*This essay was written many years ago. I still cry when I read it.
My aunt was a tough cookie.
I grabbed my yellow Nike bag and tossed in underwear, shirts, a jacket and some mascara. Mascara. Why would I need mascara if all I was going to do was cry? My mom’s telephone call was quiet and matter of fact.
“They think she will go anytime now. They have moved her into the hospice room so I can be with her as much as I want. If you want, you can come see her.”
I hadn’t been to the little nursing home for some time. She didn’t really know me anymore and my life had been so busy. But I felt I needed to go to be with my mom. To sit with her while we waited for my Tia to die from Alzheimer’s disease. I thought I was going to comfort my mom, after all, my aunt could no longer understand anything.
I entered the small little Central Valley town and not surprisingly I found it shockingly easy to enter into the run-down little facility. I called my mom’s cell phone and she met me in the lobby. We exchanged a quick hug and she leads me to the private room just down the hall. She asked me if I was hungry so she could ask my dad to bring food. I assured her that I ate on the road and not to worry about taking care of me.
She said, “She looks good huh? Viejita loca, she never got old.”
My aunt was old. She was 83 years old and suffered a life that most would find unbelievable. She survived her husband, her only daughter, and her only son in law. She spent her final years living silently in a nursing home that provided only food and shelter for her. She didn’t speak English, although we all knew that she understood conversations. My mom provided the rest; Mexican food, hair brushes, soft socks and sweaters to keep her warm in the winter and a fan to keep her cool in the summer. My mom provided her conversation, even if it was one-sided, like a mother talking to her baby. That feels good, doesn’t it? Yes, it feels good.
I tossed my bag into a corner of the room and told my mom, “You look tired. You should go home and get some sleep. I’ll stay with her.”
My mom looked at me with appreciation and without any further discussion, took her leave. I sat in the brown recliner and kicked up my feet. I don’t know why, but I had chosen to wear my cowboy boots. I love those boots. They never betrayed me. They looked worn and authentic possibly because I about them in Houston just to say I did. Now, many years later, they were broken in and comfortable. I stared at my feet and thought about my uncle. He lost an eye working in the fields when he failed to shield his face while driving in an orange orchard and a tree branch slashed across his face. He was one of those happy men that love to tease those who love to be teased. I laughed at him and with him. His boots were worn and molded to his feet.
A crazy cat burst into the room startling me into the present. He stared at me and then jumped up on my aunt’s bed. I bolt out of the chair and shoo him away. Later, the nursing home staff would tell me that he knew death was near and would spend more and more time in that room with my Tia until she passed. My mom had told me that her passing was inevitable and would happen anytime. I settled back into my chair.
My mom returned the next morning and sent me “home” to shower and eat, perhaps see my dad. He had previously suffered the loss of his own mother at the dreadful hands of the same disease. Only, my dad had spent the first two years of his retirement caring for his mother who was sometimes involuntarily abusive toward him. Abusive without knowledge but hurtful just the same. He cared for her round the clock, even when his brothers refused to help…even when his own sense of modesty slapped him about the head and heart as he struggled to care for her personal needs. This strong man was driven to silent tears of frustration and anger at an invisible beast of a thief of time and connection.
And so we took turns… I stayed a week and that stubborn old woman would not die. She simply refused. And my mom and I talked and sat with the death cat. We talked and wondered what it must feel like. Finally, I said, mom, where are the boys? Why aren’t they here? She looked down at her unpolished nails and tired hands and said, “They cant handle it.” I have been talking to AJ, he is so busy with work. Neither of us can find Frank. Its like he can’t handle seeing her. It’s been a long time since he saw her.
“Mom, she can’t die unless they see her.”
“Yes,” she said, “they need to see her.”
“No,” I said, “she needs to see them. She’s worried about them. She needs to know that they are ok. I’m sure of it.”
My Tia had cared for these boys from the time they were first born until the day she had entered the nursing home. My cousin had a stroke at a young age, and she needed help not only with the boys but her alcoholic husband. My aunt was staunch in her disregard for alcohol and a useless, weepy man. She stepped in to help up until the day my cousin died. Her husband would fling himself over her coffin, drunk with both alcohol and despair. My aunt would care for the boys, comfort them and remind them that their mother, her only daughter loved them. A year later, she would comfort them again as they buried their father.
And now, the boys were not there for her. They were so distraught over the sight and sounds of the nursing home, that they had stayed away. They were so sad at the loss of their only grandmother that even as grown men with children of their own, they could not face the final goodbye.
Eventually, AJ and his wife and children would attend to her last rites ceremony organized by my mom. They would cry and bless her. But Frank was not to be found.
She would moan in her state of unresponsiveness. I would spend nights in the room with the cat and wonder what she could possibly be thinking about. I would play my iPhone playlists to perhaps provide her some music that might calm her. I prayed over her, aloud and repetitively in the manner of the rosary prayed for my grandmother some 40 years earlier. And I talked to her. I told her that she was a good aunt and that she had been the best mother and grandmother anyone could ask for. I told her the boys were doing well.
She moved as if in response. I continued to tell her about what AJ had been doing and how well his children were. She began to mouth sounds that although unintelligible, were the agitated sounds of a desperate plea to get the boys…. maybe tell the boys….bring the boys…
I thought they won’t come back to see her die. It’s just too hard. I told her that I would talk to them and that it was ok for her to stop fighting so hard. She protested. I promised her that they were ok and that we would look after them. She moved her jaws and her curled up hands and fingers. I told her it was ok to let go. I said, “Its ok to go now, Tia. You’re tired. It’s ok to go now.”
With that, she settled into the night. I settled into the chair with the cat. The next morning my mom came in to relieve me. I said, “Mom, I have to go back. I’ve been here for a week and the kids need me. I have to go back to work.”
“Of course, thanks for coming to be with me. Of course, you should go home.” I left later that afternoon and cried the 5 hours back to Sacramento knowing I wouldn’t see my aunt ever again.
She died the next morning. I know that her love for those boys kept her from passing over to her next adventure. I know that her love would never fade and lives on in my memories of her and in her grandson’s heart. Love keeps us alive and maintains us connected even in death. I hadn’t thought about it, before but caring for my aunt in her final hours taught me that love binds and love conquers all, even death.