Death and Dying

My great aunt is sick.

Well, it’s more than that, I suppose.  My great aunt is more than sick.

My great aunt is dying.  Right now.

My great aunt Katie is my mother’s aunt, her favorite aunt, and we were very close to her when my mother was alive.  Most of my happiest childhood memories involve her.  We used to drive to their home three hours away in Grand Rapids, MI so often that the exit number was forever burned in my brain:  Exit 40A on I 96.  In fact, sometimes when I have trouble sleeping, I mentally walk myself through their rambling ranch house on Maryland Avenue, and remember the events that happened in each and every room.  The Christmases we spent in their open plan living room/dining room.  The political debates my Uncle Dave and my mother would have in the den.  The Buick that was always parked in the driveway.  The back patio where my Uncle would sometimes serve Bloody Marys on Sunday mornings in the spring.  The bedroom where I spent a summer living after my uncle passed away, because my aunt was too sad to stay in there without him.  And finally, always, the garden my mother and I raided for plants after their house sold (plants that bloom still in my own garden nine hundred miles away).

It was my Aunt Katie that came to help after my Zachary was born when I was just 19 years old.  My mother was helpful but of course had to work, and it was Aunt Katie who stayed with me during the days and cleaned and cooked so I could rest when the baby rested.  And why not?  Apparently she’d come when all three of us were born to my mother.

It was my Aunt Katie again who came when my mother was diagnosed with lung cancer.  She arrived before my mother even got home from the hospital after her surgery to help again in the background so that the rest of us could focus on my mother.  It was she who sat with my mother during those early days while I completed my student teaching, holding her hand and convincing her that it was indeed a good thing that she hadn’t “died on the table”.  She stayed for a month trying to make sure that my mother would accept treatment (she succeeded in a way that only an older family authority could, unlike me).

And it was my Aunt Katie still who came when my mother passed away, coming in time for the funeral and staying for a week after to help me and my twenty two year old self pack up things and hold my hand while I cried endless tears of loss.  I was an adult, but still felt very much the orphaned child, and she let me wallow in that for a few days before she taught me how to handle my loss like a grown up.

After her husband’s death, Aunt Katie lived with her daughter in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, DC.  I always made a point of visiting when I would travel out there in the summers when Zachary was young.  But when Melinda and Michael came, it became much harder to get out there.  And her failing health and aging body made it impossible for her to visit me after their births as well.  In fact, she’s never met either of them in person.

I’ve only seen Aunt Katie twice in the last ten years, as a matter of fact.  Once, at her granddaughter’s wedding.  I flew out there alone in 2003 because it was impossible for R to get away from work.  And then again, three years after that, for another great aunt’s funeral.  By this time her daughter and husband had retired and moved back to his home state of Minnesota, and they moved her with them to an assisted living facility there.  They’d only lived there a few months when my sister and I traveled, again without our families, to a small town just south of Duluth, to see her.  She was already starting to experience the early stages of dementia then, and macular degeneration had robbed her of much of her eyesight.  But she was still the same Aunt Katie, telling stories and smiling at photographs and shining her warmth and light on all of us together again.

I’ve been so sad that my life and its path has pulled me further away from my Aunt Katie in the last ten years.  Especially now, knowing that the chances are simply all exhausted, to make things any different.  I have kept her close in my prayers and in my heart, but it just isn’t the same.  It kills me to know that while she had been there so often to hold my hand through times of grief that I will not be able to be there to hold hers.

She is in my prayers today, and I am hopeful that she is at peace and not in any pain.  And that somehow, some way, my mother will be there to help guide her home.

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