One last goodbye…
My much-beloved aunt is dying. We are all here, at the hospital, gathering, fussing, hovering. We have come from near and far because of our intense love for this force of a woman and because we cannot fathom that she is actually leaving us. For as long as I can remember, my aunt has been the glue that holds this far-flung family together. The carrier pigeon of family news, good and bad, and the holder of magical stories of her and her brothers’ wild youthful days. One of those brothers of hers is my father. I brought him here yesterday so that he can say goodbye to his last living sibling. It is a difficult thing to watch, and infinitely more difficult to know how to help him through it.
My aunt has three sons. My cousin Don is in charge here. He was the one to call and rally the troops when it was clear his mother was never going home. My younger cousin Gary flew out from Denver on the next available flight and arrived early this morning. This despite the fact that he is recovering from back surgery a mere week ago. My older cousin Mike, however, is not coming. They were all here, together with their mother, to celebrate her 85th birthday a few months back. It was the first time they had been together in many, many years. As happens often in families who have spread out across the country, getting everyone in one place just didn’t happen often. And so, my cousin Mike decided, he didn’t want to remember his mother laid out in a hospital bed, hooked up to IV’s and an oxygen machine. He wanted to remember her the way she was when he’d seen her for her birthday. And that got me thinking. Could I do that? If I had the choice, would I choose not to say goodbye to my mom, or my dad, as they lay dying?
With my aunt, I have a choice, and I am grateful. My parents, my daughter and I were together with my aunt and my two cousins not long ago. During that visit, my aunt was vibrant and bubbly, as she had always been. She ran circles around my dad, and you could see, in their lively banter at dinner, the same sibling love and rivalry that had been there since they were kids. It is a memory I will cherish for the rest of my life. My daughter and I decided at lunch today that this is the way we wish to remember her. We won’t be seeing her in her hospital room, on the threshold of leaving us, in her weakened state. We are here in the waiting area, with hugs for all who come to say their goodbyes, and with heavy hearts as we watch my father come and go from her room.
I won’t have that option when the time comes for my parents to leave this world. I will be the kid in charge, calling in the troops and keeping everyone updated. I won’t have the luxury of choosing not to see them in such a state. And that’s ok. It’s ok because I know that’s what needs to be done and because there is no one else to do it. I have one sibling, a brother, and he just is not capable of handling this kind of thing. The reasons why aren’t important. And I will offer him the same choice my cousin offered his siblings – come if you wish, don’t come if you’d rather not, there will be no judgment either way. Not everyone has that need for closure and I understand that. For me, I have to know that they are comfortable and unafraid and ready. I have to be there to hold their hand and to give them comfort in their last minutes on this earth. But I no longer see that as a given for everyone, as a requirement, after this experience. The bedside vigil is a time honored tradition no one looks forward to but one that most of us assume we will carry on. I think that decision should be a more conscious one, that’s all.
Update: My aunt passed away mere moments after I wrote this blog but before I could post it. My father was alone in her room with her as all the others had headed out for dinner. Even though we knew it was coming, we were caught by the suddenness of it, and the grief was overwhelming. It was just my father, my daugher, and me, alone with our tears and our sadness. We will miss her so. I have no words of wisdom to offer here. Life can be wicked and mean and painful at times, and this is just one of those times. Until we meet again…..