing to accept that it has no answer, and sit in that mystery. What I do know, however, is that the Great Mystery, God, has always proven to bring life out of death. That grace transforms, and transfigures, tragedy into Hope.
I will not pretend to see a silver lining around the death of my sister, but I will taste the bittersweet elixir of life that teaches me that I am to be ever watchful for the Spirit as it crosses over still waters and causes them to bring forth a new creation. I have witnessed already a reconciliation within my family, a strength that is growing from these events. My spiritual practice tells me I am to participate in the healing of my kin, that I am to take action against spiritual decay. My practice tells me that sometimes I am not to ask why, for I know the how, but that I am to look for the outpouring of love that comes from those who have healed through their grief. In Appalachia we have a saying, “It’ll all come out in the wash.” This doesn’t mean that it wont hurt, or that it won’t sting. It doesn’t belittle its significance, but rather it is a statement about the cyclical nature of life.
In Appalachia we grieve together, we eat together, we celebrate together, and we mourn those we love with a certain steel fervor that I believe is unmatched in other cultures. We don’t stop there though, in our mourning we begin to invite those who have crossed over Jordan back into our lives with a softness. We bring them up often in our conversations, our memories a balm to a our recent pains, and eventually they are with us again, not in body, but in spirit. We have integrated them so fully into our communal conversations, tasks, and holidays, that we miss their form, but their essence lives on in our words, in our breath, in our very bones. In Appalachia we don’t ever let you go, we but change how we speak to you. In Appalachia you become an ancestor.
I hope that I might deepen my relationships with my aunt and my sister, as they are now far wiser than I will ever pray to be. It is by calling on them, by keeping them alive within my chest, that they might still teach me while I pass through this small and fragile life.