On Saturday night, about 11: 15 p.m., my aunt quite peacefully stopped breathing. There were six people hovering around her bedside – I wasn’t one of them, for I had told her goodbye earlier in the afternoon and gone home. I knew when I left that I wouldn’t see her again, but the hospice nurse told us that most often people prefer to die alone, and will often “linger” in hopes of being able to do just that. But there were surprising numbers of people who wanted to be at her bedside – relatives, close friends, even casual acquaintances, who seemed bound and determined to insert themselves into her final hours. I didn’t feel the need to compete for her attention, or to try and hold her back on this journey. She was ready to go, and I was ready to let her leave.
Yesterday afternoon we buried her next to her husband, so they are “together forever” as it says on their newly minted grave marker. (We will have to leave it to God to decide whether that is reward or punishment for them.) This picture of her was taken in 1946, not long before they eloped to Bowling Green, Ohio, on a chilly November afternoon. Like most young couples of their time, they were full of the optimism and hope erupting from the end of that long war. And they would definitely have said they achieved the American dream as it was defined in those days. My uncle, a poor Mexican boy from Texas, got a college education and a professional position. He earned enough money to buy his own home, wear good suits from Brooks Brothers, and drive Buicks and Cadillacs. He retired with the security of a lifetime pension and healthcare, and the knowledge that his wife would be well taken care of even after his death.
They never had children of their own, but there were all of us nieces and nephews to play with and spoil. There was also a parade of neighbor children and the children of friends who were the beneficiaries of their generosity. Although my aunt was rather opinionated and demanding, she somehow marshalled an army of loyal followers who were faithful to the bitter end. She didn’t give of herself unselfishly the way my mother does, but somehow she managed to inspire fierce devotion anyway.
The end of a life – especially a long one -always inspires introspection, making one think about the mark you leave on the world, the possibilities fulfilled (and unfulfilled), the legacy left behind. Each of us has one, some certainly larger and more impressive than others, but each one important and necessary in the grand scheme of life.
“Honey, I just tried to do what the Lord wanted me to do,” my aunt would say. In her heart, she believed she followed her Higher Power.
I suppose that’s all any of us can do before we’re gone.