Many of you have heard me talk about my Aunt Susie before. Aunt Susie was my Grandma’s older sister and actually helped raise Grandma. And since Grandma raised me, I spent a lot of time with Aunt Susie, too.
Aunt Susie loved to sing and write silly songs and poems. (You may remember one of hers I featured back in Poetry Month.) When I was little, Aunt Susie’s husband, Uncle Paul, would often drive us to Susie and Grandma’s hometown which was four hours away. (Actually it’s three hours away, but not when he drove.) He only took back roads, and just because there was a speed limit did not mean one was required to actually drive that fast. It was just a “suggested” speed. Uncle Paul had been a Navy man and worked in the boiler room on a ship during WWII. Grandma said it was for this reason that he never used the air conditioning in his car or even allowed us to roll down the windows. (Yes, really!) (He also refused to ever turn on the radio because it was “distracting.”) I didn’t care why — We lived in Florida, and it was sweltering, and the car smelled of sweaty old people before we were halfway there, and it made me want to throw up, and I often did.
Once we got to Grandma and Susie’s childhood home, they’d talk and visit with the remaining siblings. (There were ten in all.) They’d also pick peas, string beans, persimmons, pecans and any other such produce that was growing on the old homestead. (I’d play with the cousins in the creek to cool off from the long, nauseating drive, and I’d pick and eat blackberries off the bush.)
So, on the way home, I could at least look forward to every thirty minutes or so, when Aunt Susie would momentarily put down her window so she could dump the ends of the beans she snapped in the car or the shells to the pecans she worked on. It was like heaven for that thirty seconds of wind blowing into the back seat, though it usually only reminded me of how miserable I was once the window went back up. And I’d cry and whine and puke some more. (Grandma was convinced that I purposefully threw up only to make Uncle Paul stop the car so I could get some fresh air. This was not the case, but at least it worked. However, I usually got spanked for causing the ruckus.)
Anyway, to try to take my mind off things, or perhaps only to drown out my cries of misery, Aunt Susie would sing her silly songs to me and attempt to coerce me into singing along. One of her favorite songs for us to sing, though it was not her own, was “You Are My Sunshine.”
Fast forward several years. When Aunt Susie got older, she got Alzheimer’s disease. Uncle Paul died, and Susie had to go live in an assisted living facility. She was there several years until she got really bad and they transferred her to a nursing home. Aunt Susie had only one child, a daughter, who lived in Texas. The daughter flew in when she had to make initial changes, but she otherwise left a lot of the day-to-day stuff up to Grandma (which I never though was fair because Grandma didn’t drive). So, that meant when I was younger, I usually accompanied Grandma and we took a cab (which I always hated and found incredibly embarrassing). And once I could drive, I was the chauffeur as Grandma liked to call me.
When I was in my early twenties, the nursing home called. They said Aunt Susie was “ready to die.” She’d been non-responsive and lethargic for days, and she could go at any time. They said if we wanted to say a final goodbye, we should get there soon.
So, I called my boss at home to explain why I wasn’t going to work that day. His wife answered, and I talked to her. She’d been a head nurse at a local hospital for several years, and she said that sometimes people hold on past the time they should die because they’re waiting for something. In this case, Susie was probably waiting to see her daughter one last time. My boss’ wife said that oftentimes you literally have to tell the person it’s okay to die.
As I drove Grandma to the nursing home, I explained everything my boss’ wife had said. We were both furious that the daughter didn’t come in when we called her but rather said to call her after Susie was gone. Looking back, I guess she couldn’t get off work twice; or maybe that’s just giving her the benefit of the doubt. Anyway, it doesn’t matter. Grandma said there was no way she could tell her sister to die.
When we got there, Susie looked like she was asleep with her eyes partially open. If her breathing wasn’t so labored, I’d have thought she was already dead. We held her hand and talked to her, but she didn’t move a muscle. The nurse said she’d been like that for about three days.
I left Grandma alone with her for a couple of hours, and Grandma talked and wept a lot, reminiscing about their childhood. When I got back, Grandma said she couldn’t bear to leave and let her die alone. So I encouraged her to give Susie a little push. But Grandma said she couldn’t do it and asked me to.
So I handed my toddler son to Grandma, and I sat by Aunt Susie’s bed. I held her hand and said, “Aunt Susie, you don’t have to wait here any longer. Everyone is waiting for you up in Heaven. Uncle Paul is there and so is your Mama and Papa and … [I named all her brothers and sisters that had already passed away.]” Then I said, “Remember when we’d drive to your childhood home and you could always smell the pine trees and it smelled like home, and you said that’s how you knew we were getting close? Well it smells like pine trees in Heaven, too, and all the angels are there waiting for you to sing with them. Remember when we used to sing?” Then I started singing “You Are My Sunshine.”
As I sang, Aunt Susie’s eyes opened wide. She turned her head and looked straight at me, then struggled to sit up. I kept singing, and she made some gurgling noises. Grandma stepped out and flagged down a nurse who then stepped in behind me. I kept singing, and Aunt Susie kept gurgling. I stopped singing momentarily and said, “You don’t have to stay here. We’ll all see you again soon enough.” Then I started singing again. Aunt Susie just stared at me and made gurgling sounds, and tears streamed down her cheeks. Then, as the song ended, she gently laid back, closed her eyes and took her last breath.
It may sound like it was a hard moment for Grandma and me to witness, but it was actually very peaceful and I was honored to have been with her to help her along her journey. I left Grandma there to sit with her body for a while longer, and later that night, Grandma asked me to do that for her when the time came. And I will.
This concludes my “Goosebumps” theme for October. I hope I didn’t offend anyone or scare anyone away. And I hope you liked it better than last month’s “Games” theme.
Time to talk: Do you think Uncle Paul should’ve been arrested for not rolling down the windows? Do you think Grandma was mean to have spanked me for throwing up? Do you think Aunt Susie was littering when she threw out the ends of the beans or the pecan shells? Would you ever tell a loved one it was time to die? What story themes would you like to see me tell in November or December?