The Flu

There is nothing, absolutely nothing, redeeming about influenza.

It can kill you. And even if it doesn’t, it makes you feel like it is.

Seven days of this. SEVEN. DAYS.

I’ve been too sick to eat for seven days. And I just stepped on the scale to discover I only lost four pounds.

There is nothing redeeming about the flu.

Goodbye Dear A

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.

Thanksgiving: Not the Day For

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving.

Tomorrow is not the day to worry about my feisty, independent aunt with the beautiful hair and perfect posture who went into hospice yesterday, defeated and hunched over, and received her last rites today. Tomorrow is not the day to feel bitter because she is dying of lung cancer but never smoked a day in her life.

Tomorrow is the day to be thankful that I visited her two days ago, one day before she took such a terrible turn. Tomorrow is the day to be grateful that I’ve spent quality time with her during the past two years and that she has told things to me straight when no one else would.

Tomorrow is the day to be thankful that one of my children got to see his great aunt several weeks ago when she still felt well and appeared her vigorous and vivacious self.¬†Tomorrow is the day to remember my son sharing barbecue pizza with her and telling her that he loves math, just like her. It is the day to remember her famous tins of homemade Christmas cookies and how she never met a child she didn’t love — and who didn’t love and adore her right back.

Tomorrow is not the day to dwell on my father’s other sister and how she will have open heart surgery in a week. It is not the day to worry about the health of a man in his seventies who is watching his two sisters struggle between life and death. It is the day to be thankful for this man in our lives — a man who worked his entire life selflessly to provide for his family, and who finally retired, only to spend all of his free time taking care of his daughter and providing for his grandchildren when their father falls short.

Tomorrow is not the day to worry about divorce finances and declines in standards of living, and looking for a job after staying home for years, and children leaving schools they love. Tomorrow is the day to be grateful we are in our family’s warm house, all together, with children running around and spilling milk and getting into a lot of trouble.

Tomorrow is not the day to wonder why God throws everything at us at once until the stress and utter unfairness of it all starts sitting in your chest like a physical pain and makes you start wondering if it has affected your health in insidious and permanent ways. Tomorrow is the day to search for gratitude and things to be thankful for. It’s the day to realize that no one can sail through life unscathed. And mostly, for me, tomorrow is the day to remember that this too shall pass. Nothing lasts forever, and as my aunt told me recently, “Unlike me, you are about to turn a corner. Your divorce will eventually be over. And you’ll hardly remember it in a few years.”

So tomorrow is the day to be thankful for happy and healthy children, cousins and grandparents, snowflakes, mashed potatoes and stuffing and hot gravy, crackling fireplaces and green-and-red M&Ms in jars, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and knock-knock jokes, a warm house and great books, funny uncles and creative aunts, football and fantasy football, Christmas music before we all get tired of it, big California cabernets with apple and blueberry pies, the puppy down the street, silly dancing and LEGOs and Zengo, and the hope that we might be able to scrape together enough snow to make a snowman before it’s all over.

Thank you for the world so sweet,
Thank you for the food we eat,
Thank you for the birds that sing,
Thank you, God, for everything!

by Edith Rutter Leatham