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Nancy M. Cappello, Ph.D. Headshot

Waiting to Die

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As children, my three siblings and I thought my Uncle Nick lived at a funeral home -- after all, anytime we assembled for a family event, Uncle Nick was late because, as my aunt reported, he was at a wake. "He must know tons of people with bad luck," we thought. The truth was he was at that age where many of his friends, their family and relatives die. I have graduated to my Uncle Nick's former demographic.

My sister-in-law and friend Susie died a few weeks ago. Sue was diagnosed two years ago with endometrial cancer. Tragically, the tumor did not respond to treatment. After surgeries and innumerable chemotherapy and radiation treatments, clinical trials, out-of-state visits to esteemed cancer treatment facilities, unanticipated emergency room visits, the cancer was just too aggressive to effectively treat. Sue was informed in December that she had weeks not months to live. Hospice began its work and mission. We waited and waited for Susie to die. As she lay in her bed, the vibrant sassy woman we loved turned into a frail cancer patient at death's door but not yet ready to leave this earth. It was surreal to watch the progression of dying -- it was no longer Sue, it was a stranger in her bedroom, lying in a rented hospital bed. After more days that we ever imagined, Sue finally passed. This left us with sadness and grief and many unanswered what-ifs.

I met Sue 45 years ago when I first dated her brother-in-law Joe, who subsequently became my husband of nearly 40 years. Sue was like a sister to me. I watched her children, Jeff and Sarah, become adults as Sue and I rapidly aged well past the time when we first met in 1970, a few months after Jeffrey was born. Returning from boot camp, Joe invited me to meet his new nephew, brother and sister-in-law. It is those memories and a collection of four decades of life's narratives that now comfort us as we mourn her passing and our great loss.

Being of Italian descent, Joe and I never put butter on bread -- just gravy -- thick and hot tomato sauce on Italian bread. Sue, with her proud British heritage, taught us to keep butter in a cabinet so it can actually spread on bread. We have enjoyed more than 40 years of bread topped with spreading butter because of Sue. Sue continually boasted of her direct lineage to the Mayflower Pilgrims and Governor Bradford, the organizer of the First Thanksgiving. We would celebrate every Thanksgiving with Sue's authentic pilgrim-inspired turnip recipe. Even though it tasted to me like I licked Plymouth Rock, in deference to Sue's heritage and my patriotism I would taste it, albeit sparingly and commend the chef.

That same week, my sister and I went to our local funeral home with our mom to plan her death. My mom has been pestering "the kids" to do this for several years. While she is nearing 87, she is in great health. Understanding that her superwoman days are limited, my mom wanted to plan her death on her terms. Cremation was not even an option, as my mom, widowed at 41 years old, is comforted in knowing that someday she will be reunited to the right of my dad six feet under. Anticipating a challenging few hours as we discussed her death, I informed my mom that picking out a casket was akin to purchasing a vehicle -- although this one won't be available for a trade-in. I wasn't too far off. Personalized accessories and upgrades to adorn the casket, from golf clubs to the Last Supper, were available. In keeping with her style, my mom chose a classy column adornment fit for royalty. We also viewed the personalized remembrance and acknowledgement cards -- horses, day lilies, angels, and the infamous Sacred Heart of Mary & Jesus, which, once seen, my Catholic mom blurted out, "That's it, how beautiful." In less than two hours, I forwarded a picture of the showroom casket of my mom's choosing to my brothers who gladly turned over the death-planning duty to their sisters. Mission Accomplished. Now, we wait for my mother to die.

I anticipate that I am not alone, as my day-to-day activities are cluttered with too many unaccomplished "to do" lists. I am so busy getting through life's mandates that I rarely take time to enjoy the beauty of a warm, sunny day or hear the doves chirping outside my office window as I frantically tap my keyboard. A sister-in-law and friend's much too early death and a planning of my mom's future death have given me pause. At these rare times, I become philosophical and reflective about the meaning of life as I too wait to die.

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