How can one week feel so interminably long, yet at the same time pass in a mere heartbeat? The world has continued to turn at its normal pace, while I feel stranded in the midst of a foreign and dangerous land, virtually drowning in a sea of emotions and impressions. Will there ever be time to process all that has happened in my life during this week?
The facts: On Monday, after determining that the only remedy for my aunt’s condition would be a major surgical procedure from which she would likely never recover, the decision was made to place her in hospice care. The hospital has its own hospice unit, and on Monday afternoon she was wheeled directly into a spacious private room. She has her pillows and favorite quilt from home, those intrusive tubes and IV’s have been removed, and she has been resting fairly comfortably since then.
Of course, those bare facts don’t begin to scratch the surface of the myriad emotions which have pulled at me like the fiercest undertow. The leaden resignation as I sign my name to DNR orders and hospice admittance papers. The searing pain of walking into her home, her refuge from the world for the last 56 years, and knowing she’ll never return. The anger at a medical bureaucracy which saps the little strength I have left. The frustration with other people who demonstrate such lack of awareness regarding the needs of the dying. The weighty responsibility of managing her estate which is about to fall entirely on my tiny shoulders.
But most of all, of course, is the sadness, the sense of loss which has become so familiar to me in recent years as my elders have disappeared from my life one by one. I feel like an infantryman watching his front line of defense mowed down before him, forced to continue marching onward into danger without their protection, guidance, or love.
It is the love that I will miss the most, and in these past few days, I’ve realized just how much my aunt loved me. It’s hard to lose those people in the world who still see you as a perfect, shining star, with all the possibility you had as a child still dwelling within you.
She has been completely lucid during all of this, and I’ve been visiting her early in the morning before any of her other friends and family come around. I’ve had to ask some hard questions, things we didn’t quite get around to taking care of this summer as we handled all the business related to my uncle’s death.
“I’m worried about you,” she told me the other morning, her voice barely a whisper.
“You don’t have to worry about me,” I answered, trying hard to swallow the tears.
“Well, I am,” she insisted, in the soft southern drawl which seems to have become more pronounced since her illness. “Don’t you cry for me. You know this is what I wanted.”
Yesterday afternoon the hospice nurse told us she had moved into the phase known as “actively dying.” I didn’t need a nurse to tell me that, for I’ve become more familiar with the look of this process than I ever expected I would. We can’t rouse her anymore, and her inveterate talkativeness (which I admit could occasionally grate my last nerve) is now silenced for good.
So I came home in the middle of the day for the first time in a week, hungry for a respite of normalcy. I did some laundry and hung it on the line, letting the fresh autumn breeze whip it clean and free of wrinkles. I sat on the porch and listened to the gentle chords of my wind chimes. I took a walk with my dogs.
Like a swimmer coming to the surface, I gulped in the sweet, fresh air, and tried to breathe.