Commentary: What Can I Do?

Buffalo, NY – "She has about two hours," the nurse told us, gently nodding toward my Great Aunt Tom. "You can tell because her legs are turning purple. It's the circulation. The hospice nurse will be here in a bit to talk with you." My husband Mark, one-year-old daughter, and I had stopped to see my aunt on our way home for Thanksgiving. Our little visit didn't seem so little anymore.

What can I do? How can I help? I held Aunt Tom's hand and stroked it with my thumb. I kissed her cheek, gently put my arms around her shoulders and hugged her. I stared at my aunt's face, trying to read what she would want to hear. She stayed still, even her eyes were still. I thought back to the stories she'd told me.

Oh, back when she was 16. Tom (really Edythe, but they called her Tom because she was a tomboy) had dropped out of high school. Her father told her that she needed a job. So she found one, as a hairdresser. On her first day, she dressed up fancy, just a teenager, ready to start this new career. Reaching for the bottle of permanent solution, Aunt Tom squirted it on the newly curlered head of her first customer. Squirt. Squirt. Squirt. She smelled something. A burning something. A burning something that smelled like hair. Would she try to quickly wash the hair? Nope. Would she ask for help? Nope. My Aunt Tom left those curlers in, walked out of the shop ever-so-calmly, and never went back. End of first job. Whenever she told this story, Aunt Tom's laughter would bounce off anyone in the room. I'd laugh so hard that I'd forget about the poor woman who'd probably lost her hair.

My Aunt. She was a flapper, a Hawaiian guitar player, a recipe inventor and cancer survivor who'd had double mastectomy years ago. "Cancer isn't that bad," she once told me. Until now, I thought.

What can I do? How can I help? The hospice nurse, all short hair and kindness, walked in quietly. She'd been here this morning and had put some makeup on Aunt Tom. I could see the traces of blush on her cheeks, powder on her forehead. I rushed at this nurse, asking my questions, "What can I do? How can I help?" This nurse knew. Unlike me, she had been here before.

"Just tell her that you love her. Tell her that you will remember her." I leaned over the bed, "Oh Aunt Tom. I love you so much. I'll remember and will keep telling your stories to little Hope here and the baby in me too. They'll know all about you. I'll tell them about how you and Uncle Jerry eloped and didn't tell your parents for a whole year. I'll tell them about how you used to read palms and analyze handwriting until you frightened yourself with your knowledge. I'll show them your drawings, and we'll read all of the poems that you collected."

What can I do? How can I help? I kept talking, so desperately wanting my aunt to know that it was okay, that she could die in peace. I tucked a piece of hair behind her ear. "You know, Aunt Tom, my mom, Debby, loves you so much. When she was a little girl, she adored coming over to your house to dress up in your makeup and jewelry. You were her favorite aunt. You're my favorite aunt." I told her. "Uncle Jerry will be so happy to see you in Heaven. You'll be together again, and we will remember you here. I promise. We won't forget." I watched my daughter wiggling around next to my aunt on the hospital bed, looking so alive. Aunt Tom looked straight ahead, no sign of having heard any of my words.

Finally my husband spoke. He, too, had been watching Hope play on the bed. Baby Hope, whose pictures Aunt Tom had shown to everyone she knew. "Aunt Tom," he paused. "Will you be Hope's guardian angel?"

In that moment, my dear aunt's eyes closed. She was gone. Her questions had been the same as mine, "What can I do? How can I help?" Now she had a plan.

Listener-Commentator Amy Ludwig VanDerwater is a writing teacher who lives in Holland.

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