Sunday, April 5, 2009

Lessons from the Past

Fall 1978

I recall a moment the afternoon before the evening an aunt of mine died of colon cancer. I had spent the previous couple of weeks visiting her while trying to come to a decision about a boyfriend of mine. Every day I woke up and greeted her. She was always wide awake, her colorful scarf around her head, her fingers working as fast as possible. She wanted to finish as many granny squares as possible for an afghan she wanted to leave for her son.

I wanted to open the windows, even though it was November. She wanted them closed along with the curtains. I searched around for that neurotic kitten that would ping pong off of the walls and land up on the curtain rod waiting until the perfect moment to leap onto anyone who sat in the chair next to the couch.

The odor that permeated the apartment was like a dense, stagnant swamp. When her skin, once so creamy, turned to a dried, dark mustard tone, she agreed to put down her crochet hook and check into the hospital. She did this for our comfort mainly.

That afternoon, I had to make my seven hour drive home; I had to return to my job and her immediate family needed to have her to themselves. On the way out of town, I stopped by the hospital.

Gingerly, I sat on the side of her bed trying to help her brush her teeth. I couldn’t figure out why having a clean mouth mattered any longer. I was 18. I was in a worry over a boyfriend.

My aunt saw me wince and move to help her in a helpless kind of way when she moaned in pain. She held my hand.
“Do you have any questions?” she asked.
“The questions I have, you can’t answer yet.”
She smiled. Her bones were about all that were left of her body.

When there wasn’t anything else that could possibly be said, I stood up to leave, shoulders back, strong for her. I had always said to people, “See you later.” But I gently squeezed her hand, set it down beside her and said, “Good-bye” hating the sound of it. I made it down the corridor, down the elevator, but as soon as I entered the restroom off the lobby, my tears released uncontrollably.

I always wondered if she would have been here longer if she would have insisted on telling her doctors of her symptoms or if the doctors knew what questions to ask a soft-spoken woman who cared so deeply for her family, but was too shy and embarrassed to speak of her body.

By the time she did speak up, it was too late.

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