I always thought having cancer or some life-threatening disease would be about the worst thing that could happen to a person. To face surgery, the pain of recovery, the danger of complications, the fear that they couldn’t get it all—it’s a scary situation. And it can definitely be an ordeal. I was fortunate in that my cancer did not have complications and did not put me in much pain. Others are not so lucky.
However, in recent months I have come to believe that there may be one thing worse than going through cancer or some such disease: watching a loved one go through it. In my dear aunt’s case, cancer was not the culprit. Several months ago she suffered a stroke. After almost three months of hospital, nursing home, and assisted living, she finally made it back home. Gradually she regained strength and mobility. She proudly informed me that she had walked to the end of her street and back, several blocks total.
Then, the day after that walk, illness struck again, this time in the form of an intestinal blockage. Back to the hospital, where they first tried non-surgical methods, then operated. The surgery went well; the recovery did not. Her heartbeat was irregular, and they couldn’t seem to get it stabilized. Then pneumonia moved in. I watched my sweet aunt struggle for breath, saw the pain in her face as the breathing machine pushed air into her lungs. I heard her say, beneath the breathing mask, “I just want to die.”
We agreed to let them remove all the tubes and needles, waited for her to go. Instead she started growing stronger. We began to hope that she would recover yet again. She moved to an assisted living home, where she oh-so-slowly worked on rebuilding her strength. But it was not to be. One day, after her caretaker helped her walk down the hall and back, her body suddenly gave out. She left this world as I was telling her, over the phone, that I loved her.
Now I sort through her things—boxes of paperwork, family pictures, records of a life—and tears come from time to time. I used to talk with her frequently, sharing family news, hearing about her neighbors, commiserating over politics. I miss those talks. Yet I had a vision of sorts the other day, a picture in my mind that reassured. For those who have seen “Return of the Jedi,” remember the scene at the end where Luke looks up to see a ghostly image of his Jedi teachers, Yoda and Obi Wan? And there, too, is his father, smiling and at peace. I saw a similar picture of my aunt having a joyous reunion in heaven with my mother (her sister) and their parents. Someday I believe I will see them again, all of them. It will be a wonderful day!