Saying goodbye is never an easy thing, even when you know the other person is going away. Moving across the country. Taking a new path in life. Getting married. Going into the military. In those cases there’s the possibility of a reunion. But saying goodbye after the person has gone is even more difficult. There’s no hug goodbye. No opportunity to reaffirm your love for them. No parting words.
November 13th, my Aunt Sis–my dad’s only sibling–passed from this life completely on her own terms. As you might recall, 4 years ago I took over her care due to the increasing complications of Alzheimer’s disease. I moved her from her home in Pittsburgh to an assisted living residence a few blocks from my home. Over the course of the ensuing 4 years I watched this horrible disease rob her of her mobility, her vocabulary, her ability to feed herself, her memories, and her vitality. I watched her lose her taste buds, which left her unwilling to eat. I watched her drop weight rapidly and–ultimately–I watched her lose her ability to remember me.
Alzheimer’s may have robbed her of everything we hold dear in life, but her death was on her own terms. November 13th was a Friday. I was at the office. By all accounts, she was having a great day. She’d eaten a good breakfast. She spent the morning joking with the staff and giving them a “hard time”. She ate a good lunch and was in her recliner in the living room. The aide that was with her after lunch walked away to help another resident. When she came back, she said Kay looked a little odd. She knelt down to listen to her heart and actually heard my aunt draw her last breath a few minutes before two o’clock that afternoon.
The director of the residence called me at the office and very gently broke the news to me. I remember staring out the window beside my desk and the tears springing to my eyes. I didn’t have the chance to say goodbye. No opportunity to once more affirm how much I loved her. No chance to tell her how much I would miss her. As I left the office and drove to the residence I thought about her final day. Instead of it being filled with pain, it was filled with laughter. Instead of being unable to get out of bed, she was sitting in her recliner having eaten both a good breakfast and a good lunch. Instead of being alone when she died, she was with people who genuinely cared about her and treated her as a member of their own families.
Instead of having an illness that claimed her life, she died while having a great day. She simply closed her eyes, sighed one last time, and left this life.
I have never planned a funeral, but suddenly, I found myself planning hers. She was not one to discuss death–especially her own. She told me the funeral home where she wanted her viewing to be held, and she told me she wanted a Mass of Christian Burial at the Catholic church she attended. I shopped for everything from her final outfit to the casket. Every decision I made, I made with her in mind, answering questions like: What would she want to wear? What kind of flowers would she want. What scripture reading would she want? What hymns would she like? What kind of casket would she pick out? With every decision, I wanted to honor her and the life she lived.
My aunt was an amazingly creative individual. She was incredibly talented and she had a workshop most men would be envious of. She used power tools, multiple types of power saws, and tools that had odd names that only carpenters knew what they were for. She could make anything out of wood, and she did. If you showed her a picture in a magazine and said you thought you would like that, she recreated it and gifted it to you. Did I mention she was amazing?
When the funeral director, Sandy, took my husband and I into the casket room, my knees grew weak and my throat tightened up, and I bit the inside of my cheek to prevent the tears from flowing again. I admit to tuning out Sandy as she explained about the vaults and the caskets, which lined the walls of the room. I looked at all the options and I wondered silently which one Aunt Sis would prefer. I made several trips past the three walls of steel caskets, looking all of them over, and over again. I could hear my husband asking Sandy questions as I made my fourth trip around the room. Sandy asked me if I’d decided. Finally, I found myself at the wall of hand-carved wooden caskets. In front of me was a hand-carved casket of solid cherry. I felt Steve beside me. He hugged me and said, “It’s her. She would appreciate the craftsmanship, the carved corners, and the intricate and ornate scroll work. It’s the perfect tribute to what she loved to do.”
As for me, it was almost as if she’d led me to that wall of caskets and nudged me toward that one of solid cherry. In fact, through the entire process it was as if she was right there leading me. Like my Mom and Dad, she was a huge influence in my life. When we were together, we always laughed like we shared a special secret. Planning her funeral was one of the hardest things to do because it wasn’t just for my Aunt Sis, it was a funeral for a friend.
I have realized that there was no need to affirm that I loved her, she knew it just I know she loved me just as dearly. Even though there was no opportunity to verbally tell her goodbye, I’m so thankful that her final day was a good day and that her passing was as peaceful as could be. And on her own terms. In spite of all that Alzheimer’s robbed from her, she was victorious in not allowing it to claim her life.
Until next time, I hope your days are filled with love…and that they’re great!