My aunt’s number wasn’t in my list of “favourites” anymore, but it was still in my contacts. Alone in my parents' garage, I sat cross-legged on the sticky dark green vinyl of a chair with loose wooden legs and went through a routine I’ve practised dozens of times over the last few months. I touched "Aunt Kelly" on the screen and waited for a robotic voice to say, "This number has been disconnected.”
My family still couldn't talk about her death out loud, but I needed a reminder she was really gone.
The automated recording had become something I could count on. Or so I thought. As I waited for it, with my phone in one hand and a sweating Coors Light in the other, I barely noticed when the call went through instead to an unfamiliar voice.
This is how I met Shawn, the man who took my aunt’s number. Eventually, Shawn would become a vessel for my hope and longing. But that day in the garage, he was just a voice I heard on the other end.
The night my aunt died, my phone buzzed over and over again, wobbling on the Ikea nightstand beside my bed. I rolled over and saw "Johnny Kash," a play on my stepdad’s name, on the screen.
It was the 4th of July, and I didn’t want to do anything for the holiday — I hated fireworks even back then. But in the middle of DC, outside of my apartment building, the city was celebrating. I figured my parents were calling because they were too.
When I finally answered, I expected to hear my parents' excited yells into the speaker phone. Instead, I heard John’s heavy breathing. It took me a few seconds to realise he was sobbing. I’d never heard a sound like this come from him, the big, bald, Harley man I’d come to love.
“Aunt Kelly… she’s gone.”
Kelly, my mum’s younger sister, played a huge role in my life. Growing up, when my home life was painful, which it often was, she gave me a sense of hope and possibility. After ten years, my mum had left my alcoholic dad. As my dad faded from our lives and disappeared to some other state like Tennessee, my mum remarried despite my brother’s and my desire to remain a family of three.
I can’t remember there ever being a time when Kelly spoke to me like a child. She told me the truth, listened and made me feel like an adult. She helped me see that I could build any life I wanted. When I spent time with Kelly, I felt more in control of my future. I felt safe.
I hung up the phone without asking John any questions and sat in the same position, my back propped against pillows leaning on the wall behind my bed until the sun came up that morning.