Today I said goodbye to my aunt A. I will return to her tomorrow, but I am not sure if she will be there.
I wasn’t going to write about this because I’m not sure if my aunt would like the idea of it. “Oh Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, a blog,” she would say. “About me? Don’t waste your time. Go and have fun with your children instead.”
But my children are sleeping, and I can’t help myself.
One might think that I would be prepared for A’s death by now. She was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer almost two years ago. She nearly died from her first round of chemo. After that, the doctors said No More Chemo.
Then came the day when we were supposed to have lunch, but when I arrived at her house she didn’t answer the door. She had fallen, broken her hip, all alone, and pressed the emergency button she wore around her neck. When I got to the local hospital, she was on morphine and shouting out in agony. “I don’t know why God is doing this to me,” she cried. “I’ve always tried to do the right thing.”
It was the only time I saw my feisty, independent aunt reveal any self pity. And the only time I heard her question God. When I left the hospital I ran to my car and curled up and sobbed because I couldn’t stop her suffering.
“Well, this is it,” everyone said, shaking their heads. “People with stage four cancer don’t survive broken hips.”
I thought they were wrong.
And I was right. They underestimated A. At the rehab center, where the people taking care of her stole the money out of her wallet while she slept, the physical therapists told her that she could go home as soon as she could walk a certain distance in 60 seconds.
She told me this, and I knew she would be going home.
Within a week, she walked their line, and they sprung her free.
“It’s like getting out of jail,” she said later, sitting in her sunny living room and grinning. I laughed with her.
My aunt loved her beautiful home. She worked hard for it. She was born in Bay Ridge, in Brooklyn, New York, during World War II. A was smart, even smarter than her brilliant brother, my father. But she was female. And her parents, a homemaker and a U.S. postal worker, could only afford to send one of their three children to college. And it wouldn’t be the girl.
So my aunt, the valedictorian of her high school, started out in the secretarial pool. My dad started college, and their other sister married a policeman. That left A to live at home with her parents and take care of them.
She never married or had children, the fate of so many New York Irish-Catholic girls of a certain generation. This allowed her to lead a different life than most girls from Bay Ridge. She went on to work as the personal assistant to the head of a fortune 100 company. She travelled the world, got smuggled out of Panama during the U.S. invasion, loved ski mountain and beaches, took cruises with her girlfriends, met presidents, and bought house after house near New England beaches, each one larger and a better investment that the last. She grew beautiful rose bushes and taught me their names. In each house, I would find the homemade patchwork pillows that I had made for her, prominently displayed on a sofa or love seat.
Those pillows are still in her home, thirty years later.
A loved white cars, and later white SUVs, and named them all, names that made children laugh. My brothers and I adored my aunt, and she adored us right back. Some people are simply born Good With Children. And that was A. She would swing by and pick us up and bring us up to the beaches for the weekend. We sped up I-95 with her CB Radio humming – though she shut it off fast when a truck driver tried to chat with her. She was an early to bed and early to rise person, and she spent years making fun of my night owl ways. She taught me to laugh at myself. We got to custom order our breakfasts at her home before we made our way to Sea Street Beach. Thrilled by the chance to eat whatever I wanted, I requested grilled ham-and-cheese sandwiches for breakfast, and she said, “Sure, since you wake up at lunchtime, you might as well enjoy a nice lunch.”
We loved our aunt for her humor, and generosity, and because she asked us what we thought about things. We loved her stories, her famous tins of Christmas cookies, her crisp sheets, her french onion dip and mashed potatoes, and her independence. She seemed impossibly tan, thin, chic, and fabulous.
My aunt had a big personality. When I walked into the hospice a few weeks ago, the grumpy receptionist nearly jumped out of her chair when she heard I was there to see A. “We love A!” she said. Then I met the doctor, who was sitting there flirting with my dying aunt. “I love your aunt,” he confided. “She’s the queen here. From Brooklyn,” as if I didn’t know.
My aunt used these people skills to her advantage. A hated pain. I once watched her cajole the nurses to “knock her out” during one unpleasant procedure. These were some hardened nurses – not a pushover amongst them. But my aunt kept it up, making them laugh. Finally, right before I left to go home, the meanest one ducked her head into my aunt’s room and winked.
“Well, tomorrow’s your lucky day. You’re gonna be knocked out.”
She grinned, and my aunt smiled back. She won again.
Of course it’s possible to win every battle and still lose the war in life. Tonight she is laying in hospice, her beautiful hair plastered against her head, eyes closed, rosary beads across her chest, her head tilted back on the pillow and her mouth open to absorb every bit of air. As usual, my body knew before my brain did – it spun around when I saw her and walked me right out of her room.
That is what a dying person looks like, I knew.
I didn’t want to see my aunt like this. I fled to the parking lot and called my dear friend K and railed against a God that did this to A. I said terrible things about a God that allows a non-smoker to get lung cancer, who lets wonderful, good people suffer like this. I could come up with a big fat list of people who should suffer before my aunt should suffer. I think I might have said that perhaps someone else would be better at God’s job. Maybe God should be replaced. He obviously didn’t know what he was doing.
My friend D later asked if my aunt said anything to me, anything I could keep with me forever and remember. The answer is no. But when I returned to my aunt’s room, I reached out and took my aunt’s hand. It was warm, and felt beautiful and strong and reassuring to me. After a while, I realized that I wasn’t just holding my aunt’s hand. She was holding it right back. And I felt this sense of wonder. I sat there with her for a long time, counting her breaths. I said very little, but I think that dear A knew I was there.