Hawaii is the 50th state, and the only one my favorite aunt never visited. She'd made a project of bagging all 50, visiting some several times because she loved them — Colorado for its mountains, Maine for its rocky coast — and dipping into others just once for the sake of completion. A cruise with my grandparents gave her the elusive Alaska, and my last trip with her, the end of a long string that began when I finished high school, covered Minnesota and North Dakota, numbers 48 and 49.
For my aunt's 60th birthday in 2005, my mother and I planned to pool our frequent flyer miles and credit card points to give her number 50. And then Katrina swept New Orleans, displacing my aunt for several months. And then heart surgery. And bowel surgery. And so on, where partial convalescences were followed by infections, then by more procedures, then, finally, by a diagnosis of congestive heart failure and emphysema.
It's not accurate to say her death last Monday was sudden, or her decline fast. It was long and slow. We just didn't recognize it as such. We knew she wouldn't get better, but we thought, with the unquenchable optimism that is hard-coded into my family's genes, she might manage to hold her own. When her pulmonologist said there was nothing more he could do, we thought there was nothing more he could do, not that no more could be done.
But no more could be done, and finally we were told so in terms even we couldn't twist. Wait, that's not true; my grandmother, Pollyanna nonpareil, could. "She's not going to get any better" is how my grandmother told it. My mother, who heard the doctor say the very same words my grandmother heard, corrected her: "She's only going to get worse."
The palliative care doctor visited. My family looked into hospice care. But without any idea how long she had, without asking because we didn't want to know, the plan was for her to spend some time at my grandparents' house, which had become her home. We talked about a hospital bed for the house, a BiPAP machine, a night nurse. But my aunt died before any of it would become necessary.
She slept a lot those last few days, eased into rest by morphine. When she was awake, she wasn't always lucid. These weren't her last words, but they were the last that were reported to me: "I want to go home." And, "I want Ben's Social Security number."
That last may need explaining. Unmarried and childless, knowing she was on her own financially, she was practical about money. She spent carefully, and tried to teach us, her nieces and nephews, to do the same. Several years ago, to encourage us to save, she opened a bank account for every one of us under the age of 13. At Christmas and on birthdays, she made a celebratory deposit. A few days before she died, she wanted to do the same for Ben.
Charlie knew her, a little, but not as well as I'd wished. He won't remember the things she did for him — the book she made of family photos so he'd remember his faraway relatives, the monkey shoes she couldn't resist even though they were full price, the way she held him on her chest while he slept, humped round "like a bowling ball." And the baby shower! Before Charlie was born, she asked all her friends, whose kids she'd feted for years and who'd known me since I was a child, to attend a party at her house. Bring an unwrapped baby gift, she instructed them. At the party, she took pictures of each guest and gift. Then they wrapped the presents and she sent them, along with the photos, to me. (She included, naturally, a list of names and addresses, so that I could write thank-you notes. Dear J., Thank you for the adorable fleece suit, and for including the flask of vodka.) Charlie won't remember much, but I will. She loved him for himself, I know, but she also loved him for me.
And Ben. She would have loved him, too. The day before he was born, she entered the hospital for the last time. I called her from my room while Ben slept by my side. "My hospital sucks more than yours does," I said instead of hello, grouchy that my doctor had restricted my menu. "Doubt it," she said with a snort, with more serious things to resent. And then promptly instructed my mother to get me some flowers, "outrageous ones."
It was the last time I talked to her. Every other time I called she was sleeping. But then I didn't have much I wanted to say except You're not going to believe what Charlie said this morning — oh, my God, it was funny. And Ben is so soft that when I put my hand on his back it feels like my fingers are melting into him. And I wish my kids could know you. And Thank you so much. I've loved you.
I no longer thought we'd get to her 50th state, not after the last year and more. She was on oxygen full time, making air travel impossible. We'd thought of a cruise, but getting to the West Coast seemed an insurmountable problem. I did, however, think I'd see her again, and wanted to visit with Ben and Charlie as early as December. I even thought I'd go as recently as last week, when we knew she was dying but thought she could go home. When we didn't know how short a time was left.
Yet I didn't go to the memorial service. My mother told me firmly on the phone, "Don't even try to come," and her words felt like a blessing. I could have stood it, of course, the punishing three-leg trip with a newborn, the stress of a house full of people, the same black dress that I've worn too much in the space of barely a year. But I was relieved, indecently, not to, and grateful that the two people whose opinions matter most, my mother and my grandmother, understand.
This bereavement thing is messy. I've spent the last week trying not to think too much about it because I can't really afford to fall apart at the moment. So the grief leaks out around the edges, an ooze that escapes only while the children are asleep. The ongoing hilarity of Charlie and the unfolding wonder of Ben are enough to distract me during waking hours, mostly, but I don't know how long that will hold.
What I know from the last year is that the first few weeks are comparatively easy. When someone you love dies, the shock of it, the awfulness of a funeral, and the resulting scramble for equilibrium are all diverting in their own way. It's after that that things get really hard, the months where you don't have anything to do but figure out what life is going to look like without that person in it.
But I started this post wanting to talk about the trips. The coast of Maine. Rocky Mountain National Park. The Mall of America. The Carolinas and the Dakotas, North and South. Cheyenne, Wymoning. Walla Walla, Washington. The Columbia River Gorge. So many and not enough.
She'd call and say, for example, "So how about Oregon?" It was fine with me — it always was — so we'd choose a date and meet at the airport. For ten days or so we'd drive through whichever state we'd chosen, spending the days seeing the sights and the evenings lying on our hotel room beds watching television. (Like millions of Americans, I can tell you exactly where I was on September 11, 2001: the Tillamook cheese factory.)
For the first several years we traveled cheaply, taking an electric skillet and an ice chest along, shopping for groceries along the way and cooking them in our mom-and-pop motel room at night. Although in later years we opted for more luxurious digs, it is thanks to this early training that I can now steam a lobster almost anywhere. My apologies to the chambermaids all along the coast of Maine. Yes, that was tomalley on the sheets. If you didn't want your guests to cook crustaceans on the premises, you should have put up a sign.
I've been trying to write this for days but I am having trouble making those trips sound special enough. But I am realizing that I don't have to write about where we went or what we did, because in the end it doesn't matter. All those trips were — ha, all — was time spent with someone who always made me laugh, who thought I was funny, who would swerve as readily as I would to the side of the road, turning in where the sign said DUNE BUGGY RIDES. I chipped a tooth on the safety rail and had sand in my hair for days. It was years ago but I'm smiling as I type.
And crying. I mean, we weren't finished yet. I wasn't finished knowing her. My children hadn't even started. And even given everything we did, everywhere we went — Dollywood, Graceland, Heritage USA — as good as it all was, it feels so sadly incomplete.