It's funny how you never know where things will lead.
Back in early 1977, my parents - aged 34 and 44 - booked a trip to Hawaii. Because it was my dad's first trip, they went with a tour group. Elsewhere in Illinois, two 20 year old best friends were eagerly awaiting the same trip, dutifully going to the travel agent every month to pay their installments and dreaming about a vacation full of sun and sand and fabulousness. When my parents first met these two young ladies, they figured they were "spoiled brats," as they would later recount it, whose parents had sent them to the Islands for their high school graduation.
(Let's ignore how, two decades later, my parents took my best friend and me to Hawaii when we graduated high school, shall we?)
As it turned out, though, those two gals, Bev and Tres, were really pretty awesome, and for whatever reasons, the somewhat mismatched foursome really clicked. And in the days before texting and Facebook and instant access, they still managed not to drift apart when the magic of the mana wore off and real life returned. Later the following year, Tres had a daughter, and a few weeks later, so did my mom.
That's me on the left. Seriously. How cute were we? See those red strings? Someone tied balloons around us.
Selina and I, and later her sister Erin, grew up together, more or less as cousins. Carl and Tres and the girls were a constant as the years went by, and we created memories together too numerous to count - drinking "kiddie cocktails" on the big squishy mat in my basement, hiding in the loft of the barn in their expansive backyard, and perhaps the one we reference most often of all, going to the Gnome Festival to get our yearly tassels for our gnome hats.
I know, I know. The cuteness never stops around here.
Time would pass and we would drift a bit and then reconnect. Weddings, birth, death, things changed, and they stayed constant. In some brilliant twist by the Universe, my uncle Carl got transferred to North Carolina about two months before the Match sent me here as well, and we ended up living just a few miles apart. My actual mother quickly started referring to them as my "Southern Parents," and frankly, there is no more truth than could've been added to that statement. They were the best southern comfort I could've possibly come to. We made even more wonderful memories. They had me over for holidays and random Tuesday nights. My aunt freaked out when she discovered I had never seen A Christmas Story and made its viewing into a major event. She helped me pack up my apartment more times than I want to remember (why DID I move so much when I first got here?). Carl installed my washer/dryer over and over and over again. They cooked things and built things and took me on adventures.
And then, a few years back, my aunt found out there was an invader in her body - The Big C. She grumbled and grumped a bit, but the truth was she was the bravest, most organized, totally on-top-of-it cancer patient one could hope to be, through the breast surgery, chemo, and radiation. The family rallied, of course, and I was the local voice of the girls when they couldn't be here (although the times they WERE here were way better. There's a great picture of Erin and me, sitting in the hospital on the day of surgery, knitting our little fingers off, smiling our anxious grins, and just so glad to be together at such a stressful time). I interpreted the surgeons and summoned the Nurse Navigator and in the end, this turned out to be tremendous practice for when, just as all that was finishing up, my mother got sick. Carl and Tres and the girls were a huge support for me through all that went down, and I can't imagine how I ever would've gotten through it without them. Ultimately, they decided to move back to the Windy City, and although I teased Tres about abandoning me, I was glad to see their nuclear family back together again. Tres would still send me epic text messages that were too long for the iPhone to display except in their own window. She would still end every conversation with "Alright! Okay! Bye bye!" And then, last year, she called me, and I knew from the tone of her voice at "hello" that the cancer was back. We cried. And she was going to fight.
She did just that, going in full-force despite having sworn up and down that last time was The Last Time. She cheerfully updated me, and fortunately, my cousin Erin (now a physician's assistant) would follow up behind her and give me the real medical lowdown. I kept saying I was coming up to Chicago. I kept meaning to go up to Chicago. Life here was chaos, but when wasn't it? No, really, I was coming soon. And then.....sometime in December, this nagging in the base of my soul got louder and louder, and I booked a flight for mid-January. I knew the facts of what wasn't going well, but my heart was hearing something else. Kate. Seriously. Get a move on. And then, last Friday, less than a week before I was supposed to fly out there, my cousin Selina sent me a text. "Hey I want to call but I'll lose it. We are putting my mom on hospice tonight."
Oh God. Go, the voice commanded.
"Do I need to come sooner?" I asked her. YES, was the resounding response.
"We'll decide first thing in the morning." She said.
You two are being idiots. Get off your ass and start packing. (The voice may have had some less-printable things to say as well.)
I sat, and I cried, and as I texted with all of them, we agreed sooner seemed better for the whole lot of us. My plane tickets were ridiculous to switch, so the next day, after my Saturday office hours, I jumped in the car and headed north.
I got there Sunday, just in time for my little niece's first birthday celebration. We laughed. We took too many pictures. The kiddo was like, "Why is all this cake in front of me?" We didn't have birthday candles, so we stole a taper out of the Advent ring and she had one giant candle that was almost bigger than her cake.
"I'm dying." My aunt told me.
"I know." I replied.
Things were way worse than I had anticipated, though.
For the next few days, we sat. We tended to her and to each other. Selina and her family live right across the alley, but Erin and her husband and I all moved in. Carl slept on the couch next to the hospital bed. We sent people on outings, practiced the best self care we could, and we leaned on each other when the moments were rough. We talked about the inevitable. First openly with Tres, then in hushed whispers as she started to fade. "I want to go home," she told us. She rested in the hospital bed in the living room, and life went on around her. We made meals, we told stories, we laughed loudly, we cooed at the baby. We leapt to her side when summoned in one way or another. We held her hand and we lotioned her skin. She was consumed with this horrible, intractable itching that was just impossible to control, which we first blamed on a horrible drug rash (which was indeed part of the issue). We threw everything we could think of at it, including this ridiculous homemade calamine lotion I brewed up that I kept joking with her was a mud bath spa treatment. It all seemed to help, at least a little, until it didn't. Erin and I wracked our medical minds until we finally came upon a combination of meds that gave her some relief. It finally dawned on me, like a light bulb that made an audible pop, that her liver wasn't breaking down what it needed to, and that was producing a good portion of the itching that we couldn't control with antihistamines and steroids. So we altered the cocktail. We all took our turns going toe to toe with the hospice people a few times, but in the end, there were a few there that did an amazing job. She stopped being able to swallow or speak on Thursday morning. We kept vigil Thursday night, monitoring her comfort, but she finally seemed restful.
Friday, the hospice team leader and the nurse we knew came out. They talked with us, they assessed her. They were sweet and wonderful. The nurse asked me when I planned to leave, and I told her that I had originally intended to leave that day and we were still debating that. She leaned in close and said, "If you can, you should stay. She needs you. They need you. You need this." And so, that was the end of that discussion (the voice, who had been actively arguing with me again, was pleased). She also told me that I was the one who could tell her it was okay to let go. And so I did. I stroked her hand and I whispered in her ear to tell her, as I had been for the past few days, that she was so loved. That we would be okay together, because of what she had brought us. That we would always have each other because of her. That what she had come here to do, she had accomplished, and if she was ready to let go, it was okay. That she could move on and care for us in this new realm. And I meant all of it from the very bottom of my heart.
I don't know if it made a difference. I don't know what anyone else had to say to her. I strongly suspect she knew all of it anyway. But she seemed peaceful. We pulled out the old photo albums, and we laughed and exclaimed and cajoled each other over the old pictures for hours and hours. We girls drank kiddie cocktails. We didn't keep vigil that night, because we felt like things were under control. Maybe not ours, but she was comfortable.
I was already awake when Carl called at 4:47am on Saturday, the 24th, the two year anniversary of my dad's death. "Do you want to come downstairs?" was all he said. I told him I was on my way. And though I didn't know what exactly was waiting for me, I didn't feel panicked. I didn't feel scared. I felt, in fact, sort of light. Her breathing was shallow and erratic when I got to her bedside, and it wasn't much longer until it stilled completely. Some day I'll write about the actual experience of her death for me, but suffice it to say that peacefully, and surrounded by love, she moved into whatever comes next. We cried, and we held each other, and we told stories. A different nurse came, and pronounced her, and asked us to tell her more stories while she gently bathed the body and dressed her in what we thought would make her happy (Snoopy pants and a mock turtleneck. My aunt was a lover of all things Snoopy). She stayed with us until the funeral home came to take her worldly shell, and with it, her last selfless gift - she donated her body to the Anatomical Gift Association, destined to be a cadaver to teach the budding medical minds of Chicago.
My aunt is going to med school, y'all. I couldn't be prouder.
In the end, the week was an amazing experience. Sad, yes. Undoubtedly. God, I already miss her. I drove back this weekend, which was rough. I'm pretty sure I cried straight from the Northside to Indianapolis. I stayed overnight in Ohio with other (genetic) family, who also mean a great deal to me and cared for me well. My friend wisely convinced me Sunday as I struggled through the trip back that going into work yesterday was a bad idea, and so I stayed home and I slept through most of it. Today, I wandered, irritable and disorganized, through my hectic day full of demanding people. Blissfully, my coworkers also convinced me to take some bereavement leave, which admittedly won't even amount to a complete day off (long story), but I think will give me time to sit and feel and process. I have to say, though...this week is one I wouldn't trade for absolutely anything. That time we had together, being in the true meaning of family, was such an incredible gift. I truly struggle to remember a time when I felt so loved. And the fact that I could be there, be part of something like that, not The One Responsible For Everything, The One Who Holds Everyone Else Together, but someone with a role and also with feelings and grief and joy and love and able to be all of those things in a safe place. That, that was priceless. To be able to acknowledge how significant every single one of those people is to me, to have them hold me when I needed to cry and to be able to return the favor, that is something I could never repay. That, that is family.
I love you, Tres. I love everything you brought into my life and everything you will bring me from this point on (because I know you haven't stopped moving, and in fact, I suspect you're even a little faster now, which I didn't think was actually possible). I am so honored to be part of your legacy. And I am SO FLIPPING GLAD you and Bev picked THAT tour. Not that you had much of a choice, I suspect - the intersection of our lives was planned long before any of us could've thought it so. Enjoy your new freedom. I'll see you when I see you, and I promise to take care of the rest of the clan, and - you know how hard this is for me - to let them take care of me.
Alright! Okay! Bye bye!