There wasn’t one definitive phone call that I could point to and say that this was the moment when I knew to I had to go home and visit her.
There were a few conversations with various people, my mother, brother, my Uncle Charles* (not by blood, nor was She, just my parents dear friend’s. She, my Aunt, was my mother’s College roommate. They’d been best friends for 53 years. No small feat.) In these phone calls all I heard within me was the faint whisper, echoing from long ago.
What I heard was “Go.”
It was the same whisper that told me during my first pregnancy that the fetus I carried within me would never live to become my baby. That same breath in my ear told me the twins I carried during my third pregnancy would never draw breath and that I was to become, for a certain period of time, a walking coffin to children who would never know my touch or hear their mother’s voice from above water.
It was the same whisper that told me fourteen years ago, to go home and see my stepfather for the last time, when I unplugged his respirator, confused by the rising and falling of the dead man’s chest. I was greeted at the entrance to the hospital by a nurse with wet eyes who told me I was five minutes too late, so unplug was all I got to do. I say “all I got to do” flippantly, like that was nothing, but as you will come to know about me, unplugging is the least of what I did, it is the least of what I have known.
It is the same echo that told me my father would die when he was first diagnosed with brain cancer when I was twelve.
This whisper, this death knoll has been with me my entire life. I have known the hiss of its influence and the stink of its breath like I know my own heartbeat. It has shaped who I was, who I wanted to be and who I am now. It is the reason why I was chosen, perhaps by my Aunt’s family, perhaps by she herself in her spiral towards God, to be her own personal Death Doula.
I took at 6:45 am Flight out of LA and landed at 3:30 pm in NY. My Uncle picked me up at JFK and drove me to the Hospice where my aunt lay dying. In the same way that there is no mistaking the smell of a hospital, my very core and olfactory spirit recoiled with the memory of the stench of the decaying bodies that littered each room like tomorrow’s trash.
I hadn’t seen her daughter, Amy* in twenty-five years. We never got along as children despite our parent’s attempts every New Years to blend our families in celebration.
“What have you been doing for the past twenty-five years?” She asks.
“Oh, you know,” I say. “Working, got married, had a few children and watched people die. All in a days work.”
“Well,” she says, “I am glad you are here. I don’t know what I am doing. This is not something anyone learns without cause. It’s not like this is taught in High School in Home-Ec, after the proper way to crack an egg: Dying 101.”
I then turned to my Aunt. She was miles away, galaxies, stars away, breathing shallowly, wringing her hands in agitation. I knew this was the beginning of her end. I’d seen it before.
“Hi Aunt Jenny*. I am here.”
She attempts to open her eyes and her mouth contorts to say my name, “Sweetie.” This is what she has always called me. Sweetie. It will be the last word she ever says in her lifetime and she said it to me, about me, for me. She said my name. This is not lost on me. I know she waited for me.
Perhaps she did so because she needed my help to stop my uncle from pacing, from trying to rewrite the history of their extremely troubled, dysfunctional, and toxic marriage in the time she has left. He will attempt throughout the night to rework, rewrite, and relove his marriage and undo and untell the story of his affairs. He will try to make amends, he will try to tell himself that their love was one of fairy tales and in the end, at her end, he will say she whispered “I love you” to him as she held his hand. He will believe this and he will go on and repeat this to anyone who will listen. It will ease his grief and soothe his shame but I will know, as I do know, it is a lie. I was there. It never happened.
Perhaps, she did so too for her daughter, with whom she had a loving but at times hostile relationship that shone plenty of spotlights on my Aunt’s inadequacies as a mother, in a last unspoken plea to her girl child, to finally forgive, to identify, to relate to her as she is now a mother herself. Perhaps that, that bond of mother to mother might in itself heal, in itself stitch together the fragments of the mother daughter feud that is all too common.
Perhaps she did so, to see her son, the anointed one: The one who lived on to live a life while the first-born son died just shy of 2 weeks old. To see him, a husband, a father of two, a liver of life, a smiler of smiles, go on and be the man to his wife as he was son to his mother.
Perhaps she did all this and waited for me to be her witness; to testify to the truth of this night.
We sat. We reminisced. We watched my Aunt scratch…one of the effects of her Dilaudid drip. They had taken her off Morphine. They were concerned about her liver. She has Pancreatic cancer and is the last hours of her life and “they” were worried about her liver. I didn’t think she had much longer and not wanting to wait until she could no longer hear me, I bent over my Aunt, told her I loved her, thanked her for befriending me, for helping me unravel the mysteries of my own mother and for allowing me to help guide her children to guide her, home.
Hospice needs a bar cart. I think the livers “they” should be concerned about are those belonging to the caregivers. There should be a cart that goes around the hallways of a Hospice during normal Happy Hours to hand out vodka infused Jell-O Shots by pretty candy stripers a la Hooter Girls. Big Boobs, tight skirts, wide smiles…Think of the morale they would lift, the joy they would bring, the memories they would erase, the flood gates they, with their nectar, would open, the truths that might pore open from the inhibitions a Vodka Jell-O shot might induce. In the end, think of the pain that one Jell-O shot might heal. Or, cause a fistfight, either way, at the end, in the end; any communication is necessary to pave the way of those who leave and those who remain.
As I tell my Hospice Bar Cart business plan to the nurses, doing my bit to lighten the mood of their station, my Aunt’s family coalesces in the so called “prayer room,” with a Jesus statue shoved into a closet. I know this because I opened the closet door, only to reveal Him, tucked away, ready when needed. My Aunt’s family is Jewish so they didn’t need him much but I was fascinated with the Lord’s Son being hidden away like someone’s gay son hidden away in a closet of yore…
It was now 2:00 am NY time. I had been up since 4:00 am LA time. I sat down next to my Aunt and watched her breathe. Her daughter came in and sat at her feet, her son in a chair and her husband paced and read the paper. We watched, her breath became shallower and shallower and we watched her throat and her chest until it no longer rose and it no longer fell and she stopped.
We knew it. We all looked at each other at the same time and we knew. The nurse came in and unable, rather, not certified to say, she sent in the doctor.
“What are your names?” He asked.
We told him.
“I am sorry, your mother, your wife and your aunt has passed.”
The nurse came in.
“Under the law of NY, you have two hours to spend with the body.”
“No need,” Amy says. “ We will be out of here in 15 minutes.”
And we were.
Pictures were peeled off the walls, clothing was shoved into a bag, jewelry was taken off the neck and fingers, flowers in vases were collected and the door was closed on the white wax figure that was once my Aunt.
15 minutes and it was all over. 73 years of life was encapsulated in a few flower arrangements, pictures and rings. It was all stripped, like a raid of an Egyptian tomb, in a matter of 15 minutes.
We went down the elevator to the cars. Amy drove me at 4:00 am to the airport to return me back to life.
I went thru security. I ordered an egg sandwich. I sat at my gate, roughly 24 hours after I left LA and called my mother, my Aunt’s best friend of 53 years.
“Aunt Jenny died at 2:34 am.”
“I know. She told me.” She says.
“Then why weren’t you there instead of me?”
“You are better at it.” She says.
She is right. I am. Just as I was with my father, just as I was with my stepfather.
Here is what I know…People come in to the world the same way, and in the case of disease…they go out the same way: No one is special, no one is spared. It is slow, it is painful, it is violent, it is heart breaking, it is soul splitting, it is beautiful, it is calm, it is peaceful, it is quiet, it is soul stirring, it is everything.
The term “Doula” does not apply only to the birth of a soul. There are angels amongst us who become educated to guide people out of this life and into the next. They are called Death Doulas.
With all of my experience, from my father to my grandmother, nana to my stepfather, I have become, I feel like I am akin to the GPS to the dying. I know it, I feel it, I understand it, I can guide it, I taste it and I smell it. I’d know it a mile away…
So I have made a new Resume: Actress, Author, Mother, Website Parenting Guru, Essayist, and now self-appointed, self-taught, Death Doula.
It’s got a nice ring to it.
* Names have been changed.