My aunt Adrienne died tonight. The 25th. It was awful. To put it mildly. But, as life does, there were also beautiful bits.
In june I found out that she had been feeling pretty bad for months (which I had’t realized at Passover), progressing to the point where she was having trouble remembering things, and occasional balance issues. I found out because the doctors finally realized she had a large mass on her adrenal gland, and she was going in for surgery. I went and visited her in the hospital and then at home after. The mass was the biggest one the doctors had seen, but she was feeling better and was cheerful and positive and I fixed an outlet for her. But then they found out that the mass was indeed cancerous. She was still super upbeat and gung-ho about kicking its ass and getting on with life.
I’m pretty terrible at keeping in touch with people, even ones I like a lot, and so I didn’t really hear anything until October? when my parents said she was out in California for chemo, and they had dinner with her. I called her a couple of times, but again, bad at keeping in touch and at that point totally absorbed by school. Then I had that stupid family history report, and wanted to talk to her about that side of the family. That’s how I found out she was in the hospital again. Thank god for that stupid, stupid report, because that’s the last time I had a conversation with her. She wasn’t super clear, but she was focused and interested and we talked. She was having problems with her legs and was headed to the physical rehab section the next day. She was worried about my cousin, Sarah, but generally, she still seemed determined, and like this had just been a little thing, she was bouncing back.
And then on the 23rd my mother called and said she’d taken a turn for the worse and was on a respirator. I was out doing last minute christmas shopping with John, and stuck with him for a little bit until I called my cousin and found out where to go and heard what Sarah sounded like. I’m so so so glad that I went. It was horrible and terrible and Adrienne was on a respirator and couldn’t talk and looked awful, a bruised shell of herself, but I talked to her, and she squeezed my hand both to answer questions and in response to my squeezes. I told her about school, and plans, and I got to stay with her for about half an hour holding her hand. It was terrible, but also very sweet. There were also a ton of other people out in the waiting area, a lot of Sarah’s friends who also knew and loved Adrienne. I stayed for a while. Her partner, Marilyn, was there and was fantastically helpful to me. Sarah was a little fragile, bouncing between laughing and crying, and Marilyn was a good solid ballast for steadying me, and answering questions.
I was supposed to go again on the 24th, but the christmas eve stuff at John’s house wiped me out, and also I convinced myself that she was fine. And then today, I was tired and didn’t feel like going anywhere, until my mom called again (somehow, she ended up being the chain of communication, even though Adrienne is my dad’s sister) and told me she was doing worse.
I got there and again, so many people. This time more of Adrienne’s friends, her ex husband, people I’d met at Passovers. Most of them knew who I was, I of course had no clue about most of them. But they were all there. I waited my turn (still, like a idiot, not quite realizing that “go in and say goodbye” meant that she was going to die tonight. I figured it was at least a little precautionary, and we had a few days. Like how on the 23rd I thought we had a few weeks.)
When I went in, it was worse. The first time I visited, my initial thought at seeing her was “oh, no. She’s dying and she knows it.” This time I knew it. I held her hand but she was asleep or unconscious. I told her everything I had to say, about how grateful I was for her constant kindness and acceptance and generosity and humor, how much I love her. I told her what bullshit it was and how sorry I was that her body betrayed her and how much I was going to miss her. I squeezed her hand and she didn’t squeeze back. It was useless, standing there, but somehow letting go of her hand felt like a betrayal. That was the hardest part, to just let go of her hand and walk away. Again, I was so grateful that Marilyn was there. She told me how proud Adrienne was of me, and that I was really special to her, and held me for a bit. But that letting go of her hand. It was such a simple action, and still so big and difficult.
I went back and sat with everyone, and at some point people decided to sing. It was low and quiet hum/singing, and had this been a movie montage that is what would have been playing over it. And that’s what we were doing when she died. At some point Marilyn, my cousin, a good friend Michael, and Tommy, Adrienne’s aunt-in-law who lived downstairs (and is 90something and will outlive us all. May I be half as sharp as her when I’m half her age) went in, and I guess Adrienne knew. Her heart and respiration rate slowed down, and stopped.
We out in the waiting area, singing (in my case, crying and listening), didn’t realize until those four came back out, Marilyn breaking composure for the first time sobbing and screaming Fuck. People ran to her and Sarah, but I think it didn’t sink in for most of us until the doctor came out and said My condolences. You can go in now.
The rest of the night was long, awfulish. Figuring out things with the funeral homes and travel and all (the funeral home we called was amazingly expedient. They were there about an hour an a half after she died).
There is nothing fair about this. I know, it’s death, it’s not fair or unfair. But really. Aside from being sad, I think all of us are angry. She was 65. She had an amazing, beautiful life for the most part. The main downside was she never got to retire. She was 65. Her decline was swift, unexpected, and devastating. I get it that death isn’t fair and this is never easy, but this. This is beyond. This is bullshit.
But Tommy was sitting there quietly and Marilyn asked her what was up and she started listing all of the people she’s known who had died, and none of them had had that many people gathered, and singing. And that part, that part was beautiful.