How to Say Goodbye
My great aunt has decided to die. She’s had a stroke at 88, and has decided that the suggested post-stroke things are onerous and difficult. She’s tired and just wants to die now. She is a vibrant ray of sun, a sharp and brilliant participant in the parade of life. It’s stunning to imagine that the woman who recently offered me a mimosa with vodka (“Aunt Evelyn, mimosas don’t have vodka.” “Mine do.”), with her wide mouth laugh and sparkling eyes, is the same woman who is “going home to die.” The woman who demonstrated her exercises to me just a few short months ago, exercises that I was hard-pressed to do myself. The woman who is always reading a good book, and asking for another. Life turns on us in a blink, I guess. They told us this, but we never listen. We imagine the stream running forever into the distance, or at least a lot farther than this, because we can’t (or don’t) imagine much over the horizon. We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it, we’ll think about that tomorrow.
Well, it’s tomorrow.
How do I say goodbye to this bright star? From a distance, in a pandemic, social distance and all. I sent her a pretty little card when things turned south, before I knew her intentions, but it said things like, “wishing you good health, so glad you’re going home, can’t wait to hug you when the world calms down.” Then I found out she’s got a death wish and is on day 7 of a fast. “I read that 14 days of not eating will do the trick,” she said. I’m not sure that’s right, but she’s thinking about it and I fear I’ve written the wrong things in the pretty card. Or not said the right ones. I suppose I should send another card, or a letter, but what does one say?
I respect your decision. (Do I?)
I’ll miss you. (Like she’s going to Kansas City or something.)
I’m so sorry I can’t see you, pandemic and all. (Selfish and lame.)
I could send flowers, a beautiful bouquet. I’m sure everyone is doing that, though, her rooms are probably filled with blooms. Like a funeral or a hospital, both of which I suppose are appropriate but still sort of depressing. It’s a gift to be able to say the goodbye, instead of the sudden death or the slow sad slide we usually see, but we don’t seem to have a script for it. Is it a joyful celebration of life? A weepy dirge to purge the sadness? Both?
And here’s a question, one I probably shouldn’t ask of those close to the scene: What if it doesn’t work? Aunt Evelyn is a large character (slight in stature, a presence in every other way). She is dramatic and theatrical, and it wouldn’t be shocking for her to announce, “It’s time for me to die now,” and then retire to her flower-filled rooms to be tended and adored by the legions who love her, only to say weeks later, “Actually, I feel pretty good. Bring me a mimosa.” Not to make light of a dire situation, but it is a possible alternate reality. Aside from remade joints and the recent stroke, she’s been very healthy. Vibrant is a word I chose carefully, for she is the very definition.
Aunt Evelyn, in my memory, is beautiful and playful, joyful and kind. She was always impeccably dressed, hair done, jewels on. She has been a tireless and generous advocate of her children, and her extended family. She, in her eighties, made brunch and those famous mimosas for me and filled the room with her bright curiosity. She is twinned with my equally impressive great aunt Bea, her big sister, the only remaining two siblings in a big family, and they eat together and travel together, leaning on each other in the hard times and lifting each other up. I adore them, these sisters of my long-gone grandmother — my surrogate grandmothers — and am having a hard time wrapping my head around the impending loss of Evelyn, the vibrant baby of the family. Bea has had us all much more concerned lately, in her early nineties. She’s amazing, but frail and recovering from a fall in her garden. She walks every day, a thing I struggle to make myself do. She does her own grocery shopping, a thing I ask my husband to do. They both, Evelyn and Bea, have lost their husbands and have lived these last years in companionable sisterhood. What will Bea do? The losses add up until they begin to wear us down, a final subtraction.
Evelyn is committed and dignified in this, her final act. She directs those around her and giggles at her own officiousness, clear in her desires and consistent in character. She is a queen — a good and benevolent queen, with specific floral requests and schedules for her visitors. She is an inspiration and reminds us that we will all walk the same path. Will we all manage it so decisively, and with such grace?
And will I find the best way to say goodbye? I’m running out of time.