Straight up. It has been a tough summer.
Three weeks ago, while I was on my annual beach vacation, my aunt, Tia Isa, collapsed. Her legs had been weakening for a while, and now , at last, they stopped working just as she was being helped from the bathroom to her wheelchair. By the time I returned, she was also struggling with a deep cough I didn’t like. It rattled in her chest and made her wheeze. So, before I had unpacked a single thing, we drove to the hospital where we spent the next six days trying to stabilize her.
I’m ashamed to confess that for a good while I have nursed the fantasy that my aunt would simply go to sleep one night and not awaken. I wanted a peaceful exit for a lady who has been so unfailingly kind and generous to her entire family over a lifetime. I wanted to spare her and me the fear and indignities that sometimes go hand-in-hand with a failing body.
But life isn’t fiction, even for a writer. And so, in the last few weeks, as I’ve canceled engagements and changed diapers and stared at the ceiling all night, I’ve had to face what’s really ahead.
Luckily, there is not a crisis I’ve had where the kindness of people hasn’t shone through. Texts and supportive emails have come from the few people who know what’s happening. Folks like Lin Oliver have graciously allowed me to cancel appearances that had been planned months ago. My husband and children stepped up in every way – beyond what I ever imagined. And most important, my Tía Isa and I have had the privacy to talk about what she really wants with regard to palliative care.
I am writing this from Maine, hours away from tia Isa, where I am a guest author of Island Readers and Writers. When it was time to decide whether to travel to Acadia National Park this week to work with children at the Blueberry Harvest School, I wavered. But as Tía finally stabilized a bit, my family, including Tia Isa herself, were adamant. Go. Rest. We’ve got this.
Possibly the best gift came from my middle daughter, Sandra, who put me on the plane with a book in hand. It’s Being Mortal by Dr. Atul Gawande (Thorndike Press, 2014), which she’s reading for her nursing program at VCU. How do we help the people we love exert control over this last act of their lives? How can we help them not necessarily lengthen their lives, but instead live the days that remain in a way that has meaning to them? Using both research and personal story, it describes the history of how we have managed –or failed to manage– end-of-life care. Dr. Gawande draws the complexities, from finances to the actual burden on family members , and also offers alternatives to how we help people make decisions about their last days.
Here in Maine with Javier, I’ve read quietly, turning to this lovely book for solace. We’ve walked trails in Acadia National Park in contemplative silence and stared at the ocean, thinking about both his mom and Tía Isa. I’ve had the chance to behold nature at its most beautiful. I’ve thought a lot about love and family and death. I’ve given long hard thought to the irony of starting to lose Tía Isa in the weeks before I publish a book about having to lose someone we love.
And I’ve found a bit of peace with the uncertainty that’s ahead.
So, this morning, I’ll meet lovely students, young people at the beginning of everything . As often happens when I’m in schools, we’ll talk about how we write, about where stories come from, about the role of roots and family in our lives and in our work. At times, presentations lose their freshness for the author. We say the same things so often that we struggle to remember that it’s new for the audience who is hearing it.
But this time, the words won’t feel automatic. They’ll feel so deeply true because they come from the acceptance that loss is also part of love in the long game.
And so in this way, Tía Isa will be with me, today and, I hope, always.