It was hot. Since it was Alabama in June, it was also humid.
My husband says it’s like walking in a dog’s mouth.
I pulled into my aunt’s driveway, climbed out of the car, and did what every smart southern girl does in this situation: raced to the front door. The knob was scalding to the touch. I turned it anyway, without bothering to knock, and walked into the blissfully air-conditioned interior.
“Hello?” I called out.
“Hey,” my cousin Kathryn answered, emerging from the back of the house. “I’m glad you’re here,” she said and reached in for a hug.
We embraced quickly and let go.
Whenever I see Kathryn, I feel an immediate need to go shopping. No matter how cute I think I am when I leave the house, her outfits always take it a step further. If long dresses are in, she already has the stylish sandals to go with them. If it’s baggy sweaters, she’s matched them with skinny jeans a full two years before the look takes off. She’s brave with fashion, like someone who actually abides by the advice of Vogue and then adds her own little twists.
That day was different. I didn’t feel any urge to go shopping; instead, I had to hold back the urge to ask her when the last time was that she had showered.
Kathryn stood before me in old sweatpants and an ancient T-shirt. Her shoulder-length, curly brown hair was pulled back in a knot at the top of her head. Her usual my-hair-naturally-falls-in-sexy-tendrils-around-my-face look was replaced by greasy strands poking out from the sides of her head, as if she had pushed them away from her face five hundred times.
“Is she in bed?” I asked.
“Yeah, she’s in her room. The nurse is supposed to be here by two,” Kathryn answered.
I was still standing by the front door. I took two steps to the left and was at my aunt’s bedroom. She had recently sold the house her children grew up in and bought this much nicer, but much smaller, two-bedroom garden home. I found it amusing that she preferred the room at the front of the house to the master bedroom toward the back. My aunt liked sunshine and needed it pouring in.
Never mind the fact three months out of the year that sunshine could boil water.
The door was already open a crack, so I only had to push it slightly to walk in. I wasn’t prepared for what I saw. I didn’t understand how it had progressed so far, so fast. I had just seen her the past weekend, for crying out loud! My mind raced, desperately trying to process what I was looking at.
Her chest was the only part of her that was moving, going up and down as she breathed. I couldn’t see most of her frail body since it was underneath the covers of her small twin bed. Her eyes were closed, but she didn’t look peaceful. Rather, her face was contorted and her mouth mimicked a snarl, as if she were stuck in a place of pain so intense she couldn’t remove the grimace.
She looked much older than her fifty-two years. She had lost her hair months back, but now small bumps ballooned on her face and skull. Since she had never gone completely bald and gave up on shaving the remnants, patches of dark hair were scattered across her head.
This wasn’t my aunt, the woman who had so much fire, laughter, and passion. This was a sick woman letting go and dying.
It’s happening, it’s finally happening.
“Hey Aunt Andrea, I’m here,” I choked out as I moved over to the bed and leaned in awkwardly to give her a hug.
A grunt-like sound escaped from her body. She didn’t move. She didn’t open her eyes. She didn’t speak to me. No words of comfort. No words of wisdom. Not even an inside joke.
Just the sad sound of a broken body.
That’s what we did. That’s what Aunt Andrea and I had always done. We talked. As the realization came surging through me that she would never talk to me again, I rushed out of the room and collapsed on the couch in the adjacent living room, letting out my own unintelligible noises. Gasps of raw fear and horror, mixed in with sobs of pain and sharp grief.
The sad sound of a broken spirit.
“I responded a lot like that the first time I saw her this way,” Kathryn said sympathetically.
I was practically biting off my fist trying to contain the flood of emotions.
Please, this can’t be it.
“Oh my God, Kathryn!” I moaned.
“I know,” she answered back and plopped down on the other end of the sofa.
Aunt Andrea had been sick for months. Hell, she’d been sick for years, but in the last few weeks the cancer had decided it was tired of playing and gone in for the kill. The times of good days and bad days had turned into just-make-it-through-the-day. For a while, even though she couldn’t move around without help, Aunt Andrea was still talking, still eating, and still able to function. She was still there for us.
Now, even those days were gone. Kathryn told me she was pretty sure her mom was aware we were there and was conscious of the pain, even though she couldn’t talk, eat, or move.
I slowed my breathing and calmed down. The initial hysteria passed just in time for a knock on the door. It was the hospice nurse. Kathryn opened the door, let her in, and showed her to Aunt Andrea’s room. I followed a few steps behind.
The nurse did vital checks, including taking my aunt’s temperature and checking her blood pressure and heart rate, while scribbling a few notes on her pad. She made small talk with Kathryn and me while she worked. She asked about our family and what we did for a living. The two of us rambled on, participating in the meaningless chatter, grateful for the small distraction.
The nurse even talked to my aunt, speaking loud and clear, making my aunt aware she was there and about to manhandle her.
She had the same level of kindness as the nurses in the oncology department of the hospital. They’re a unique breed of people, oncology nurses. It’s like they come with a built-in patience for people, a patience I can’t even pretend to have, and the ability to pair that patience with sweet, calming voices.
“Let’s go talk in the kitchen,” she said when she finished examining my aunt.
Kathryn and I obediently followed her.
When we arrived in the kitchen, far enough away from my aunt’s bedroom that she couldn’t hear our conversation, I took a few steps more toward the countertop, so I could lean against it if necessary.
“It won’t be long now,” the nurse said.
Kathryn nodded solemnly. I just stared at them, letting the counter take the weight of my entire upper body as it slumped under the impact of the nurse’s words.
“She’s in the final stages,” the nurse continued. “At this point it’s crucial we keep her as comfortable as possible. She is in a lot of pain, and it will be worse if we don’t keep her medications coming at regular intervals.”
She paused for a moment and then made sure to make direct eye contact with Kathryn before she went on.
“I’m really concerned that she’s only on Demerol. I can’t believe she’s gotten this far,” the nurse explained. “We need to look at bringing in an IV drip with something much stronger, like morphine.”
At the mention of morphine, Kathryn started shaking her head, the motion gaining speed as the nurse kept talking.
“My mother can’t handle morphine,” Kathryn said. “She has a severe reaction to it. It keeps her awake and gives her the creepy crawlies.”
“Demerol is what you take after having a tooth pulled, not in the final stages of cancer,” the nurse argued calmly, as if she were explaining the need for vegetables to a five-year-old convinced her body only needed chocolate cake.
“She freaks out! She feels like something is crawling all over her skin. She made me promise that no one would ever give her morphine,” Kathryn said, determined that no one was ever going near her mother with that drug.
I agreed with Kathryn. I’d seen Aunt Andrea’s reaction to morphine, and it was almost worse than her reaction to the cancer treatments.
“We can’t let your mother go through this with only Demerol. It’s not strong enough,” the nurse replied, adamant.
“I understand that you feel that way, but the Demerol is what my mother wants. It’s the only thing that helps the pain without making her feel worse,” Kathryn insisted.
The nurse finally gave in. Faced with Kathryn’s resolve, she really had no choice in the matter.
“Alright,” she said. “But you will have to give it to her in suppository form and you can’t miss a single dose. If you do, the pain will catch up with her, and we don’t want that to happen.”
“We won’t. Just give us the instructions,” Kathryn answered and then looked over at me. “We’ll be with her nonstop.”
I looked back at her and nodded in agreement.
We listened to the instructions, and Kathryn took notes. The nurse gave us the on-call number so someone from the hospice could be reached at any time, day or night. She told us she would be in every day and would come by more often as the inevitable got closer. Then she left.
“I need to make some phone calls,” I said to Kathryn and grabbed my cell phone.
Even though we were in a relatively populated suburban area, cell phone service was still spotty at best. It could be perfect at one house and then nonexistent next door. My phone had one measly bar inside my aunt’s house, but if I stepped outside and endured the oven, I got two more.
“Amy will be by as soon as Jeremy gets off work,” Kathryn told me as I opened the door to go outside.
“Oh, OK,” I answered.
Amy was Kathryn’s older sister, who lived a few houses down on the same street. She had a toddler, and with her husband Jeremy away at work, it quickly became too much for her to look after both her little girl and her mother. Still, I wanted Amy there. We needed her.
I went outside and dialed the first number. Tears welled in my eyes and a lump formed in my throat as soon as I heard his voice.
“Hey baby. How are you?” he asked gently.
“She’s going to die,” were the first, ugly words that flew out of my mouth. “She can’t even speak to me,” I rushed on. “The hospice nurse just left a few minutes ago and she said it won’t be long, maybe a week at best. I have to stay here with her now.”
I started sobbing as I relayed the details to my husband.
My aunt had been at our wedding. She sat through the whole service in a wheelchair, but she had been there.
“Oh babe, I’m so sorry.” He tried to comfort me, but I was beyond any state that words could help.
At that moment, all of my defensive mechanisms, highly tuned and cultivated over years of heartache, locked into place.
“Whatever. When are you getting here?” I demanded, my tone completely changed. “I need you to bring me clothes. I’m going to be here for several days.”
“Just let me know what you need and I’ll come down later this evening,” my husband responded.
I gave him a list of essentials. “Please get here as soon as you can,” I finished and hung up.
My next call was much easier. I pulled on my professional voice and dialed.
“WAFF-48 News, this is Jennifer, how can I help you?”
“Jennifer, it’s Heather,” I said.
“Girl, what are you doing calling work on a weekend? You looking to cover something for me? Is something going on I should know about?” Jennifer said in her high-pitched, chipper southern voice.
Jennifer was my TV station’s weekend producer. She was awfully sweet, but she also loved to talk—and most of it was gossip.
“No, it’s nothing like that. My aunt has taken a turn for the worse, and the nurse doesn’t expect her to last the week. I can’t leave right now, so I probably need to take a few sick days,” I told her calmly.
“Oh, Heather, I’m so sorry! You go right ahead and do what you need to do. Hell, I’ll even give you some of my sick days if you need them. Just call the big bosses on Monday and give them an update. Do you need anything?” she asked.
Like so many, the very reason Jennifer had gotten in to news business was so that she could be at the center of every disaster and crisis.
“No, I’m fine, I’ll just call Monday. Thanks.”
I hung up. One more call to make.
“Hey hottie big sister! How are you?”
Jessica could sound like such a Valley girl sometimes. Quite an amazing feat considering that she had lived in the middle of nowhere Alabama a good chunk of her life.
“Not good.” I tried to swallow my emotions, but hearing my sister’s voice triggered them all over again. “They’re pretty much giving Aunt Andrea until the end of the week,” I choked out, thinking how it was always the worst news you were forced to repeat over and over. “There’s going to be a funeral soon.”
I needed my sisters. There are two of them, Jessica and Michelle, and they had often been the only reason I kept moving forward.
“Oh, Heather I’m so sorry! We’re on our way to Kentucky with the Hendersons and we won’t be back until next weekend,” Jessica replied with stress filling her voice.
I couldn’t believe they were going so far away when I was experiencing the worst week of my life.
“Well, we’ll just have to figure out a way to get you guys back!” I answered sharply.
“I don’t know what we can do, but we’ll work something out. Just keep me updated,” Jessica answered. “I’m so sorry I’m not there,” she continued.
Deep down, I knew that statement wasn’t entirely true, but I didn’t say anything.
“No, it’s fine,” I replied instead. “Keep your phone on so that I can reach you. I love you. Tell Michelle I love her too.”
“We love you, too, and we’re praying for you.”
We both hung up and I went back inside—where the woman who had helped me turn my whole life around was about to die.