The Ram Dass quote, “We are all just walking each other home” helps me when I’m faced with the seemingly impossible challenge of how to live when someone I love is dying. A year ago I had the great honor to walk with Steve’s Aunt Pat. We had a month with her, supporting her son Chris and his wife, Christine, as we all learned how to do this together. After each visit I would write, so I could remember the layers and details of this gift. This is how I process…grief, joy and the act of showing up the best I can. I’ve spent the past 12 months trying to edit this piece to 1,000 words. But some stories don’t fit into a convenient word count, and this is one of them. Thank you for reading. With love and gratitude (and a very full heart), Kim
I’ve never been this close. To cancer, or to death. I’ve always been the one on the other end of the phone. Never the one holding tight as they’re letting go.
It’s quite a remarkable experience. She’s really Steve’s Aunt Pat, but for the past 35 years I’ve also claimed her as my own. Maybe because we’re both troublemakers at heart, I always felt a special connection with her. We loved and enjoyed each other, and always had a wink, a laugh, and most often, a glass of wine, to share.
We’ve been in her home for three days, surprised by how ordinary this feels, as if people do this every day.
Kathy was here for the handoff. It doesn’t seem fair that she already knows how this will go, because she’s done it before. She’s the one we all turn to—who comforts us—as we’re learning how to be the comforters ourselves.
Pat has had two lovely, perfect afternoons, sitting in her patio with her nieces and nephews, telling stories of growing up in San Francisco, skiing at Squaw Valley, births, and a few other deaths. Yesterday her sister-in-law, Liz, gave her a letter, written by her husband and Pat’s brother, Frank, when he was in the service. A letter he wrote to her, his nine-year old sister, postmarked fifty years ago–the same date as his death, just two months ago.
She wants a Catholic funeral, with Kathy singing. And of course, a party afterwards. Russ and Cindy will bring the wine, we promise.
She’s gone through her papers and jewelry, remembering, giving instructions. We sat in bed, and I shared my slide show of every Thanksgiving at her cabin, first meetings with her grand babies, her older, beloved sister, Louise. Five hundred and sixty four slides. It took three sittings to get through them all.
Morphine, applesauce to chase the awful taste, the hum of the oxygen tank, the long tube carrying air to her lungs. Equipment and inhalers, pills and charts for the pills.
She shows us her body, her mastectomy scar from years ago. The tumor that is growing daily, as if it wants to be sure we know it’s the one responsible. She’s amazed and intrigued. And open. She’s so open, it helps us return the favor.
She tells me her tumor doesn’t hurt from the outside. But I have seen it wretch her with pain from the inside. That’s what the morphine is for. That’s what we’re here for.
It’s visible, watching her shed the layers of what was hard…making her load lighter for her journey. She’s had a complex life. More than a few disappointments, and has faced the sorrow of burying her oldest son, Carl B., when he was still a young man. Then her husband, the first Carl, years after he was disabled by a stroke. She’s protected herself, and hasn’t always let us see the soft spots. She’s let a few of us in, but mostly she was the independent one who could do it on her own. She had her own tools, literally. Pat was the strong one who could take care of herself.
Maybe it’s the morphine. Maybe it’s the journey. But we can feel the change.
Yesterday we had an “event” and I’ve never witnessed so much pain. I held her and prayed over her. I have no idea how long it lasted, but we were all grateful when the medicine kicked in and it was over. Three hours later, her recovery felt like a small and welcome miracle.
The tumor seems bigger this morning. She’s tired and a little more wobbly. She’s not eating, but laughed when I had to video chat Steve (who had returned home) to be able to hook up the Nebulizer.
She says, “I am happy. This is working out really well, don’t you think?”
We say, “Well, we are almost ok…but if you’re happy, we’re happy.”
I am so honored to be here. To be this close. To be able to serve her, to be her honor guard.
She’s had some good enough days, some bad days, and a great day. It’s been a week and we’re back. She’s excited to see us, but all of our visiting will be bedside today.
She tries to sit up and I can see it’s harder for her to breathe. She turns away from me and won’t acknowledge what is wrong. I move so I am sitting right in front of her, where I can see what I was hearing. She finally asks for morphine. Steve brings it, along with the applesauce. We don’t take the time for one of her pretty blue dishes and a right-sized spoon. She gets the plastic container, with a soup spoon. We waited too long this time. The medicine doesn’t help. I rub her back…as gently as I can. She doesn’t complain, but asks for more morphine. Steve and I look at each other, and we decide, without speaking, that we will double up for her. She asks how long it’s been. Seven minutes. A very long seven minutes.
And then the pain subsides, I climb into her bed and we watch the Giants game. She tells us about her first marriage, the one that no one talks about.
I realize that out of the 500+ photos I have for her I have none of the two of us, so I ask Steve to take a few. And then I decide to try a selfie with her and my new phone. She’s tickled…I don’t think she’s ever seen one before. She laughs and one photo turns into ten, each one funnier than the last.
When she’s resting I go to her yard and cut a few succulents to bring home. I find a tomato sauce jar and arrange them. She has succulents everywhere, tucked away. I am struck by how healthy they are. I have cut so many, but you can hardly see what’s missing.
We tire her out by five. I leave with my phone and my pictures, and a few new cuttings in an old jar. Also a deep appreciation for the power of morphine.
We had a party for her yesterday. It was to be a surprise 80th birthday party, planned months ago. The venue changed to her backyard, expectations changed, and we all crossed our fingers that she would make it and it would be a good thing.
I made silly coffee filter flower garlands, feeling like I was making 1000 cranes. They seem so irrelevant, but also necessary. If I keep making the flowers, she would make it to the party.
She was even more fragile, as if life had been draining out of her all week. We arrived early to wash dishes, cut flowers, set tables, get ice and beer, visit while it was quiet. Hang the garlands, one for her room, the others for her patio.
Cousins and aunts and uncles arrived. Her sister-in-law, Ellen, from Oregon. Steve’s sister, Sue, from San Diego. Friends from her teaching days. Hugs and just a little awkwardness, and as each took their turn down the hall, following the path made by the oxygen line. This is as it should be, being able to say goodbye.
I don’t know what happened behind the doors. Each person emerged with red eyes, standing to the side quietly, and eventually rejoining the party.
At one point someone asked me to come help her. She was sitting on the side of the bed, trying to stand, agitated and confused. Lynn and I were able to get her back in bed, and we called for Chris. I sat holding her hand and reminded her that Chris was on the other side, holding her, too. She called him by the name of both her son and husband, Carl, and buried her head in his chest. I found Lynn’s hand and somehow we were able to make our way into the hall. We couldn’t do anything, yet we couldn’t move. I got the nurse, and within minutes it was over. Her grandson dove into the room, as only a three-year old can, and we hear her voice…joyful and enthusiastic. “Avery, I am so happy you’re here.”
A few hours later, it was time to say goodbye. I wasn’t leaving the house, but I needed to say goodbye while we both could. I wished Steve were here with me. The nurse was on one side, and Chris was at the foot of her bed. I crawled up onto her bed, and got as close as I could.
I looked into her eyes and wished I could crawl inside of her heart.
I told her, “Pat, we’ve been saying I love you for a long, long time. At every event, every gathering, you would pull me aside and tell me you loved me, that I was special to you, and I was special to Carl. And for the past three weeks, we have said I love you over and over again. You have been special to me, and to my daughters, and to Steve. You have a special place in our hearts and we will think of you and remember you always. So I am going to say again, without crying, I love you. You are special to me.”
She nodded and whispered, “I love you. You are special.”
I kissed her and walked out. I said, “I love you and I’m not crying.”
She said, “I’m not either.”
She died a week after the party. On her sister Louise’s 91st birthday, which is what we all expected. Chris was with her, and said it was the longest 5 seconds of his life.
The last week was much harder. She was in and out. She was confused about what hospice was doing, and thought they had something to help her go. Chris had to tell her she had to do that part on her own.
I felt more empty than sad. But I also felt like it went as well as it could have, relieved that she was still in her home, until the very end.
Chris called Steve and asked if he would do the eulogy. Steve was hesitant and I didn’t understand why. He’s an accomplished public speaker, and this is his role in the family. I said I would help him, that we could do it together.
Later in the week, it was clear that Steve would have a harder time than I expected, though I think he knew, which is why he was hesitant in the first place. I said I could do it…it was in my wheelhouse, I think Pat would be ok with it.
Chris was ok with it too, though I worried that some would wonder why it was me, a niece-by-marriage, jumping into a place that wasn’t mine.
I spent two days writing five minutes of memories. Her joys, Louise, her brothers, her nieces and nephews, her husband, her sons, her cabin. The bear story. And what she found at the end.
“She was at peace with what was behind her, and before her. In her final weeks she was able to give so much love, and in turn, receive our love, and use it for her journey ahead.
Pat showed us that no matter where we are in our own journey, and what preceded this moment, there is always a time and place for discovery, love, joy, and little fun, and especially–most importantly–family.”
I made copies for my father-in-law Vince, who doesn’t hear well, and I wanted him to be able to read along.
It was my gift to her, and to Steve, and Chris and Vince, and the family.
The church was bigger, more beautiful and light-filled than I remembered. Kathy was practicing her singing, and she belonged here. I was in unfamiliar territory.
I walked to the back, circled the lectern, with its giant ceramic bible. I gathered myself. They told me they were changing things, and I would go first, rather than last after communion and Kathy’s song. That was good news, but so soon? Really, so soon?
I saw Steve with the pall bearers. I saw Chris and Christine. I couldn’t talk to him. I just had to stay within myself, so I could do my job. I sat alone on the side, reviewing my lines, imagining Pat chiding me “C’mon Kim, you can do this, you love this stuff.” In my imagination she even winked at me, as she did when we were sharing an across-the-table secret.
Kathy whispered, “You’re talking to Pat, just remember you’re talking directly to her.”
They brought in the casket and I could barely look at it. Steve and I hugged. I could barely look at him, either.
And then it was my turn. The priest introduced me as her niece. Not her niece-by-marriage, but her niece.
My hands shook, but I think my voice was steady. I spoke slowly, and was able to share what I intended. I could hear a few laughs, a few sniffles.
“Pat cherished the stories of our lives, and loved giving us a place to make and share them with each other.”
Steve and I held hands, so tightly, during the mass. We approached communion with our arms crossed over our chest, so we could receive the blessing. Gary had the wine, and I tried to stay with his eyes, and remember this.
Kathy sang. We all cried. I heard Steve sob twice. I saw Vince bent over in grief. In the past two months he has buried his brother and his sister, and we can feel his sorrow.
And then they brought out the incense and the ball swinging over her casket, smoke surrounding her. I thought, “Well, look at you Pat, all of your fancy Catholic stuff…you got it all.” I may have winked.
Steve joined the other pall bearers…his cousins, they have done it so often. For their grandmother, their cousin, Carl, their Uncle Frank, and others. I didn’t watch as they took the casket out of the church.
We followed the hearse up to the cemetery. It was a slow drive. How can it be so slow?
I felt disconnected from the casket and still couldn’t imagine her in there. The cousins stood together, as they removed their boutonnieres and gloves, and placed them on her casket. The man from the mortuary brought us each a flower. We stood in line, everyone in black, sunglasses, flowers in hand…placed them in a row on her casket.
I kissed my hand and touched her. I took an extra second.
One more prayer, then the workers lowered her down. It wasn’t lovely, it was just a job to be done. One of them wore his sunglasses backwards on his head. They do this every day.
Behind us was the grave of her son. Carl B, 1995. I remember how much my heart hurt the day we buried him. Some began walking up the hill, towards his grave. It looked like a movie.
We stood in a circle around him. Chris took off his glasses, and said to us, “I know it doesn’t seem like it, but I feel really lucky right now.”
I think Pat would have loved that we took time for Carl B.
Back at her house, Russ and Cindy opened the wine. Steve and Kathy stayed together in her bedroom. The garland I made for her birthday was still there, I could see the strings of the glue gun hanging like a thread.
His family thanked me for what I did. I told them I was honored. And I was.
And then it was over.
We went to Vince and Adeline’s house, and changed our clothes. We were exhausted, sitting in the living room. We could barely talk…just alone with our thoughts. We heard Adeline fumbling with the phone…returning a doctor’s call. Then we heard her say, “A mass or a tumor, which is it?”
And it starts again.
It’s been a year. My mother-in-law, Adeline became a three-time cancer survivor, but Cindy just finished chemo. We lost Dennis. Kathy lost her mother-in-law, also named Pat. Alex went to Amsterdam, Kate got engaged, Kathy’s grandson, Luke, turned one. Avery and Zeal are bigger. Her house has a new family. Life goes on. But I still have our “selfies” in my phone and they still make my heart break a little, before I remember to laugh.