Birth, Death, and the Time in Between

I stood by my aunt’s wheelchair on Thursday, softly touching her hand, as my grandparents and I went to visit. My aunt never looked at me, her head remained tilted to the right, her eyes in the direction of my grandmother. It was unclear whether she recognized us and with little to say, little comfort to bring to someone so close to death, my attention was pulled towards my grandmother. I watched as she grasped the hand of her oldest daughter. I watched as she said hello, reminded my aunt that she was her mom. I was not surprised by her words. What was surprising to me though was the look on my grandmother’s face. I expected a look of sympathy, or of sadness, or at the very least something neutral to grace my grandmother’s face. Instead, as I looked at my grandmother I saw a face that was positively beaming. As she said hello to her daughter for what would be the last time, I saw the look that I imagine she wore on the day she greeted her daughter for the very first. Here was the woman who had been with my aunt since the very beginning of her time on earth, here was a woman who had until a few years ago had every reason to believe she would avoid burying a child, here was a woman who was less than 24 hours away from hearing the words every mother hopes never to hear, and she was smiling at the sight of her dying child.

The smile I saw spoke volumes. In it, I saw the joy that my grandparents must have felt at bringing home their first child. I saw the pride they felt when she graduated from high school and then from their alma mater. I saw the memories of the 65 years they shared with her. I saw the admiration we have all felt watching my aunt live with ALS, such a debilitating disease. I saw the sadness too of course, but more than anything in that smile I saw a mother’s love for her child.

This death was different in that it was expected. We had time to say goodbye this time around, and in fact, because of the progression of the disease it felt much more as if my aunt had been taken piece by piece instead of all at once. The little bit of the suffering that I saw at the end was more painful than anything I can imagine, but in some small way I am grateful for the time that we had. I am grateful that we knew that time was limited. I am grateful that each time we said goodbye we were able to say it like it might be the last time. I am grateful that we did not leave any “I love yous” unsaid.

On the night that my aunt died, her sister stepped outside to look at the wide Wyoming sky. She felt the wind my aunt loved so much pass by her, a sweet reminder that my aunt always said to “look for her in the wind.” She looked up and saw two perfectly clear stars side by side in the night sky, and beneath them a perfect crescent moon- a reminder of those we have lost this year. It is hard not to hope that somewhere, somehow, they are all together again.