The last time I posted here, I’d been told we had a few weeks left with my closest maternal aunt. It was June 9th – last Wednesday. Because I know how these things go, I drove up alone to see my aunt on Saturday, June 12. Hottie really wanted to go with me, but it was important to me to go up on my own terms, on my own timelines (or lack thereof), and with my own family.
I used to make this drive many times a year when I moved back to Iowa in the late fall of 2002. My maternal grandpa lived up north and I cherished him. My Aunt Kris lived in the town where my grandpa was living, so given how close she and I were, I had many, many, MANY reasons to get up to see the family as often as possible. I think I made the 3.5 hour drive probably 4-5 times a summer and at least once every fall, winter, and spring until my grandpa passed away in January of 2005. I still got back quite a bit after that, but then I fell in love and got married and got distracted with building our own little family.
When I headed up north on Saturday, I took the old route I always took when I’d head up to see Kris and Grandpa. The roads here have changed a lot in 10 years, but I prefer the back county roads. I stopped for McDonalds like I always used to do on the way through Perry and cranked up the radio (no CD’s, no XM, no MP3’s – just the good old-fashioned radio) and drove. I didn’t scream through the small towns or furiously pass the slower-moving vehicles like I used to do, but besides that, I pretty much did everything the way I used to do when I’d drive up to see my extended family.
This time, though, it felt like a pilgrimage of sorts. It felt ritualistic. It felt like the closing scene in “Elizabethtown.” It was important to me that I did this exactly so, exactly right because I knew, in my heart of hearts, that this was the last time I’d be driving directly to Breezy Meadow Lane to pop in on Aunt Kris.
I called my mom on my way up to Spencer. She and my dad were coming up to see Aunt Kris too, but were going home that same day.
I’ve mentioned before that my mom is #6 of 7 kids, but that she was the youngest for 10 years before her baby sister came along. Her baby sister is my Aunt Kris. Everyone loved Krissy from the moment she was born. She was a true gift to her parents and siblings and they all knew it – they all cherished her for the bright light that she was. Grandma always said that having Kris so much later than the other kids kept her young and my older aunts and cousins always had wonderful stories to tell of her childhood (she was 15 months older than my oldest cousin – her first niece). Aunt Krissy bridged the generations together, much like her kids are doing now.
The thing that gave me the hardest time about all of this was not my own agony over the loss of Aunt Kris, but the experience that was going to be my mom’s. My mom is not a warm person – that is no secret to anyone who knows me. My mom and I are not close – another obvious theme if you know me. My mom hadn’t seen Kris is months. My mom just doesn’t visit her family much and when Aunt Kris was diagnosed with cancer again in February, my mom didn’t flock to see her because she didn’t want it to feel like she was coming up in a panic to say, “goodbye” just in case. I get that – I really do. But now, with just weeks left to live, that was exactly what my mom had to do. She had to make the drive (my dad drove) to say goodbye to her baby sister, and the thought of that literally made me physically sick. She knew that when she walked out of Kris’ house on Saturday, that she would not be seeing her baby sister again.
Think about that.
So when I called my mom, I told her that I knew this was hard, unimaginable, and that I would not go straight to Kris’ if I knew she’d be there. I wanted her to have her time. However, because of the situation, no one got to have “their time.” People were coming to and going from the house all day long and my mom knew that she’d have very little privacy with her sister. She told me to come to the house. So I did.
When I turned onto Breezy Meadow Lane, I saw tons of cars in front of Kris’ house. I couldn’t believe my eyes, and I ached for my mom who does not do well in these types of situations. She just isn’t “good” at handling death. She doesn’t know how to act, and although she says death doesn’t scare her, I think the death of others terrifies her. My heart just hurt for her.
I went in, pulled up a chair with my dad and Uncle Dan (Kris’ husband) and chatted about the boys. My mom was with Aunt Kris and her oldest sister. My mom seemed fine. I popped my head in to say a quick hello so she knew I was there and went back out to be with the guys. My mom wasn’t there long and my parents decided to leave. My mom didn’t say goodbye – she couldn’t – so she just told Kris she loved her.
She fell apart out in the driveway. That was when I knew that the plan I’d put forward for my own goodbye was the right one for me.
When we received word on the 9th that Aunt Kris had 3-4 weeks left, I knew that was on the long end. We’d just been through this with my friend back in December and given that it was the same type of aggressive liver cancer (both were in full liver failure), I knew that I had to go right away and that I’d be going every weekend until my Aunt Kris had passed. We blocked the following weekend (this current weekend) and secured a condo for our entire family to go up. I knew that if she was still with us when we went up the next weekend, that I’d book the following weekend.
I did this for one very specific reason – I could not, could not, do what my mom had to do. I absolutely could not walk out of Aunt Kris’ house at a certain point knowing it was the last time I’d see her. I could not say a final “goodbye.” I knew that. I knew that all I could do was say, “I’ll see you ___” (next weekend, on Saturday, tomorrow, etc.). I could not say, “Goodbye.”
When I went in to see my Aunt Kris, she greeted me with her usual, peppy, happy, “Hi, Couuuuuurt!” She smiled, I smiled, I kissed her, and I sat down with her. She was tired. She had her sense of humor, but she was fading. I could see it. I knew it. There were so many people there. Cousins I hadn’t seen in a year, aunts I used to spend weeks with at a time, and friends of my Aunt Kris who I did not know at all.
The house started to clear out and I felt like I was catching my breath, gathering my strength. I had 2 very important things to say and I needed my own, private time to say them. My cousin and Aunt Pat asked Kris’ best friend to lunch and I knew that was my time. They left, my Uncle Dan squeezed me around the shoulders before walking out, and I marched right up to Aunt Kris and said, “I have two things to tell you.”
She seemed concerned at first. Ha!
I told her they were good things, and then I said them. We cried, we told each other we loved one another, and we then relaxed and settled in. It was a nice visit, but I was so glad, so very glad, that Hottie, the boys, and I went up to see her just two weeks earlier for Memorial Day. She was more of herself back then and we had our own time with her and Uncle Dan for several hours. It was a normal visit like old times, and it felt great.
This one, this day, felt painful.
My aunt’s best friend works in an oncology clinic in Seattle and has been a hospice nurse. My aunt Kris asked her to come stay with them until the very end, and Kim did just that. I knew all about Kim, her profession, and her personality. She’s a straight shooter like me. So – when we had some time alone, I asked her what to expect. I told her about Jenny and she asked if I wanted the reality.
I said yes.
She’ll be here for another few days to a week.
If she’s here when you come back next weekend, I’ll be surprised.
She won’t make it to the 4th of July (her favorite holiday).
The kids don’t know how aggressive it is.
Please tell the kids to tell me when they want time alone with their mom – they don’t have a lot of time left.
She will only be able to converse for another 2, 3, or 4 days.
Everything that happened to your friend is happening to her right now.
There it was, practically in black and white. I was told everything I already knew, but was hoping I’d been wrong about.
I popped in and out to chat with Aunt Kris and before I knew it, it was time to pick Sarah (Kris’ daughter) up for dinner. I told Aunt Kris that I was going to take her girl out for a quick bite and she said to tell her hello.
I truly believed my closing statement as I kissed her goodbye:
I love you, Aunt Kris. I’ll see you tomorrow!”
I soaked in her response:
I love you too, Court.
Sarah and I are close. We’re very close. She lived with us last summer when her brother, Sam, was hurt so badly in that awful car accident. We spent hours and hours talking, connecting, laughing. She felt like my little sister within days of living with us and Aunt Kris told me that Sarah viewed me as her own big sister. Last summer, Aunt Kris told me that I could not disappear from Sarah’s life the way I disappeared from the family for so long (met a boy, fell in love, got married, sucked at making babies, focused only on making babies, had a baby, got lost in that baby) because she needed me. Sarah is very stoic and unemotional, but with me, she’s quite raw.
Sarah and I are close.
Because we’re close, I told myself on the way to the cabin that I would be honest with her about things.
The minute I walked in, she cried her eyes out. We talked, I was honest, I told her that she needed to get home tomorrow morning to see and be with her mom (her parents had sent both kids up to the lake house to have fun over the weekend since so many people were coming by the main house). She asked how long I thought her mom had left, and I told her what Kim had told me. It was horrible, but honesty often times is.
We had a fantastic time at dinner, talked about her move to our city and her job, and enjoyed the best burgers we’ve had in a very long time. Just like old times when she lived with us! I drove her home and then continued on to my Aunt Linda’s house where I’d be staying the night (around the corner from the lake house).
Aunt Linda, another one of my mom’s 5 sisters, is a fun gal. We hadn’t sat up and talked late into the night together in years, and that’s exactly what we did when I arrived. Sure the conversation centered around Aunt Kris, but it felt like home to sit with her and smile and cry together. The phone kept ringing and ringing, and the caller-ID would read out the number as Aunt Linda listened, so I figured she was screening her calls.
She wasn’t. She couldn’t hear the phone.
The next morning, Linda’s daughter called to say that she’d been calling late into the night to tell us that Kris had taken a turn and that Kim thought she’d only be able to talk for a few hours in the morning, if at all.
My first thought was the kids, just down the road, so I headed out for my run and stopped there to talk to them. Uncle Dan had already reached Sarah and told them to come home when Sam woke up. Sarah and I decided that she needed to wake him up.
By the time I returned to Aunt Kris’ house (10:30 AM on Sunday), there was nowhere to park. It was the most amazing thing I’ve seen in a long time. Cars everywhere. I literally had to walk a full block from my car to her house.
Everyone was there, and they were all crying. Aunt Kris had slipped into the coma that we knew she’d slip into, but a day or two earlier than expected. I went in to give her a kiss and my first thought was, “thank God Mom came yesterday instead of today.” I stepped out to call my mom (I’d already updated her earlier in the morning) and she was in shock that it had gone so quickly. So was I.
I had planned to head out when it felt right but it never felt right. There were things to do, people to comfort, a house to keep clean, food to keep out.
Being close to Sarah, everyone thought I was also close to Sam (I’m not). No one could get him to come in to be with his mom but no one would go talk to him either. So, I did what any good big-sister-type would do and went out to sit with him and talk about anything but his mom. The conversation finally led into his mom and I told him about my friend, Jenny, and that things will get worse before they get better. He didn’t want to see his mom this way, but I told him he really needed to because time was running out. He said he couldn’t see her with all those people there. I understood, and I told him I’d check on him in 20 minutes.
Upon going back into the house, I was surrounded by Kim, Sam’s grandma, and my Aunt Linda.
Is he coming in?
He needs to come in and see his mom.
You need to go out there and get him to come in.
No one seemed to understand that I’m not close to this poor kid. I told them I’d told him I’d check on him in 20 minutes and they said that wasn’t soon enough. They said Hospice was coming and that he wouldn’t get to have quality time with her after that and that they wanted him to come in before the nurse arrived.
But no one can be in there.
He doesn’t want to see her like this. Can you get all of those people out of there?
I just told him I’d come out in 20 minutes, this is going to scare him.
Fine, I’ll do it, but get everyone out of this kitchen and out of Kris’ space.
I think getting Sam to come in was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do for someone else. He knew something was not right, but he trusted me to tell him the truth.
I told him that Hospice was coming and that they just wanted to make sure her meds were correct and that she was comfortable. I told him that because we weren’t sure how long it would take them to do all of that, that we wanted him to have a moment with his mom before they arrived and that they’d probably leave soon.
I lied through my teeth.
He came in… and there was no one else in the kitchen or in the living room with Kris.
Time went slowly, but it went quickly too. People kept coming and going and bringing food. Sandwiches. I can’t eat another tea roll and cold-cut sandwich for a long time. I won’t eat a store-bought cookie for months, I bet.
My mom has one brother. One solitary brother and five sisters. Her brother is the second oldest child so he was quite grown when Kris was born. However, he doted on her like everyone else did.
Uncle Tom was on a European cruise. He had finally been reached the day before (Saturday) and was told that Kris was very sick, but what, exactly, he’d been told, I didn’t know. It wasn’t my business.
Uncle Tom’s wife is a Lutheran minister and, as far as ministers go with me, she’s quite incredible. Everyone thinks so. My Aunt Kris knew she was dying so planned her entire funeral over the last week and a half, and she wanted my Aunt Bonnie to be one of the officiants. Aunt Bonnie was on a cruise ship in Europe on Sunday, and no one had talked to them yet as Kris was slipping away. Time was critical.
My cousin, G, and I heard two of the aunts wanting to wait until Tom and Bonnie were home before having the funeral. We were horrified because that would have dragged things out an entire week. This, obviously, wasn’t up to the aunts so we quickly diffused the conversation by talking with Uncle Dan’s mom and Aunt Linda about timing for the funeral. Uncle Dan and Sarah were looped in and they wanted the funeral immediately. Good.
Someone had to call Uncle Tom. We didn’t want one of the aunts to do it because they were going through enough, and quite frankly, we were worried that 3 of them may not be firm on the dates. Uncle Dan certainly wasn’t going to call him. Dan’s mom elected me, and I elected my cousin, G. But, both Dan’s mom and G were insistent that I do it.
I haven’t spoken with Uncle Tom in YEARS. But, I called him and woke him up on his cruise to tell him that we needed him home. It was awful.
At 6:30, I decided I just had to get on the road. I couldn’t stay another night so I had to get home. I said my goodbyes, kissed Aunt Kris one more time, and told her I loved her.
I didn’t say, “goodbye.”
As I drove home, I realized that I got the goodbye I longed for from this trip:
I love you, Aunt Kris. I’ll see you tomorrow!
I love you too, Court.
I arrived home at 9:30 PM. At 10:44 PM, I received a text message from my cousin, G.
She just passed.
She waited until just those closest to her were with her. She waited until we’d all gone. I don’t blame her. No one wants to die alone, but no one wants to die in front of a lot of people either.
And so, now I ask, “where does one even end?”
We drove up as a family on Wednesday for the visitation that evening and the funeral the next morning. It was very hard, I still don’t believe it. My younger sister, her kids, and my family stayed until Friday morning and spent a lot of great time together. Hottie, the kids, and I had lunch with Uncle Dan, Sarah, Sam, and more family on our way out of town and then we stopped at Uncle Dan’s because it was on the way to the cemetery. I visited Aunt Kris and pulled a couple of sprigs from her flowers to take with me. We drove home and headed to a quick dinner. As Hottie loaded the kids into the car and as I was settling up the tab, a song came on that will always be special to me.
I Hope You Dance
The song that Aunt Kris had chosen to be sung at her own funeral.
I cried in the booth, waited for the song to finish, and then cried some more in the car with Hottie. And we drove home.
We are home now, but life is not as we left it. There is forever a piece missing.