When my brother picked me up from the airport, she was already doing worse. In fact, every hour, every moment, she continued to deteriorate. Every breath brought her closer to her last and the machines labored to keep her alive.
I’d spent the last 24 hours crying and on the verge of crying. I tried to breathe the way she was breathing. The day before, my brother, Evan, called and said it was like taking your deepest breath and then trying to take a breath on top of it. I tried. It hurt. I hurt. I booked the earliest flight I could find from San Jose to Austin.
On the flight from San Jose to Los Angeles, a tall white man with snow white hair sat in front of me across the aisle. He sat quietly, his wife across the aisle from him. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d not only seen him before, but I knew him from somewhere. I looked over his wife’s shoulder when she pulled out their boarding passes. The last name said “Peek” confirming that yes, I did know him. He’d known her. Had worked for her years ago. I think she’d said his daughter had committed suicide. I think they’d moved to the Texas Panhandle. I think there had been a falling out.
By the time I had thought to say something to him, he was telling the passenger to his other side that he and his wife were on their way to Hawaii for a long-awaited vacation.
I said nothing. I didn’t want to be the one to let them know that she was dying. It didn’t seem like the right time.
When she finally would pass, just a week after she’d been admitted to the hospital, everyone would talk about how quickly it had happened and how her rapid decline felt somehow preventable. What if she would’ve gone in a day before? What if she would’ve taken her medication, exercised or even eaten better? Surely, there are things that could be done — stem cell therapy, medical marijuana? There had to be something.
I used to love the way she smelled. Trident gum, cigarettes and a perfume I never knew and will never know. Her scent was intoxicating enough that I never minded when she took my bed for a weekend stay. By Sunday night, I’d wrap myself in the dirty sheets, inhaling her scent and happily dozing off like an ether addict.
She smoked in her house. Mostly in the kitchen, but also in her giant bathroom. A garden tub in the middle of the room, his and hers sinks and vanities flanking either side. I loved going through her drawers. Half-used make-up compacts, cotton balls, opened Trident packs, loose $20 dollar bills, packs of Virginia Slims, loose cigarettes spilling into a chaos of beauty supplies. She’d sit on her stool in front of the vanity mirror, washing her face, applying make-up, teasing her short hair, letting me rifle through her things. She kept a pair of pink satin novelty panties that wailed Happy Birthday when you pressed a button. I always found them in the back of a drawer and she’d laugh as I squealed with delight.
When she was in the hospital, I went into her bathroom in the house she’d been living in for the past decade. It didn’t have the same layout and lacked the strange elegance of the former. I hadn’t spent much time there, but when I opened her drawers, there was her smell without smoke, her make-up, and her loose money.
I hate the smell of cigarettes now, but damn if I wouldn’t have bottled her scent.
We drove straight from the airport to the hospital in New Braunfels. They say she hadn’t said much that day. She seemed to be weakening. The hospital was relatively new and nearly empty. Its giant lobbies and vaulted ceilings, its closed coffee bars and neutral furnishings gave it the feeling of a modern mega-church. I half expected neon lights and narrow hallways awash in a ghastly green color. I was relieved.
We walked into her room in the ICU. She looked small in the center of the dim room, crowded with the machines that were helping keep her alive. She wore a mask that made it hard for her to speak and even more difficult to hear her. I immediately grabbed her hand and sat down next to her. I stared into her eyes. I told her it was okay.
The Golden State Warriors were beating the Cleveland Cavaliers and would eventually win as we watched on from a TV above. I leaned in close to listen to her when she asked me if I remembered how we used to go to San Antonio Spurs games, how she ruined every NBA basketball game my brother and I would attend for the rest of our lives by purchasing us courtside seats as children.
My youngest sister, Tess, stood at the end of her bed and massaged her feet with lotion. She asked if our other brother Dominic was coming. No one knew for sure and so I lied and immediately felt guilty. I kissed her forehead, she tried to yank the mask off her face, I stroked the soft area of her cheek near her ear, the area that grew fine blonde hair. “My fur,” she called it when I, as a child, stroked the same place while telling her how much I loved her.
Dominic arrived and we sang him Happy Birthday while standing around her hospital bed.
She grew tired. We were told she needed to rest. We walked out of the room crying and holding each other. Everyone said she hadn’t spoken all day. “She was saving it for her kids,” they said.
She couldn’t have children so she shared us with my mother. They were sisters. They were close. She called often. I’d race to answer the ringing phone, looking at the caller ID, I’d greedily grab the receiver. We’d talk for what felt like forever before I surrendered the phone to my mom who insisted my time was up.
We usually spent weeks during the summer or weekends around Christmas with her. When she finally quit smoking, my mother sent Evan and me to San Antonio to stay with her for a week to keep watch over her. She’d spent a couple of weeks in the hospital suffering pneumonia and was advised to give up her habit.
I sat with her at the kitchen table where she used to chain smoke Virginia Slims watching her replace her old habit with new breathing treatments that would help strengthen her lungs. She carried her “bong” with her everywhere we went that week. We steered the wheel when she needed to take a hit while driving. We all giggled. She stayed up late with us when she couldn’t sleep through those nights, the three us snuggling on her couch eating ice cream and watching old episodes of Saturday Night Live on Comedy Central.
That week I checked her bathroom drawers for cigarettes. I snooped through her purse. I peeped the glove compartment in her car. Nothing.
On the night after she died, my brother and I sat in our mother’s kitchen making a slideshow of photos for her wake and listening to a playlist I’d compiled to accompany it. We were all exhausted and as the night wore on, Evan and I would exchange the jokes we’d been relying on all week to get us through the hard parts. We giggled together and that’s when my mother said, “She was always in on your jokes,” and suddenly I felt overwhelmed with sorrow.
We went to the hospital every day to sit with her, to hold her hand, to recount for her the stories of our life together. She always loved that. Over the past decade, she and I didn’t cover new ground so much as trade stories. Maybe it helped her forget about the oxygen tank that now served as her life-prolonging constant companion. Maybe it was a way for her to hold on to better times. Maybe there was a gulf of pain between us and neither of us had the time or lung capacity for deep dives into emotional trenches.
She used to ask my mom why her own husband ignored her. She’d cry when he’d hang up on her, become frustrated when he’d make her run errands for things he was completely capable of doing himself. I’ll never understand the intricacies of their relationship, but I’ll never forget what happened when I defended her.
She’d woken me at 4:30 AM to tell me I couldn’t stay, that I was no longer welcome in her home, that she was sorry, but I had to leave right then. She’d already packed my bag. She was crying. I stopped for coffee at a gas station. I called my mom. I didn’t see her or speak to her for several years.
Families have funny ways of defending bad behavior in favor of maintaining a status quo, sometimes to the detriment of the person they were trying to protect in the first place. Sometimes I can’t help but wonder what her life might have been like had things gone differently.
She slowly became less mobile. In the last year of her life, she almost never left her home. I don’t like to imagine how alone she must have felt, how scared she must have been. How she lowered herself into her bed while the sun was still up, how a woman who’d been the life of the party had become beholden to an internet connection to stay social.
I last saw her in November. We’d gone over photos from my wedding. She said I’d never looked happier. My mom made her a cheese sandwich. She fed it to her dog. Before I left for San Jose, I’d meant to pay her one last visit. I never did.
On the day I wished could’ve been her last, she asked me to sit with her a little longer. We sat quietly, the morphine already taking hold of her. For a moment she looked into my eyes and I could see her again. She told me she loved me. I told her I loved her. She kissed me and I said goodbye. She gave my brother the peace sign and we said we’d be back the next day, and we were, but there was no way she could’ve known it and I can’t get the final image I have of her out of my mind so I won’t describe it here in the hope that someday I might forget altogether.
It’s been nearly a month since my aunt died and few nights have gone by that I don’t dream of her. I’ve never dreamt of anyone the way I’m dreaming of her now. She is young again, wearing her neon pink tank top. She smiles and I begin to panic without the words for the stories we didn’t get the chance to tell.