Happy Birthday, Susie

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Another port from an old blog.

If I take death into my life, acknowledge it, and face it squarely, I will free myself from the anxiety of death and the pettiness of life - and only then will I be free to become myself. –Martin Heidegger

My mom reminded me today that it was, or would have been, my Aunt Susie’s birthday. I hadn’t remembered, and, really, I never remembered her birthday when she was alive, either, I guess.

It was just a little over 4 years ago that I sat in a hospice room and watched her die. I believe I was alone with her, though I could be wrong. I’m not sure where everyone else would have been at that moment, just that I was alone with her. But maybe it was just the gravity of what I was watching that rendered other people unnoticeable.

I never have thought that I was an easily shocked person, and yet. And yet sitting in a room watching the last flutter of life leave a person you care about is shocking. Yes, I believe shock is the right word for the numb, speechless feeling of watching a person slide into nonbeing and then just…stop.

She died of lung cancer. By the time they found it, it was basically over. My mom went to be with her, to care for her in her last few months. It was clear after a few weeks that my mom was overwhelmed, and I had just had a baby and my husband didn’t have his green card yet, so he wasn’t working either, so off we went. We also thought the presence of the baby would add some fresh air to the situation, and we were not wrong, though I have been grateful every day since that he was too young to remember it.

A person dying of cancer – really dying, I mean, with not even a hope of treatment, and probably not just of cancer but of anything – isn’t really the person you know and love. I remember one day towards the end, my aunt came out of her room in a wheelchair, naked from the waist down, screaming at my mom for some wrong – something, I don’t know, that went back to their childhoods and hurts that apparently never entirely mended. Of course, my aunt was near the end then, but still, it cut my mom deeply and left sucking wounds all around the room. I remember my mom saying that the hospice people had mentioned that near the end, the dying often rally and find a sudden burst of strength; in the hospice literature, this was painted in a positive light, and my mom had believed that it would take the form of Susie maybe suddenly wanting to eat with us or sit up looking at old photo albums or something poignant or even cheerful like that. Sure, who wouldn’t want to believe that? But it didn’t happen like that.

That was the day we sent her to stay in the hospice. Until then, my mom had committed to taking care of her at home per her wishes, no matter what it cost my mom personally. But that day was too much. Susie moved into the hospice. My mom, I know, went home – to her own house, where her husband was, several hours away – for a much-needed respite from the needs of her dying sister. My grandma, who had been around for most of this, too, even though there are almost certainly some things a mother should never have to watch happen to her daughter, I believe was out getting us something to eat. I don’t know where my husband and son were, but I was there in her room, probably waiting for my takeout dinner from Applebee’s. Her breathing was getting slower and slower with increasingly long periods of apnea between rusty little wheezes. And then it just stopped. There just was no more. Whoever else may or may not have been there with me, I have never felt such a terrible sense of aloneness.

I did think, just as I thought when my dad died, that it would be good to be religious. It would be good in times like those to believe that this person you loved would go off to some afterlife and maybe find some peace there that she or he had never found on earth. But I’m not religious, and I don’t believe this. It was all end, no beginning.

But then in the end, I was back with my husband and son and nothing is ever so fresh and alive as babies and children are. Circle of life, unbroken.

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