The aunt who took me in during the summer I was seventeen so I could get a much needed break from home is fading. She’s the aunt who lamented, “No one will raft the Colorado River with me.” With zero hesitation, I blurted, “I will.” I know I can sit by my aunt’s bedside now while her politics and my world view ebb and flow in the space between us and still follow my impulse to show up for her.
It’s not true my life has only been about death, but it feels that way sometimes. It is true I come from a long line of strong relatives who nursed their loved ones and kept them close. Perhaps because of that I have been unsuccessful at pushing death away.
The list of deaths in my family include a great uncle, maternal grandmother, my father’s stepfather, and my great grandmother, all before I graduated from high school. Tragically my mother died when I was twenty-four and she was forty-seven. In my 30s, another grandfather and an uncle. Later, I helped my cousin care for my mother’s sister in the comfort of her home. Then eight years ago, we lost my grandmother and my cousin in the same week. I haven’t listed the dogs I’ve lost because then the list seems impossible.
Years ago when Uncle Leo was sick and dying, I brought my dad to visit his brother. It was January 2nd of the year 2000, right after the infamous Y2K and the supposed end of the world. We flew to Phoenix and drove to Flagstaff. My dad gritted his teeth when he realized there would be no air-clearing between him and his eldest sibling. And as if he hadn’t paid attention to the dates of our flights, when he realized our return flight was a week away, he exploded, “What are we going to do?”
I was behind the wheel of the rental car, driving us to lunch in downtown Flagstaff. I kept my eyes on the road, ignoring the pouting and puffing from the passenger seat. I stated, “We are going to sit with Aunt Sue and keep her company while they figure out how bad Uncle Leo’s cancer is.” We stayed our week and it was pretty bad. Uncle Leo died less than a month after we left.
I repeated the journey some years later when I took my husband to southwest Colorado visit my cousin, Uncle Leo’s daughter, when she was fighting the melanoma that seemed to be winning. It was the fall of 2005 and Vicki was having a good month. We did chores around the house, took a day trip to Creede, an old mining town in the foothills of the Rockies, and spent hours around the dining table catching up with family, including Aunt Sue, the wife of Leo and the mother of Vicki.
Several months later I returned to Colorado for one final visit. As soon as I arrived, I knew Vicki was letting go of this life. I whispered to her children, “She doesn’t have much time, be with her around the clock.” Those young adults were the age I was when my mother died at home on a night I was on duty. I knew the disbelief, the agony, and the devastation of watching your mother go with nothing you can do except be there.
That’s why a few weeks ago, when Aunt Sue suffered serious complications after the removal of a cancerous colon tumor, I came to attention. My cousin called with details and I began planning.
Suzanne, Aunt Sue, was the aunt who swam with us in the Umpqua River when I was a child and stripped down to her psychedelic bra when she didn’t have a swimsuit. The aunt who took me in during the summer I was seventeen so I could get a much needed break from home. And the aunt who lamented, “No one will raft the Colorado River with me.” With zero hesitation, I blurted, “I will.”
We went on that rafting trip in 1998 and when we faced the massive Crystal Rapid on a rain-swollen Colorado River, a terrified version of myself tried to bargain and walk around. The guide calmly instructed us to get in the boat. Aunt Sue serenely settled into her seat on the raft and grabbed the hand holds. Before I had time to catch three more breaths we crashed over the falls and submerged completely for a seemingly endless time. I remember wondering when the next breath would be able to flow into my lungs.
When the raft finally surfaced full of water, I surfaced with my heart pounding so hard I could barely hear her cries of joy. I gasped for air and bailed water as fast as I could while the oldsters on the trip, including Aunt Sue, loudly cheered me on.
This was the aunt I needed to see again so I booked a flight to Phoenix and a rental car to Flagstaff. The second day of my visit, when the nurse came in to check on her, Aunt Sue introduced me, “This is my niece. She came when my husband died fifteen years ago and when my daughter died eight years ago. Now she’s here for me.” The nurse looked at me and I mumbled. “Like a death doula.”
This time around, Aunt Sue didn’t talk much. Instead, we focused on her daily rituals, primarily the morning news and her beloved Arizona Diamondbacks. When Donald Trump came on the screen proclaiming Mexicans were rapists, my aunt nodded in agreement. I froze momentarily until my breath evened out and then, blindly staring at the television, I asked, “What about white rapists in the U.S.?” Neither of us spoke again as we watched the television.
Later, in the rehabilitation center, I sat by her bed and urged her to drink. She didn’t. We shifted our attention to the past. My parents. Her husband. She remembered the time when her parents were dying. She told me there was no money to go to them and my uncle hadn’t want her to be gone. She sounded wistful.
My cousin and I walked in her room on my last morning in Flagstaff to find her sitting up in bed gasping through two liters of oxygen. She whispered, “I don’t know what’s going on. I barely got back to bed. Maybe the cancer is in my lungs.”
Time stood still for a few moments as my cousin and I stared at one another. Several long minutes later, I asked, “Aunt Sue, if the cancer is in your lungs, is this where you want to be?” She replied, “I’d rather be home.”
As the rehab nurse readied Aunt Sue for the trip back to the hospital, I said goodbye. We hugged and she said, “Be sure to thank Bruce for letting you come to see me.” I nodded at her acknowledgement of my husband. “He booked my ticket, he’s glad I’m here.”
I got in the car in the blistering heat and headed back to Phoenix to catch my plane, my drive punctuated by stops to dry my eyes and answer text messages from my cousin and his wife.
I don’t know what the next months will bring but I know several things. I know I’m grateful for my cousin and his wife and their devotion to his mother. I know I’m grateful he and I share the legacy of caring for our relatives. I know I can sit by my aunt’s bedside while her politics and my world view ebb and flow in the space between us and still follow my impulse to show up for her.
I know I’ll go back in a few months to spend more time. We’ll watch the news and Ellen DeGeneres. We’ll nod in agreement at some things and remain silent for others. We’ll hold hands and remember the white water of the Colorado River.
Kim Cottrell is a Feldenkrais® practitioner, educator, and former speech pathologist. Kim blogs at ahealthystepmother.com and contributes regularly to Walk About Magazine.