By Elizabeth Miles —

On a Friday in January of 2003, I get a phone call from my step mom. My aunt, my dad’s sister Shirley, has a pneumonia, it’s bad, she’s in hospice and could die any day now. I feel guilty for not visiting her over the past few years. She was living in a nursing home in Dayton since she had a stroke three or four years ago. My dad wants to drive together to see my Aunt Shirley. I tell him that I don’t want to because I don’t want to stay all day.
Alone in my car on Saturday morning, I talk to my aunt Shirley. “Aunt Shirley, please don’t die before I get there. I’m on my way.”
The hospice is easy to find and I arrive there about noon. It’s a two-level brick structure and as I go in, I can’t believe how unbelievably quiet it is. I’m directed to my aunt’s room. My aunt has a private room. Her daughter, my cousin Sally, is sitting next to her. On the other side of the bed is my cousin’s daughter Katie. The last time I saw my aunt and my cousins was years ago at a high school graduation party for Katie’s younger sister Becky.
My aunt is lying on her side with her eyes closed. Her breathing is slow and steady, as if she is sleeping. Sally tells me that she’s been like this for a few days.

I can’t believe how different my aunt looks from how I remember her. Her natural hair is a soft gray that is almost blond flowing onto the pillow. She doesn’t have her teeth in so her mouth is withdrawn, as if she just had a bite of lemon. She is a hundred pounds lighter than I remember her. Sally, who is also a nurse, tells me that my aunt is on morphine, which regulates her breathing. She is not in any pain Sally assures me. Sally gets up and offers me her chair. I sit next to my aunt, take her hand and start talking to her. I talk about my cat and my husband and anything I can think of, I realize that I am so glad to be here.

At first there are tears, but soon my cousin and I start talking about my aunt’s evil cat, Princess, which she got from me in 1985 when my family moved and we couldn’t keep her. Sally comments that all four of her grown children still hate cats because of Princess. Though her breathing doesn’t change, my aunt’s mouth moves slightly as if she wants to chime in.

Later in the day, many relatives come by and it is the first time we have all been in the same room since the Monopoly games during Christmas at Grandma Miles’s house in the 1970’s. I learn so many stories about my family: an allergy to an anesthetic that I might have, my Aunt Shirley’s obsession with Pavarotti, and that my shutterbug tendencies are genetic.

My cousin Katie is taking pictures of us leaning over our dying aunt. My cousin Jerri Lynn points out to our aunt Shirley that all these people are here for her; and though my aunt has not really moved or reacted all day, a small tear forms in the corner of one of her eyes. We know that she’s still with us.

We all talk about our grandmother’s spirituality and her belief in the afterlife. My cousin’s daughter Katie pipes in and tells us that she had a pact with her grandmother. My Aunt Shirley had promised that she was going to give Katie a sign after she passed away.

By 9:00 at night, my father has come and gone, and I am still here. A few of us go out to dinner, and I vow to Sally that I will buy a Pavarotti CD for Aunt Shirley that night.

After dinner, outside of the Outback Steakhouse, in the freezing January weather, I talk with Jerri Lynn, whose own mother, my dad’s other living sister, is suffering from Alzheimer’s. I tell her about Katie’s pact with Aunt Shirley, and we both lament that we can’t believe that we haven’t heard from Grandma Miles. I tell her that I have gone to see a psychic and she admits that she has too. Neither of us made contact with Grandma Miles. She tells me that she heard from her father’s grandmother, in such detail that she knows it was authentic, but it wasn?t what she wanted.

“So, do you think Aunt Shirley will give Katie a sign?” she asks me.

“No I don’t.”   I’m shivering but so caught up in the conversation I don’t want to go to my car.

“But she promised Katie she would.”

“I’m sure she intends to now, but what if it is Katie’s lesson in life to have faith without a sign?” Jerri Lynn and I both looked at each other and smile. We know we should heed our own advice. We say our goodbyes and rush to our cars.

I drive back to the hospice by myself. In the room, Sally and Katie are sleeping in the reclining chairs on each side of my aunt’s bed. My aunt is in the same position as she was when I left, but her breathing is slower and shallower. Katie wakes up and smiles. Before I can stop her, she has offered me her seat. Sally wakes up and greets me too.

“I brought Pavarotti.” I say as I hold up Pavarotti’s Greatest Hits.

Sally encourages me to play it, even though it is midnight. I put in the CD player and we crank it up. Nessun Dorma resonates through the room. It is fitting that the title translates to “No one sleeps.”  Though we get no reaction from my Aunt, we know that she loves it. Sally, Katie, my Aunt Shirley and I enjoy Pavarotti for the next two hours. We are at peace.

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Lizzy Miles

Lizzy Miles

Lizzy Miles has been to more funerals than weddings in her life. She stopped counting her losses and started counting her “angels” when she reached double digits. Inspired by her comforting and positive experiences with hospice staff, Lizzy decided to pay it forward and become a hospice volunteer. She found that work so rewarding that she determined that her life's purpose was to work in hospice. She made a mid-life career change and quit her marketing job of twelve years to return to school to become a hospice social worker. While she was an intern for hospice, she organized an event where she helped a 91-year old hospice patient ski again. She has a Master's degree in Communication and one in Social Work. She is currently a hospice social worker and the networking chair for ADEC, the Association for Death Education and Counseling.

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