This morning I woke up and decided to stay in bed for a while. I’d planned to spend the day working on a particularly annoying lab report, and I thought another hour or two wouldn’t hurt. A while later my phone rang and I saw it was my father calling. I knew at that hour it must have been to tell my my Auntie Rita had passed away. It is strange how one knows, but one does know somehow; I seem to recall it being the same when my mother received the call about my Uncle Pete.
Aunts and uncles are special, or mine were (and are). They love you because they love their siblings. You’re almost like one of their kids, but you’re also not. Auntie Rita and Uncle Pete were both, to me, like something between a parent and a friend.
Sunday night I went in for volunteer training at the ER. The first patient I saw was an older woman having breathing problems. I assumed she must have an illness like my aunt’s, but I did not become upset, though I had gone in fearing that I would become upset if I saw someone who reminded me of one of my own loved ones. I was afraid of that because years ago I had had to be a witness for a man signing his will at the hospital where I then worked in the legal department. I left work very upset because he had reminded me of my uncle, whose death at that time was still relatively recent.
So when I did not become especially upset at the ER Sunday night, I pondered that it must have been because death was not as ‘fresh’ to me now. I thought the woman who reminded me of my aunt perhaps did not bother me as much because my aunt was still living, though barely.
There are so many things to think, feel, or say. I am not advocate of ‘mercy killing’ or suicide–physician-assisted or not–but in a way that I think many people understand, I am glad my aunt did not suffer longer than she did. For the past few years she knew she had a terminal disease. She didn’t want “to live like that,” as people say. Last time I spoke with her, she was receiving hospice care. She said she was hoping for another couple of years, but maybe she said that sort of thing for me, my dad, my cousins, etc. She said–and from her voice it sounded true–she felt better since the hospice professionals were giving her different medications than she had been taking previously.
I don’t know. I regret the way my uncle died. He spent his last few months in a nursing home, and he hated it. He had foreseen the possibility when he was well and told everyone that wasn’t how he wanted to die. He had told me if he were in a situation of being powerless to end his own life, he wanted me to. I remember it because he said he’d ask my father, but he didn’t think my father could do it. (They were not blood brothers, but they were best friends–brothers–for decades.) Of course I was only a teenager with no transportation and no money, so I didn’t even get to visit him more than once, let alone see to his wishes.
Anyway, with Auntie Rita… the truth is I don’t know about the last hours of her life. But I do know for the last months she had time with family and friends. She didn’t get to take another trip to the beach as she’d wished, and I know she was tired of her medications. But I think it was maybe as good as it could have been. I hope so.
Again, there are so many things to think, feel, or say. There are many things about both my aunt and my uncle. It’s wonderful–remembering the time I had with them; and it’s terrible–having no more.
So I went out this morning to try to live life and be optimistic, happy, and healthy. I imagined Auntie Rita would tell me to do that. I went to a dog park and a little concrete trail I like to go ride my long board.
And I’m pretty sure I sprained my wrist.
I cradled my injury, sat, and cried, not because it hurts, which it does, but because… because physical pain always makes everything, including emotional and spiritual pain, more real. The internal dialogue ends, or its noise is attenuated at least, when something’s bent or broken on the outside. I was suddenly more aware of the uncomfortable humidity outside. Of the reality that my aunt is gone. Of the birds not paying half as much attention to me as I to them. My wrist didn’t matter, and it did at the same time. I must move on and accept what I cannot change, and I must honor in some way the person I lost, at the same time. We are all precious to someone, but we are all as good as nonexistent to someone else, at the same time.
And now I am not indifferent or cold, but I have obligations. I am sad and my wrist hurts and it is hard for me to focus or care in an immediate sense about school or politics or anything I normally think of. But my lab partner does not know or care. My professors do not. The people with whom I shall sit in traffic tomorrow morning will not. This is not so much the difficulty either. To feel alone is not new to me, and I would not be who I am if I had not spent most of my life feeling alone–which is alright. And to paraphrase the prayer of St. Francis, “Lord, let me not seek not to be understood, but to understand.” The difficulty is not that others do not know, understand, etc., but that my own brain does not. I cannot tell the brain, “I shall need a few days to grieve, to think of mortality, to pray, to remember. I will be back after that to learn these chemistry reactions and research this paper, etc.” My brain is still only able to learn so quickly, to focus so well, to stay awake so long. If I do not continue my work today, then I will not be able to catch up on it.
I don’t know. What matters is confusing sometimes. Also, the theology of what happens after death is confusing. Do we ‘sleep’ for a while? Do we go see The Man Upstairs immediately? What about Purgatory and Hell? Do the dead hear us if we speak? I like to think my aunt is in the presence of God along with my cousin Rachel who preceded her in death. I like to think she is aware of everyone’s grief down here, that she is able to understand in a way which is impossible in the flesh the depth of our love for her. I hope she is comprehending beauty and love and grace, forgetful of all that is petty or mean. I hope, of course, I will be with her again. I hope in this life that I will be able to learn from hers–her generosity, forgiveness, patience, thoughtfulness, and wisdom. She had a hard life in many ways, but she was amazing and kind. My life is not hard. I would like to honor my aunt by being, well, not amazing, but at least kind, or more kind. It is the least I can do, or maybe it is the most. May God welcome you into his eternal presence, my dear aunt.