My aunt suffered a stroke a little over a week ago, a bad one. I didn’t get a chance to speak with her before Christmas. Strike that. I had every chance in the world, but did not make it a priority. I was busy, and rationalized (in hindsight, of course) that I’d call when things settled down after my trip to Florida. So I felt compelled to actually see her to say goodbye, tell her how much I love her, and thank her for being a wonderful Aunt.
I wasn’t looking forward to the trip because my cousin warned me about her condition. I knew she would be conscious and uncommunicative, but it was worse than that. I have no idea if she knew who was there or what was being said. She looked at me, but it was more like she looked through me, staring blankly into space. I just happened to be in her line of sight.
She showed the obvious signs of a stroke, kept picking at her blankets, the institutional garment she wore, mumbled constantly and looked much older than her 90 years. A vibrant, engaging, funny and lovely woman was sadly reduced to this. Part of me felt like a voyeur, and all of me felt guilty for being there because I am sure she would not want people to see her in that condition.
Unless it is by our own hands, we never get to choose how we exit this life. Our final scene can often be so undignified, and that is was bothered me the most about seeing her that way. It would have been better if she was unconscious. She would have looked like she was resting comfortably, at peace, and more like the woman I knew and loved.
I drove away from that visit thinking about aging and our mortality. You’d have thought these musings would have occurred when my parents passed away within five months of one another in 2015, but that wasn’t the case.
Both had lived good, long and healthy lives. Dad was 96 and Mom 92. They were both mentally sharp as tacks through the end and both passed quickly. Dad had a massive stroke and was placed in hospice care. We kept a constant vigil around his bed for three full days. On the fourth day everyone who had taken turns watching over him spent the night at their houses, which is when he slipped away. I am sure it was because he never wanted people to fuss over him, so he waited until every was gone.
Mom had a cerebral hemorrhage and died within hours. She was living in an assisted living facility at the time, and K and her Mom had just spent the afternoon with her. She notified friends she was having dinner with that she felt funny and was seeing double, and they had someone escort her to the nurse when it happened. I’m told she slumped in her chair in front of the nurse, completely unconscious.
The assisted living facility called while I was out having dinner with Nidan. It didn’t sound ominous, but then a call from the ER doctor at the hospital she was taken to came, and that changed everything. We ended dinner immediately and I drove Nidan home, then rushed to the hospital, not really knowing what to expect. When I saw her in the emergency room, I instantly knew she was gone, even though she was still breathing. It was a shock and broke my heart, but after a spasm of heavy sobbing, I made some calls.
Unlike Dad, she didn’t want to be alone when she slipped to the other side. It took a little over ninety minutes for K, Nidan, my brother and his wife, and a few others to gather in her room, and shortly after we were all there it looked like she might not be breathing. She wasn’t.
I was and still am grateful that my parents fears of a painful, lingering demise where they were an emotional and financial burden to their kids never materialized. I should be so lucky.
I grieved for the loss of my parents loss but was not devastated. After all, who wouldn’t sign up for the life they had and the way their lives ended? But I was so busy with making funeral preparations for Dad, helping Mom move then watching after her in the interim, then handling her sudden and unexpected death, that the idea of aging and dying never occurred to me.
I think the reason it has now is because my Dad came from a large family of nine. I was really close to most of his brothers and sisters, having hung out at their houses as a kid in addition to summer vacations at the beach. Those times were so fun, carefree and innocent, and the memories are wonderful.
When my Aunt passes, which should be fairly soon considering she is on morphine and was placed at a hospice level of care, only one Aunt will remain. She is the baby of the family at 88, and is not in the greatest of health either. The end of the line is very near in terms of my Dad’s siblings. Once that occurs, the book will close on a significant chapter of my life, and my childhood will officially die with it.
I thought I felt that way in 2015, but the truth is I felt more like an orphan when my parents passed. It was weird knowing that the people who nurtured me, taught me, loved me unconditionally and shepherded me into successful adulthood were gone. The void was unimaginable, and the loss hurt. But I didn’t think about the stuff I am thinking about now, and think that’s because when my Aunts pass, the last remaining vestiges of those carefree years will be gone. I will become the adult for the generations to come, and one day, the roles will be reversed. I will be the one saying sayonara, and my nieces and nephews will be mourning me. Perhaps some of them will feel what I am feeling now.
I’m not fearful or morose, but have become introspective. How will my end of life scenario unfold, not only in terms of the how but the when? I’m turning 60 in a couple of months, which is not ancient by any means. But I have been on the downhill side of life expectancy for a while now, and have no idea how or if MS will hasten that fateful day or prolong the process. I certainly hope not because, perhaps not so ironically, I have the same fear my parents had about becoming an emotional and financial burden on my surviving family.
Mom and Dad were blessed with longevity, independence, and good physical/mental health. Is it too much ask that this not skip a generation? And while I’m at it, can the end be quick and painless, as it was for them? Hopefully the genes I’ve inherited will help make that happen.
I hope this hasn’t been too morbid, but don’t all of us think of these things at one time or another? I certainly plan on being around a while, and would love to able to celebrate my 100th birthday. I’m looking forward to my retirement years, playing with grandchildren and spoiling them rotten. I’m looking forward to an empty nest that I can enjoy with my lovely bride of thirty one years, and hope we can both thrive during the sunsets of our lives. We’ve earned that.
For now, however, another somber funeral is probably days away. The family will close ranks and all the cousins I grew up and hung out with as a kid will assemble with their families. Afterwards, we’ll laugh and rehash good memories, lament for the umpteenth time that it’s a shame we only get together for these types of occasions, and vow to change that. Who knows? Maybe this time it will actually happen.
Then we will return to our respective lives, and time will march on. The musings I’ve shared will also fade, but perhaps not completely vanish, and I don’t think that would be a bad thing. Maybe it will help me appreciate life more than being afflicted with MS has, and help me embrace every remaining day I have without sweating the small stuff I am still prone to do on occasion.
After all, I’m not a spring chicken anymore.