Recently, my aunt passed away after just under a year of the all too familiar “brave battle with cancer.” Even though she was 20 years older than my mom, up to the day she was diagnosed (and even here and there afterward), our family was convinced she would outlive us all. Certainly, she would at least make it to 100. She was sharp, active, and extremely health-conscious. She played tennis, for pete’s sake! It made no sense when she, a non-smoker, suddenly had Stage 4 lung cancer. The denial and bargaining started immediately. There must be a mistake. Maybe there is a cure. If nothing else, a miracle will happen, surely.
My aunt was one of very few Midwestern women I knew who made it through her adulthood without getting married or having children. As a child, I didn’t know what to make of that, but as a married adult with two daughters, I feel so grateful to have had her example in my life. I’m thankful my girls have someone they can point to and say, “Look! She did not need a partner in her life to feel whole.”
My aunt was independent, capable, financially secure, and completely confident in who she was. She sought comfort in nature, in a loyal pet, in traveling and gathering experiences, and most certainly, in connecting with her family, particularly my mom.
Throughout 2018, she had good days and bad days, but by the beginning of 2019, the good days became fewer and farther between. When my mom went to visit her in Arizona in February, everything was different. My mom called and said, “If you want to come, I think you should come now.”
My husband and I decided the best thing would be for me to take our eldest down for a long weekend. It was the right choice. At almost 8 years old, she was old enough to handle the trip, but still young enough to ignore a lot of what was happening.
We told her my aunt was dying, and she understood, but she also just wanted to go swimming and horseback riding and push my aunt’s little poodle around in a stroller. So we did. She made us laugh and gave us excuses to do things that were fun and pointless. She asked hard questions that made us think about our beliefs about death and Heaven and about what to teach kids and when. She broke our hearts open when she cried, and she let us be strong for her when we couldn’t be strong for ourselves. She was our saving grace on that trip, and she didn’t even know it.
We returned to Sioux Falls, unsure if we had just said goodbye to my aunt for the last time. As it turned out, she would fly back to Sioux Falls less than a week later. 10 days after her arrival, it became apparent she needed professional care around the clock. She entered the hospice house on a Friday and passed away less than two weeks later, 23 days after she returned to Sioux Falls. Sounds fast, right? It feels fast now. At the time, it was anything but.
I want so much to forget those 23 days in favor of happier ones, but I know those are the days that need parsing. Those are the days other people need to know about. During those days, I was looking for help, for support, for understanding, for a glimpse of wisdom from someone else who had been through 23 days of their own.
Search as I might, I didn’t find anything. There were no “how to” articles, no advice columns, no checklists for saying goodbye. How was I supposed to know how to act or what to say? How could I be sure I was doing everything I should be doing? We were all so lost.
Waiting for someone you love to die seems like God’s gift and cruel joke all at the same time. I wanted every second with her and wanted it to be over all at the same time. I wanted to press pause. I wanted to move forward. I wanted to take a leave of absence from work so I could be there, and I wanted to never have to go into that hospice house again. I wanted to have a really heartfelt goodbye, exchange the perfect knowing look, and tie everything up with a bow like in the movies. I wanted a do-over everyday. Every morning, I wanted the relief that she was still alive. Every morning, I wanted the relief that she had let go and was no longer suffering.
I wanted her to say something really profound to me that I could carry forever. I wanted to say something to her that would mean more than everything I had already said. I wanted her to tell me a secret she had never shared with anyone. I wanted to be content to know everything had been said. I wanted her to fight. I wanted her to feel the peace that surpasses understanding. I wanted to be there and hold her hand through her last breath. I wanted to be at home, and hold my husband’s hand when someone called to tell me she had passed.
Most of all, I wanted a miracle. She was actively dying, but I suppose once in a while, someone stops dying and gets better, right? It has happened before, I’m sure. It could happen now. People have been miraculously cured. Why not her?
But then, I’d pray for peace. Well, God, if you won’t give us a miracle, then give us peace, I guess.
When someone is dying, acceptance just feels like resignation. Giving up. How can you accept something devastating that hasn’t actually happened yet? And yet, is it healthier to come to terms with it before it happens? Did she?
She seemed so removed from the physical world. She didn’t care much about what was happening around her. She didn’t want to talk. She didn’t want to watch TV. No music. No nature. What was she thinking? Were there things she wanted to say? Was she afraid? Did she understand what was happening?
The hospice nurses and their brochures said “dying is a process.” And just like any other process, there were stages. But just like everything else in the human experience, it is a little different for everyone. It was really difficult to think of it as a process. This is the last thing she will ever go through, the end of her existence on earth, and we are using a sterile word like process? It just didn’t fit. And it certainly wasn’t comforting.
Then one morning my mom called me. “They say she is unresponsive now.” I met her at the hospice house later that day.
Each time she took a breath, I thought it might be her last. Part of me hoped it was. Being present for her last breath seemed like such an enduring act of love, one last way I could be there for her. But then again, I didn’t want to carry that memory with me. She had gone through everything in her life independently – wouldn’t it be more fitting for her to do this alone as well? She was never afraid of being by herself.
In the end, she passed in the early morning hours on a Thursday. Peacefully, we were told.
As we planned the memorial service, I counted and re-counted the amount of times I went to visit her in hospice. Did I do enough? Did she know how much she meant to me? Should I have poured my heart out? I still don’t know those answers. I guess I never will.
Now, 6 months later, I am once again watching a loved one die slowly. This time, a dog. Our 8 year old black lab has a large tumor on his liver that is eating up all his calories. We are trying our best to stay ahead of the tumor’s appetite, but Murphy’s ribs show a little more every day. The vet says he probably has a month or two.
He’s still happy as hell. He wants to play tug of war, chase the squirrels, have his tummy rubbed. But I know that will change soon, and I don’t want to go through it. I don’t want my husband and kids to go through it. But once again, I’m helpless.
I wanted to write this to help people going through this odd purgatory with someone they love, but I guess I don’t have advice, and I haven’t found a “how to” guide.
The best I can do is take a few pages from AA. Take it “one day at a time,” ask God to grant you the serenity to accept the things you cannot change. I think that’s all we can do.
Each day, I see Murphy’s wagging tail and giant pink tongue, and I think to myself: Not today. Let tomorrow worry about itself, right? All we ever really have is today anyway.