I got the call at two in the morning. The phone kept ringing as I sleepily scrambled to answer it.
"She's dead," the voice on the other line said. She was saying other details but my sleepy mind blurred them over as I nodded absently, rubbing my eyes.
Not that it was any surprise. She was 98 years old after all, a much longer life than most people could ever hope to reach. But it still didn't seem fair for some reason.
I copied down the details on a post-it note, rolled over and went back to sleep. I could do nothing more until morning anyways.
* * *
In my dream state, I found myself walking up a familiar driveway. There was the garden to the right, cedar rails surrounding a cocophany of flowers. Some tall purple ones towered over the top of the fence; she would know what they were called, but it was completely alien to me.
I continued walking towards the house, only it wasn't there any more. All that remained was the foundation. Part of my logical mind told me that wasn't right - it was their old house that burned down, and they didn't even live there at the time. Yet there it stood next door and the new house was gone. I guess that's dreams for you.
I wandered up the slight hill and sat down on the wooden steps. Somehow I wasn't surprised to turn around and find Aunt Emma sitting next to me - not frail and weak like she was these last few days, but the same old gardening spitfire I had grown up with.
We didn't so much talk in words but felt what each other meant to say. She must have felt me missing her. But I felt something from her as well - an urgent longing for her house.
"I'm sorry," I said as I gazed at her with teary eyes. "But there's nothing I can do."
But the feeling of longing persisted.
* * *
The house kept flashing into my dreams the next couple of days, but I was hardly sleeping anyways. There were so many people to call, so many plans to make for the funeral.
On funeral day, I walked into the front room of the funeral home, alone. Everything was so still and silent, and my aunt lay there, eyes closed. I almost expected her to open her eyes, smile, and say "Hello". But she just lay there, silent.
I wiped tears from my eyes.
"This is silly," I thought to myself. It wasn't a tragic death: she was 98 after all, not a young person tragically killed. I should be used to it by now, with all the older relatives I had lost over the years. Not that I didn't love and miss them all, but I was lucky to have known them at all. But, she was the last of them.
That night I dreamt again. Aunt Emma and I were walking together across her lawn. A soft breeze rustled through the grass, and the flowers bloomed in the warm spring air.
"I want my house back," she said to me. "It isn't fair."
"I know, Aunt Emma," I answered as my eyes teared up. "But there's nothing we can do."
"But it's my home," she responded, almost a touch of anger creeping into the soft voice I remembered. "I was paying to live in my own home."
I sighed. "We talked to the lawyers while you were still alive. You signed your house over to them. They own it now. There was nothing we could do then, and now that you're gone it doesn't matter."
"It matters," she answered urgently. "It's my home."
I stood there quietly with her in the light spring breeze.
* * *
I managed to put her out of my mind the next day at work. There was so much to get caught up on, and so many errands to run on the way home. I was exhausted by the time I crawled into bed and fell asleep.
She was back in my dreams that night. We stood outside the front of the house. It was nothing special - a beige, prefabricated house, small, with its best feature being the carefully tended garden out front. The birds chirped softly in the background as she spoke.
"Please let me stay in my house."
"But there's nothing I can do," I answered, frustrated. "You put the house into their name when they said they would take care of you. It's legally theirs now. We gave them money to let you stay. But you were miserable living with them there. You know that. That's why we had to put you in the Home when you left the hospital - they treated you so well there. We did the best we could under the circumstances. We did the best we could Aunt Emma. We tried."
A tear rolled down her cheek and I reached out to grasp her hand.
"It doesn't even matter now that you're gone. It's over, Aunt Emma, it's over."
"You should have it. You and your cousins. You took care of me . . ."
I shook my head vigorously. "We don't need it. We didn't do it for money, we did it because we love you. You were always so good to us, to them, to everyone . . ."
The dream faded as I became aware of my ringing alarm clock.
* * *
I almost didn't want to go to sleep that evening. She kept asking me for help, but I was so helpless. After tossing and turning for two hours, sleep came.
We were inside the house then. Simple as it was, it had been her home for twenty-five years. I followed her across the linoleum entranceway.
"This washstand," she was saying, "Belonged to my husband's family. They should have it . . . and these dishes," she continued as we walked into the dining room, "I wanted your cousin to have these dishes, not them . . ."
She then pulled a stack of photos from a drawer. She handed me one, me at three years old, smiling in the middle of her blooming garden. Another one showed her holding me in her arms as a baby. There were old, black and white photos of her brothers and sisters when they were all still alive, and one of her and a young husband next to their first car.
"Why are you doing this to me?" I asked suddenly. "I've told you before there is nothing I can do for you now. The lawyer says so. He knows what he is doing. It's over. You're dead. Your house doesn't matter to any of us without you in it. It's a lost cause, Aunt Emma, there's nothing I can do."
"Am I bothering you?" She asked sadly. "I don't want to be a burden."
"No, no!" I protested as she started to turn away. "You're not a burden. You were never a burden. I just feel so helpless when you come to me. I can't do anything to get your home back for you, Aunt Emma."
"But there must be something you can do . . ." She sighed. "It's my home . . ."
* * *
She continues to haunt my dreams every night. She has unfinished business that can't be resolved. It will draw her back to her home for an eternity.