My Nonie had a recipe for a chocolate cake that was world-famous. Or, at least, extremely popular in my family. Her handwriting on the worn index card cast a spell for the moistest, chocolate-iest cake to ever be consumed.
Every birthday, holiday, or celebration caused this chocolate cake to appear. It was sometimes tossed in coconut, sometimes seen in two, circular layers, but, more often than not, it was seen with a fudgey layer of frosting and rainbow jimmies.
(I learned quickly to covet the corner piece, as it always had the most icing and almost always ensured that you were served first.)
Last year’s birthday was no different, as my mother coated the rectangular brick of chocolate with the rainbow jimmies I specifically requested. I only made one stipulation to the tradition, that my mother and I transport the cake twenty-five minutes to my aunt’s house where my Nonie, The Cake Originator, would be able to share it with me.
After hours of gossip on the back porch about my new dress, how she liked my hair that way, and the new guy I was seeing, candles were lit, a wish was made, and the cake was eaten as the four of us sat side by side overlooking the vast backyard.
As we ate, I noticed that Nonie, with her usual delicate and precise way of eating, had commandeered all of the frosting and sprinkles, leaving the cake behind. Like a child, she left the less desirable bottom for the sweeter stuff on top. When this was brought to her attention, she smiled, but didn’t say anything in her defense.
My aunt and mother cleared the dishes, leaving the two of us alone. We held hands, her grip surprisingly strong for one riddled with cancer. We were silent. Tears threatened to stain both of our cheeks.
Finally, after several hour-long minutes, she grasped my hand with both of hers and raised it to her lips. She kissed it several times, holding it there as she spoke.
“I have lived my life,” she said, tears now running freely from behind her eyes. “I lived a long life. Now, it’s your turn to live yours.”
She kissed my fingers once more, hard, as if she was transferring what little life remained in her to me.
I’m not quite sure what happened next or how I ended up standing on the other side of the porch screen, but I remember watching her through the black mesh, her finger shakingly, laboriously wiping away a tear from her cheek. But, mostly I remember her still, just starting out into the backyard. Alone.
It was the first time I realized she was dying. Not just sick, not merely fighting cancer, but dying. And through this, she had challenged me to live.
As I, again, turn another year older, I don’t know how well I did with that challenge. Did I truly live or did I squander the life she attempted to give me? Would she be proud of where I am or would she chastise me for working too hard, not having enough fun, and for not embracing who I am?