My aunt is dying, you can hear death in her voice. Death sounds like confusion, denial and fear. It's as if when she speaks the organs are decaying through her voice. Her thoughts have to search for the remaining electrical pulses in her brain. The words run an obstacle course, bypassing what has already gone soft, looking to grasp whatever foothold remains.
When I hear her speak, I feel the incredible strength of my own body, which makes me feel relieved. Her fragile words make it seem mine are made of steel.
Not more than a month ago a conversation with my aunt was like entering a black and white movie. She was clearly from a different time and place, we lived in different worlds. But hers' was still bright, spry, sharp and alive. It was awkward to try and assimilate to a time before color film, but a bit thrilling nonetheless. An adventure, which in truth I only wanted to experience for a short time, and I hesitated each time I made the trip. But I never regretted my occasion there.
My aunt is nearly 99. She will not live to be 100. Her photo will not be on the television recalling the date of her birth, with Willard Scott announcing she likes the opera and still volunteers. She will no longer volunteer. There will be no Today for her then.
Ninety-nine is old. It is easy to casually state that truth. We are all in the process of dying and at some point that process comes to a halt. No one lives much past 99. She had a long and fulfilling life, and other clichés that soften the blow for those of us coping with death, in life.
But to those with whom we are linked, there is no escaping the impact when it ends.
For me, my aunt was always more symbolic than specifically real. Though an actual person, to me she was more of a concept. She is one of five siblings, maybe six. Mostly women, and mostly mean. People damaged by some force never to be discussed, the truth of which will die with my aunt, the last remaining. Inexplicably though, my aunt was not mean. She is not mean, assuming at this moment, she is still alive. I do not know how or why she skirted the tribal mean. I am grateful for it, whatever the case. She was a symbol for me that no one is an inevitability. That I too did not have to be an inevitability.
She comes from a group of strong women. Fierce women. Most of whom found a weapon to demonstrate their strength. My aunt, instead, found success and a bottle. She focused inward. She accomplished big goals, much bigger than her black and white times typically allowed. And subverted whatever residual pain she had with an antibiotic for the soul. No matter. She lived to be nearly 99. She lives to be almost 99, for now, I think.
If I get the news, it will be after this is written. But the news is so imminent, it is difficult to know how to refer to the life in her body. Which tense?
She, a fighter like the rest, does not want to go. She holds on with every ounce her tiny feeble decaying body can muster. Her brain lies to her. She believes she is merely having a rough day. She is having a rough day. But somehow she imagines she will rally. It does not appear she is willing and able to admit that what is happening is death. No one challenges that. That would only be cruel. She is allowed to deny. That should be the prerogative of the dying.
People say they are sorry to hear about my aunt. Just as I would say to them. But it is not their death. They feel nothing. Just as I would feel nothing for them. I will not argue the point, empathy is not living the experience, and we only carry what we can hold. I don't carry their aunt, and they don't carry mine. I don't even know if I carry my own. I carry her story. But that is enough for me to grieve.
I just wanted to say something about my aunt: Her name is Pearl.