Within mere hours, my emotions swung from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows. It was April, and I looked forward to my son marrying the woman I loved for him. My mother, my sister and I could barely contain our excitement for the wedding ceremony. That is, until we received a call from my mother’s younger sister Darlene. Unknowingly, she had been battling stage four pancreatic cancer for a few short months, and now sensed that these were her final days.
My mother and Darlene, whom we affectionately called Aunt Doll, were fifteen months apart. My mother was the oldest. Aunt Doll was the remaining member of my mother’s immediate family, and we had been praying for her healing.
Three months before my son’s wedding, Aunt Doll had called to tell my mother of an upcoming doctor’s appointment. I heard something different in her voice as I listened on speaker phone. She had typically only gone to doctors for annual check-ups. My sister and I made a point to check on her more frequently as we planned for my son’s wedding. A week later, I saw the concern on my mother’s face as she listened to my aunt share that her physician wanted to conduct more tests. I watched as my mother silently walked into her room, sat by her window, and opened her bible.
Our worst fears were confirmed when my aunt informed us that she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. My sister and I were speechless as my mother inquired about second opinions. Our hearts sank when my aunt informed us that she was not interested in prolonging her life by a few months. Suffering through the pain and discomfort of chemotherapy for the remaining days of her life was not what she wanted.
My sister and I had no other choice but to respect her wishes. Our hearts ached, not only for our aunt but for our mother. She would be grieving the loss of her last sibling. My sister and I were forced to have conversations about our own mortality. Upon our aunt’s passing, our mother would be the sole matriarch of our immediate family. In the natural order of life, I would be the next matriarch after my mother. My sister spoke with my aunt’s youngest daughter about how we could support them. Although we have a brother, as daughters we could only imagine what our two female cousins were experiencing. Daughters take care of their parents in a different way than sons. We wanted to support our cousins in whatever way possible. And yet, we wanted to be respectful of their wishes.
My mother was fraught with emotion. She wanted to go home to New Jersey and care for my aunt in her final days, just as she had with her eldest sister. But my beloved aunt was thinking of my son and his nuptials, even as her condition grew worse. She instructed my mother to go to her grandson’s wedding and to come home to her afterwards. She comforted my mother by promising that she was not going anywhere, that she would be there when my mother returned. I welcomed the distraction as we finalized plans for the wedding. And yet, I quietly began to grieve the inevitable loss of my aunt.
Watching my son wipe his tears as his bride walked down the aisle was everything I dreamed of. She is the daughter I never had. The Chicago wedding was beautiful. My thoughts turned to my aunt as we packed our belongings that night for our early morning flight. We decided to return home to Virginia, repack, and head to New Jersey the next day.
My sister took an earlier flight back than my mother and me. But once we were back in Virginia, my sister called late that evening and asked if I was alone. I walked into my room so my mother wouldn’t hear our conversation. My heart dropped when she said we needed to go to my aunt’s side first thing in the morning. One of our cousins had called her while we were basking in the joy of my son’s wedding to say that my aunt was deteriorating rapidly but not to tell me or my mother right away. I felt as though I couldn’t breathe. Then my sister said she was on her way over so that we could share the news with our mother together. I hung up the phone and waited until my mother finished raving about the joy of the wedding.
When I told her, my sister was coming over, the fear in her eyes was more than I could bear. Why was my sister coming over so late? she asked. I sat down at the table and told her that we had to go home immediately. Her voice quivered as she asked what were we not telling her. I told her that Aunt Doll was deteriorating. She rushed downstairs to meet my sister. I began to cry as my sister assured my mother that our aunt was still with us but we had to leave first thing in the morning. We held our mother as she cried.
We left by car first thing in the morning. My sister sped up I-95 North as my mother slept in the back seat. We whispered to each other upon seeing exit 7A on the New Jersey Turnpike. Our road trips home would never be the same.
As we approached my aunt’s apartment, I felt as though I was walking in quicksand. My eldest cousin opened the door and embraced my sister. I hugged her and she began to cry as she then fell into my mother’s arms. We decided to allow my mother to see her sister in private. As sisters, we wanted to honor that sacred bond. Shortly afterward, we walked into my aunt’s room. My mother kissed her sister’s forehead and sat beside her. We had no idea of how blessed we were to be able to share those moments together. Our niece, our brother’s eldest daughter, is a nurse. My brother was in another state and would not be able to get home until later that evening. Although he couldn’t be there, his daughter was. She had been visiting my aunt and checking on her condition during her off days. That day she happened to stop by after work.
Aunt Doll became anxious when she heard my mother’s voice. Her youngest daughter smiled and told my mother that my aunt knew she was there. My mother, sister, and cousins surrounded her bed while I sat at her feet. Her silky black and silver hair framed her frail face. I managed to walk out of her room before breaking into sobs. I was ashamed of not being strong for my mother. I walked over to my aunt’s balcony and looked out over the ocean. We had spent most of our adult lives in awe of such a beautiful view of the Jersey Shore. I managed to pull myself together by the time my nephew and brother-in-law arrived.
Grief permeated the air when my sister yelled for us to come quickly. My mother’s cries were muffled as she held my aunt’s hand. We held her, letting her know that it was okay to cry. My aunt’s breath became more labored as my sister asked my niece to check her pulse. We watched as she gently pressed her stethoscope on my aunt’s back. We were silent as she nodded her head and informed us that her pulse was faint but she could still feel and hear us.
I needed her to know I was there. I leaned over and whispered in her ear that I, her favorite niece, was with her. Everyone laughed when my sister nudged me and told my aunt that she was her real favorite niece. A peacefulness came over the room as our voices became a melodic hymn. We told her that we loved her and that she could go.
During that experience, I saw my niece in a different light. She was the angel we didn’t know we needed. I could not imagine what she was feeling watching her great aunt transition. She never shed a tear as she maintained her professional composure as a nurse. She nodded her head and informed us that our aunt was gone. We stretched our arms across her body and wept.
I had often wondered how painful it must be to watch a loved one transition. I no longer had to wonder when I experienced it for myself. My sister and I celebrated her life and death as we marveled at the strength of the human spirit. Aunt Doll passed, three hours after we arrived. She willed herself to live until her big sister was beside her. What a way to go.
My Aunt Doll was truly blessed to leave this earth on her own terms.