A friend of mine who has been a grief counselor for thirty years said, “I just don’t understand death. How someone can be here and then be gone. I just can’t understand it.”
I was grateful to her for saying that. I had just told her that my beloved aunt had died. Although I wasn’t with her at the moment of death, I had spent the week before with her, in the hospital, where she was supposed to be recovering from emergency surgery, but instead, as the week passed, was clearly succumbing to end stage cancer. It was, despite the pain and trauma, a week of great sweetness for me. Now I felt the unreality of her being gone, yet also I was enveloped by the sacredness of my time with her.
I have never been with anyone who was actively dying before. It seemed like labor, a great work that was being accomplished. My aunt has given me so much in my life–her love, her example of courage, her generosity of spirit, and she gave so much to me in these last days. I watched as she had to let go of one hope and expectation after another. She had thought she would have another two months, at least, of visiting with friends and family. She wanted to go home in the worst way, to putter in her garden, to watch her birds, to feel the sun on her face. The doctor had to tell her she would not be going home. Her face crumbled in tears for a moment, then she wiped them away, and gave the doctor a radiant smile. “I will be very happy at Hospice House,” she said. Her husband had been there, and she felt they were like family. She did this over and over, letting go and opening up to the next thing. Letting go of her mobility, letting go of her loved home, letting go of her ability to read, of her ability to speak, and yet never with bitterness. Sadness, yes, but not excessive. She had this trust, this faith, that allowed her to be open to what was, instead of clinging to the way she might want it to be.
She was open to the CNA’s and nurses, always thanking them, always appreciative. One of the CNA’s washed her and rubbed her back with such tenderness that I almost cried. “Wonderful,” Sheila said in her now roughened voice, and sighed. I could see that she was soaking up the massage. I realized how important the little things are, the sips of coffee, the touches, the cold cloth on the forehead. She would ask for what she wanted, and receive it with great appreciation. When she was changed to palliative care, and could not really eat, she hankered after tomato juice and chicken salad sandwich. Cindy, the CNA, finally got it for her. She could only sip a little, nibble a tiny bit. “Ah, great. Thank you,” she said, then closed her eyes after the exertion, and fell asleep.
She never stopped being my aunt. Earlier, when she could still speak easily, she told me to go home and get some rest. “You’re getting that glazed look in your eyes,” she said. “There’s a good bottle of wine in the garage next to the freezer. Go home and drink it.” The next day when I came back to the hospital, she asked me how I liked the wine, one of her favorites. I told her I loved it, which was no lie. I was a little guilty for abandoning her, and eating and drinking and sleeping so soundly. She kissed her fingers and winked. “Delicious,” she said. Once I asked her if there was anything I could do for her. Again, this was earlier, and she said, “You can stop looking so concerned!” in her no-nonsense, New England way. When her daughter and husband came, she shushed them when they were speaking too loudly. We all laughed at that, at how intact she was even as she was letting go.
None of this was our timetable–Sheila had just buried her beloved husband, after years of care-taking, and she and we had envisioned some time for herself, some time to enjoy her many friends and activities. It didn’t seem fair. Not by our standards. But it was clear that Sheila was doing her work, that her spirit and body were following some other agenda than the one we had for her. As sad as it was for all of us, I think she was up for it. I think she’d tell us all to “stop looking so concerned.”