How to balance new traditions with old ones.
We spend so much of our waking lives avoiding death—in more ways than one. When it comes to talking about the inevitable, it isn’t always easy. So the Orange Dot is aiming to shine a light on these stories, in hopes that it may help others. The After Series features essays from people around the world who’ve experienced loss and want to share what comes after.
I’ve been preparing for my Aunt Margaret to die since I was nine years old.
I called her Auntie, but Margaret was actually my great-aunt, the oldest of my grandmother’s four siblings. When I was a child she was the only grandparent figure that lived close enough—and lived long enough—to be involved with me and my siblings. She was our grandmother figure, for sure, but with all the expectation and none of the warmth. Instead, my maiden aunt who never married or had children of her own frustrated me with her curt speech and outdated wisdom. But despite that, I loved her deeply.
“Be kind,” my mother reminded me after one particularly enthusiastic scolding when Margaret, at 70-years-old, was mortified to see a me riding a bike while wearing a skirt, and I, at 8-years-old, was full of righteous indignation that she couldn’t see me as one of the boys. “She won’t be around for long.”
But Aunt Margaret never died.
At 73, she broke her hip, and the doctors weren’t sure she would make it through surgery. I remember hearing the fear in Margaret’s voice when we visited her in the hospital.
“In her day, a broken hip was a death sentence,” my mother explained, so at 11, I overcame my own fear by focusing on the practicalities. “We’ll have to get Auntie a bed,” I said, remembering the Spartan cot that Margaret slept on in her studio apartment.
But she didn’t die. She didn’t even stop walking around the immigrant city where she grew up, an area where Italian bakeries had given way to bodegas.
Years later I was on my way home from high school when I got a frantic call from my mom.
“We have to find Auntie,” she said. Margaret had gone in for routine blood work, which had showed that she had had a stroke recently. Unable to reach her, the doctor called my mother, ordering her to bring Margaret to the hospital immediately.
Tears immediately sprang to my eyes and my heart began beating faster. A stroke was serious. My mother and I searched the city in the dark, until we were physically and emotionally exhausted. We gave up and plopped ourselves on the stoop of Margaret’s apartment building, only to see Auntie shuffle up, holding the canvas bag that always served as her purse, pleased to see we had come for a visit. At age 79, she’d had a stroke, did a bit of shopping, and did not die.
When Auntie’s memory faded and she could no longer live on her own, she moved into my parents’ home. As you may have surmised at this point, this did little to stop her. Our town was a ten-minute drive from the city where she grew up, and Margaret was horrified to leave her hometown for the first time. She insisted on taking the bus back every day to visit the dry cleaner, hairdresser and grocery store that she was comfortable with.
My family spent many nights at the bus station, hoping to spot the tiny woman before she began walking home in the dark. Eventually, the bus drivers began detouring off their routes, driving into our tree-lined neighborhood to drop Margaret off at home. At age 81, with a supposedly faded memory, she was unwilling to forget her loyalties.
When I prepared to live abroad after college, I knew that I needed to—once again—say goodbye to Auntie. But Margaret was never one for emotion, having once recoiled in disbelief when I asked if she had ever been in love.
“I love you, Auntie,” I said simply, before leaving for the airport. I was sure to look back at her one more time.
Nine months into my stay my mother called. This time, it really was the end. Aunt Margaret was 83.
“Should I book a flight?” I asked.
“Honey, I don’t think you’ll make it.”
I spent the afternoon on my balcony, overlooking a foreign city. Margaret had lived in Belize with the Peace Corps, and would regularly bring her nieces and nephews into Boston on the weekends. She understood both my need to wander, and my close ties to home.
I waited for the call, wondering if I should fly home for the funeral, or focus on living Auntie’s legacy by continuing to travel and explore. But the call never came.
“I cannot believe it, Kelly,” my mom said, when Auntie was released from the hospital.
That was five years ago. At age 88, Margaret has moved from my parents’ house to a nursing home, where she somehow became even smaller, and stopped speaking.
Each time that Margaret was present for another milestone in my life—coming to my bridal shower, seeing my first newspaper article, and meeting my daughter—I felt like I was savoring stolen moments. I appreciated Margaret’s presence so much because I had had a lifetime of knowing that each time I saw her could be the last.
Recently a family member visited, and nonchalantly said, “And you heard that Margaret was moved into hospice care?” Once again, time stopped, and my mind raced through memories with the ornery old woman who I loved so much. I frantically called the nursing home, and arranged to visit.
When I got there, however, Auntie looked better than I could have imagined. She stroked my toddler’s cheeks, and held my father’s hand as my daughter pushed her wheelchair through the halls.
It was the sweetest visit Margaret and I have had in years—mostly because there was no pressure to make a big goodbye. After all, everything had already been said.
I knew that whether that was my last visit with Auntie, or whether I saw her again, I was ready for whatever happened. I had been for years.
“I love you, Auntie,” I whispered, kissing her paper-thin cheeks before we left.
This time, I didn’t have to look back.