My aunt died of cancer when I was 17. She loved poetry, and it was poetry that helped me honor her.
People were extremely supportive of me at the time. However, after a few weeks, everyone seemed to forget. After all, she had been sick for a while and I wasn’t that close to her. However, her death still hurt me. I can’t explain why it affected me so much. Perhaps it was because for the first time I was old enough to understand the implications of death, or because she had been sick for so long that I had forgotten the risk that cancer entails. Or maybe it was because I could see myself in her. My aunt was hard-working and intelligent. Like me, she loved poetry and traveling. She was also the one to tell me not to be afraid of following my dreams.
I felt like people wanted me to grieve, but only for a short time, and were desperately trying to make me be happy when all I wanted was permission to be sad- to honor the feelings so that I could move past it. Poetry allowed me to do just that.
Sometimes, I just wanted to be sad.
I will be forever thankful to my senior year literature teacher. She had also gone through a recent loss in her family and seemed to know exactly what I needed.
In the first exam after my aunt’s death, she asked us to analyze a section of text in which a famous Spanish poet mourned the loss of his best friend. The text talked about friendship and death, about the pain of losing someone that was part of who you are, and the certainty that they will always accompany you. I stared at the text for what seemed like ages. I connected to it so deeply. Eventually, tears started rolling down my cheeks. One of my classmates realized I had not written anything on my paper (which was strange because I was an A+ student) and asked me if I was okay. The teacher then came to my side and asked the same. I nodded, but she didn’t leave. I asked her if I could go to the bathroom and left the class.
When I got to the bathroom, I broke down.
A few seconds later, my teacher knocked on the door and asked if she could come in. She had left a classroom with 30 students doing a final year exam to come to make sure I was okay.
She apologized for putting that text on the exam, but I thanked her. In a way, it made my feelings valid. I shared with her the pressure I felt to be happy again, and that sometimes I just wanted for people to let me be sad. She understood.
The next day she gave me a present: a plastic folder with printed poems. She said they might help.
It didn’t make sense. Yet, I understood.
Reading the poems that she gave me, and then diving into the collections that they had been taken from gave me somewhere to go at times when I felt like I was drowning. It made me feel seen. It made my grief something beautiful despite the sadness, not something to be ashamed of.
Two particular writers saved me. On the one hand, the poems of José Ángel Valente had a simplicity but also a timelessness that captured me.
My favorite poem of his was a short one called Canción para franquear la sombra, that roughly translates to A song to Cross the Shadows and it goes: “one day we will see each other/ on the other side of dreams’ shadow/ my eyes and my hands will come to you/ and you will be, and I will be/ as if we always had been/ on the other side of dream’s shadow”.
In another poem, he says: “I must die. And, nonetheless, nothing/dies, because nothing/ has enough faith/ to be able to die”.
The other poet that really touched me was Mario Benedetti. He is an Uruguayan poet that has a talent for talking about the happiest and the saddest things in life, and the importance of both of them.
Poetry helped me honor her.
In particular, he has a long poem called Defensa de la Alegría (In defense of Joy). It is a celebration of joy and the importance of maintaining it even when the world is falling apart. He talks about celebrating joy as a trench, as a principle, as a certainty and as a right, and the need to defend it from everything that tries to destroy it, including joy.
“Defend Joy from God and winter/ from capital letters and death/ from last names and chance’s pity/ and from Joy”. Defend Joy from Joy. It didn’t make sense; yet, I understood.
Poetry gave me a safe place to explore my feelings. And, when I was ready, it gave me a place to write them down. I have a notebook filled with poems that I wrote during that time. Some are sad, some are lonely, and others are hopeful. However, all of them were healing. Eventually, I was ready for some of them to see the light of day.
My aunt was also a literature teacher and a school headmaster. After her death, her school organized a national poetry competition. It was anonymous, so I decided to submit. And I won.
Now, I can hold a small book that has the winning compositions of the competition. It has a picture of my aunt in the front and, inside, one of the poems that helped me heal.
I called it Echar de menos, which means ‘to miss’.
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