The last day

Uncle Jim, riding shotgun with Dad up front, reached into one ear. “Look what I got,” he said, bringing forth something similar to a small wad of Playdough. Only a miniscule antenna protruded. “I’ve been half deaf all my life.”

Mom and Dad and I nodded. We knew.

“Now I finally got hearing aids that don’t loop over my ears. They work great; they’re set for me especially. The old kinds – they always broke, because I got in fights and shit. So they’d be in the repair shop more’n in my ears. I gave up on ‘em.”

Each of us expressed our joy for Jim. I said, “Uh, oh, now Mom and I’ll have to watch what we say about you back here.”

I could tell Dad had fun conversing with his many-years-younger brother the rest of the way to Portland. Mom and I found plenty to chat about. Once or twice Mom paused mid-sentence to call to the front, “Peter, watch your speed. You’re not remembering where you are.”

At last we parked in front of a pretty house not far from a school in a tidy Portland neighborhood. Cousins Kandy and Landy and their mother, Dad’s Aunt Shirlijeanne, greeted us at the door with hugs. Aunt Linda rose from the couch.

Beyond her, sleeping on her back in a hospital bed, lay my Aunt Nancy. She looked skeletal, the cancer having ravaged her frame. Still, her hair was nicely combed, and the covers drawn around her appeared comfy and warm.

I hadn’t been with Aunt Nancy for far too long. Mom had told me the minute she learned Nancy’s cancer returned. Metastasized, appearing in her liver – shot through it, really, and therefore inoperable. I’d talked to Nancy on the phone, viewed pictures of her on our extended family’s website, even mailed a Christmas card last month. But I knew this minute how remiss I’d been. I should’ve driven up here to visit. Instead, I let life’s details excuse me.

Mom went immediately to Nancy’s side to greet her.

“She looks asleep, but she can hear you,” Kandy said.

I followed Mom. When my turn came, I set my hand on her wasted arm. “Aunt Nancy,” I said. “Hi, it’s Deanna.” Gently I squeezed.

“Notice the difference in her breathing,” Uncle Jim said from across the room. “When someone’s talking to her, Nancy breathes harder. And I can’t believe how well I can hear it.” Jim went on to show everyone his hearing aids and describe how he obtained them.

Friends and other relatives stopped by throughout our time at Nancy’s home. People reminisced. Everyone recalled her boyfriend, Ron, who’d been a bear of a man, a motorcycle rider, who died several years ago. Aunt Nancy tended him with great care until the end.

I marveled at the scene around me. Laughter at familiar stories, good-natured teasing, even of the sister who lay dying. “She’s sure got the family nose,” Jim said.

This group of siblings had watched others linger upon the precipice of life’s end. A talented brother who died of Hodgkin’s just before I was born; the beloved grandmother who raised them; a brother from Eugene who lived long-haired, bearded, and drug-using, but who made his peace with God and the family before crossing over. Even the mother who made each of them strive with conflicting emotions, because of her glaring absence from their formative years – even she’d received all the attention her children could muster at the end.

Now they kept gentle vigil at Nancy’s bedside. This sister, fourth in descent of the original nine children, had never married. But as Dad would remark a week later at her memorial service, “Nancy was the prettiest sister.” The other female siblings in attendance would huff in mock protest. “But it’s true,” Dad would say, and they’d all smile.

I didn’t ever really know Aunt Nancy. Yet she enfolded me in tight squeezes at each family gathering. If my kids weren’t there, she pumped me for their latest exploits. I remembered her in yellow, with a broad straw hat, at summer reunions. She’d add witty remarks to the end of everyone’s family stories.

I’d find out at her service the next week how fond of Nancy her coworkers had been. One man took her on trips during the last months she was able to travel. They even made it to Ohio to see Uncle Tim, the family’s youngest brother. That friend of Nancy spoke with quiet grace and humor about her.

Uncle Tim would also make it to the service. He’d tell me about riding on the bus with Nancy and how she helped him out so many times.

My memories of Aunt Nancy also involve thoughts of the bus rides she took. A hostess on Trailways back in the sixties, Nancy paused on layovers to stay at our house, in my room straightened up pretty just for her. I was eight or nine. I considered Aunt Nancy the coolest adult in my little realm of acquaintance.

That last day in her home Nancy’s eyes never opened. Before leaving with Dad, Mom, and Uncle Jim I went over to her again. Awkwardly I hugged her narrow shoulders. “Nancy, I love you,” I said. My heart was grateful for the permission she gave me to participate, to care. Even though I’d mostly done it from a distance, uncool as I am.

Our goodbyes that day were garnished by Uncle Jim’s exclamations. “Was that a sparrow singing? Let me tell you how many birds out by my place I’ve noticed since I got these hearing aids…”

Comments

Bob Beard said…
I drove for Trailways in the 60's and often drove the 5 Star Luxury Liners with the hoistess on board although it was along the East Coast. I still miss those wonderful women who served our passengers today. I wish I had known Nancy.
Bob (Square Wheels) Beard
Washington, D.C.
Deanna said…
Hello, Bob, I so appreciate you connecting here. I only learned at Aunt Nancy's memorial service that she'd served on the top of the line, 5 Star Luxury Liner. Apparently the other buses didn't have hostesses. My younger brother got to ride with Nancy one time (don't know why I missed the trip), and he still remembers how neat it was.

I'm glad you have fond memories from your years as driver; I'm sure you did a great job.
Anonymous said…
How like a "vapor" life is. We cannot hold onto it, no matter how we try. You captured the events and mood of that last day with Nancy. What a contrast to the day we celebrated her life with family and friends. We sensed release and victory for Nancy. Words, laughter, tears and sharing gave us all a release. The memories continue on and on and on.
Thank you for your words,

Mom
Deanna said…
Mom, thanks for your meaningful addition here, and for being with the extended family through the process of saying farewell to Aunt Nancy.
Cecily said…
Deanna, I think this is a ploy. Offer out small tidbits of your book so we can't do anything but buy it when it's published because we are already hooked! I like your writing.
:-)