It’s been a month since my last post. I was going to get back into regular writing about travel—specifically my upcoming month in Japan—but life intervened.
Two nights ago I felt my aunt’s wrist and neck for a pulse while she took her last breaths.
She chose to start hospice services after a year of chemo, radiation, and immunotherapy didn’t cure her cancer but only stripped everything out of her life that made it worthwhile—she stopped reading, attending ladies lunches, knitting, and over-posting on Facebook.
And so a month ago a nurse and an aide started coming to her home once a week, then twice, then 3-4 times, and in the end it was every day plus a private carer.
My cousin Molly, who lives nearby, was there almost 24/7; her brother came from Madison and stayed for the last 10 days. My sister and I made the one-hour drive every other day and alternated overnights.
After two weeks, a hospital bed was installed in the livingroom. She gradually stopped eating and drinking. As the pain advanced she receded. Tylenol and oxycodone were bolstered with morphine and fentanyl. I know there’s an opioid epidemic, but believe me if you are dying and in pain they are miracle drugs. She had said she preferred to be lucid over being drugged-up, but that’s easy to say in the beginning.
As her conscious moments became fewer, I admired her practicality and acceptance. There was no drama, philosophizing, or protesting. I think I might be a quivering mass, crying and pissed off and asking, “Why! Why?”
She suffered anxiety as death neared—who wouldn’t? But it was manifested in physical restlessness, and for that there was another drug, and yet another drug for nausea. She would have hated that other people were performing functions for her that she could not—like applying balm to her lips and swabbing the inside of her mouth.
One of the hardest things was hearing other people cry, like my aunt’s 80-year-old cousin, a former cop.
Molly, on whom the lion’s share of the care had fallen, found inner resources to do things she had sworn she would never do. We all did. It takes a village to help someone leave this life.
When our anguish over her suffering peaked, we would consult a brochure provided by the hospice team. Turns out, dying is a predictable process—except for the timeline.
At the last moment, I had turned off the oxygen pump that had been producing a steady kah-khoosh … kah-koosh soundtrack. My cousins and I were standing in the kitchen talking about who would want such-and-such household items: the memorabilia from my aunt and uncle’s long careers at a private college, the cut-glass pickle boat, the bisque statuette of a shepardess who had stood on the mantel for decades. We managed to laugh a bit, probably from sheer exhaustion.
Suddenly we realized she wasn’t breathing. We watched, frozen, as seconds ticked by. She gasped and inhaled. We moved to her bedside and I took her wrist, then felt her neck for a pulse. She took a few more breaths, then stopped. I wanted to cry out, “Don’t go!” but my boy cousin was saying, “It’s okay mom, you can go now.” And of course he was right.
These thoughts run through my head: “She was 89, she lived a good life. She was your aunt, not your mother. This shouldn’t hit you so hard.”
But our families grew up three houses apart. My aunt and mother shared a job for a while and alternated child care. We ran in and out of each other’s houses and went to the same schools. As an adult, I drove up to spend a night or two with my aunt and uncle and cousin on a regular basis.
During her “wave of energy” (see booklet), I told her I had always appreciated how I was able to just be myself around them. She said, “You’ve been like a second daughter to me.” I didn’t’ say it but I thought, You haven’t been like a mother to me. You’ve been a great aunt.
Never underestimate your value as an aunt or uncle or cousin.