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A rainbow for a favorite fallen aunt

December 5, 2018

And then someone dies.

Amid all the Christmas cheer and hustle and bustle, someone you love actually dies.

My aunt, Liz Goldsmith Hilton, started coughing one day five months ago only to find out she had stage 4 lung cancer. The odds were not good, but true to Liz form, she did everything in her power to fight. Alternative medicine, radical therapies, prayer, diets, supplements and meditation — she did it all. I was convinced she would win this battle; she had always had in the past.

Five months later, Liz was dead. I was shocked — we all were. Liz had invited me to dinner when she was on a work trip to New York, and I canceled last minute because of some stupid conflict. Now I would never see her again.

Going anywhere in December as a mother of three elementary school children isn’t easy. I can barely get out the door on a good day. So when Liz’s friends called to ask if I could speak at her memorial in San Francisco, it gave me pause.

“I realize it will be hard for you to come,” Liz’s friend told me, “but we would really like you to write something. We can always have someone else read it at the ceremony if you can’t be there in person.”

I give good eulogies. But after flooring a room full of mourners with words of affirmation and strength, I promptly fall apart. Like really fall apart. Tears, rage, denial, anger, metaphysical crisis — it all comes flooding in.

So writing a farewell for Liz seemed a no-brainer. But dealing with her death was another issue. As Liz’s memorial service crept closer while Hanukkah and Christmas to-do lists grew bigger, the offer to let someone else read my eulogy looked better and better. After all, Liz wouldn’t have wanted me to stress. A walk on the beach laughing and talking was her style.

But I just couldn’t write it. And in my more lucid moments, which are rare and fleeting in December, I heard one thing loud and clear: GO.

Liz had had a baby on her own, a son named Alex. She was the first woman I know who did that; she was the first to do so many things. A painful divorce, a string of bad relationships — not having a man wasn’t going to stop her from having a baby. Enter Alex, a sweet gentle soul whom Liz loved with all her heart.

Over the years, Alex and I formed a special bond. When I stayed on Liz’s couch while attending the 2006 International Socialist Convention in Chicago, Alex and I had great long chats. We even played catch, which we both sucked at, so it ended in laughter and anti-baseball rhetoric. For Liz’s 50th birthday, she arranged for her close friends to take a cooking class together at Gourmet kitchen and then produce a four-course birthday dinner. Alex and I were on a team tasked with salting hot caramel for the triple chocolate lava cupcakes. No one got much salted caramel that night except Alex and me.

Now Alex was alone. He’s 25, living in his mother’s Marin County bungalow amid eucalyptus and pine, and suddenly motherless. So there was no question: I was going.

“Do the best you can,” Alex texted me graciously.

“I’ll see you tomorrow,” I responded.

I bought my plane ticket the night before I left and rented a car at SFO that turned out to be something out of “Back to the Future.” I reserved a hotel room and staggered in at 2 am. The memorial was at 11 a.m. the next day. I was going to pick up Alex, make him breakfast and help host a memorial service for his dead mother, my wonderful Aunt Liz. I still hadn’t written a word.

“You’re so good at this,” my husband Ian said. “Just pound it out.”

I couldn’t. The Liz I remembered didn’t mesh with reading a prepared and edited eulogy. It just didn’t feel right.

I woke up at 5 a.m. despite my late night travel. West Coast early morning jet lag worked so well on all those business trips to LA when the big talent asked for breakfast at the Chateau Marmont at ungodly hours. But this time it just kind of sucked. I awoke to five texts that increased in panic on various household matters from my husband back in Greenwich.

“I can’t find George’s Russian Math backpack.”

And then:

“Why does he have a separate backpack for Russian Math anyway?”

To finally:

“Why the hell are we even doing Russian Math, all three kids hate it and no one will get in the car.”

When I called to check in, no one had gotten their morning medication and breakfast was questionable.

“Mom, I don’t know where you are, but I have to talk to you,” my 10-year-old son Louie Instagram-ed me.

I, too, had forgotten my medication, so I hauled myself out to the Corte Madera shopping center to find the Rite Aid where my doctor had called in my prescription. Everything was “Artisan” and “organic.” No Dunkin Donuts in sight.

“You OK?” a friend texted.

OK? No, I was not. I was exhausted, on the opposite side of the country from my family. It was raining, wildfires had destroyed large parts of California and my beloved aunt was dead. And now I had to support Alex with organic doughnuts and take him to his mother’s memorial. I still hadn’t written a word. No, OK, wasn’t where I was at.

And then something happened. As I was driving into the shopping center, there it was. Through the haze of the morning rain and remnants of wildfire smoke, a vibrant and glorious rainbow stretched out like a gift from the other side. I gasped aloud and sat there in awe. It was stunning.

When I took the podium later that day, the words came naturally. I spoke from the heart, just as Liz always did. As people greeted me after the ceremony, Alex and I caught each other’s eyes from across the room. Here we were, but together.

But here’s the thing about the death of a loved one: It brings you to places you never thought you could go — emotionally, physically and spiritually. But the grief also can, if you’re watching, bring a jewel-like moment that seems to signal a smile or a wave from the other side, from the person you have lost.

“I’m still here, see,” they seem to say, “And all is well.”

And even though I’m a mother whose worst nightmare is to leave her kids motherless, I left Alex and California with a sense of peace and sadness but most of all love. That rainbow said it all. Because the vibrant arch of color in the gray, smoky sky was my beloved Aunt Liz. And she was telling us all was well even though she was gone.

Claire Tisne Haft is a former publishing and film executive, raising her family in Greenwich while working on a freelance basis on books and films.

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