I just got back from an unexpected trip to visit my family out West. Normally these are visits that I plan for and look forward to for months. This time there were literally days between needing the flight, booking the flight, and then taking the flight. My Aunt Anne was gravely ill.
My mother is one of eight children in a very close family; the kind of close where you need 20 tickets for every opening night, graduation, and significant milestone, because they are all going to be there. The kind of close with unwritten phone trees. The kind of close where you think you might go crazy if you don’t get just twelve seconds of alone time and when you do you wonder where everybody is. Very close.
Only…we live on the other side of the country. My mom left the West Coast when she was a young woman and planted new roots on the East Coast. I know it is hard for her; her brothers and sisters on one side of the country and her daughters and grandchildren on the other. What can you do except rack up frequent flier miles?
Aunt Anne posted on Facebook in early April that she hadn’t been feeling well and was sent home with a case of pneumonia and a prescription of antibiotics. About two weeks later, after no response to the antibiotics, she was admitted to the hospital for observation and more aggressive antibiotics. After an additional week of no response to treatment, we all began to get worried and the calls for prayers went out. The next day she was admitted to the ICU.
You know how providence sometimes gives you a leg up? When the call came in that her youngest sister was sick, Mom already had a ticket in her hand for home. Sometimes you get homesick for a reason – because home really needs you.
Testing, testing, testing…they thought it was this thing then they thought it was that. They tried all kinds of antibiotics. Nothing helped. In fact, after several weeks and well in to May, she began to decline. They transferred her to a hospital that could perform a lung biopsy. Initial results were inconclusive. They sent pieces of the sample to the top ten pulmonologists in the country. 8 came back inconclusive. 1 came back with a possible Hamman-Rich Syndrome diagnosis; a rare lung disease that manifests itself randomly during pneumonia and causes scar tissue to develop on the lungs preventing oxygen from being absorbed in to the body. Anne’s doctors decided to err on the side of caution and started her immediately on the treatment of massive amounts of steroids.
But, she was weak. She had been fighting to breath for over a month. They put her on a ventilator and a feeding tube; life support.
When my uncle sent for my sister and I, Aunt Anne’s oldest nieces, we didn’t know what to expect. Were we going there to say goodbye? Were we going there to be cheerleaders? Honestly, we were just happy to be going.
Days before our flight to the West we received the results from the 10th pulmonologist: Hamman-Rich Syndrome. This was bad news, but also good news; the treatment she was receiving was appropriate and already underway. The scar tissue on her lungs was minimal, so it was possible they had caught it in time. Also, she was responding well to the life support, breathing on her own up to an hour at a time and communicating with visitors.
My sister and I were giddy on our flight; we imagined sitting with Aunt Anne and telling her stories, reading her books, showing her pictures of our kids, and being with her as she recovered!
We got off the plane and met up with our cousin Ali, who had flown in shortly before us, and our Aunt Terri who picked us all up at the airport and gave us an update. The news was bad. Aunt Terri had been at Anne’s bedside all night. They had done another scan. The scarring on her lungs had spread; it was everywhere. They couldn’t fix it. They were waiting for us to say goodbye before they took her off of the life support.
We were stunned. We kept repeating ourselves, “How could this happen?” “When did this happen?” “But, how??”
We arrived at the hospital and they took us immediately to her room in ICU. She looked like a deflated version of herself; propped up in the hospital bed with so many tubes running in to her. Here’s the kicker: she looks like my mom. With freckles.
The whole family was there, with the exception of my mom. Mom had been fortunate enough to visit just the week before while Anne was still talking and laughing. When anyone said, “I’m sorry your mom couldn’t be here” I responded immediately with, “Don’t be. She was here when Anne could still talk with her and hug her. What could be better than that?” Honestly, I am a little jealous. I can still hear Aunt Anne’s voice and her laugh when I think of her, but I would have liked to have heard her one more time. I’m glad Mom has that.
We waited for a few hours for the priest to arrive and bless Anne. The family held hands all the way around her room, squeezed in to nooks and crannies. We told her we loved her. We told her it was ok.
But it’s not.
She’s too young for this. She’s only 57. Not even retired yet. She had plans.
After she was anointed and we prayed, the nurses came in and removed her life support tubes. They told us she would likely pass in a few minutes, but it could take up to an hour. The family stayed in the room or drifted in to the hallway. People took turns holding her hand and speaking to her. After 30 minutes some folks sought solace and chairs in the waiting area. After an hour people were stretching and pacing the hallways. After an hour and a half there were six people in the room with Anne; her husband, two nieces, a brother, a sister, and a sister-in-law.
Here is what I will always take with me: I was holding her hand when she passed. I had tucked a small, wooden cross in to her palm and wrapped her fingers around it. I held her hand, warm and soft, in both of mine. I hummed Amazing Grace quietly to myself and imagined her as I always do when I think of her; laughing out loud with her head thrown back. After I realized I’d suddenly forgotten all the words to Amazing Grace, I lifted her hand, bent down, and kissed the back of her hand. Moments later the nurse arrived to let us know that she had passed.
I took the cross from her palm and stroked her arm; still warm. How can she be gone if she still looks the same? Then two nurses physically confirmed what the machines already knew; she was gone.
I went in to the hallway and called my mom. I let her know what happened and that I had something I wanted to give her; the little cross she was holding when she passed.
Things happened immediately. Rosaries were removed gently from her body. Personal effects were gathered up. Family members moved down the hall to the waiting area. We all looked exhausted. Someone suggested pizza.
Do you know how weird it is to laugh over pizza with family members after hours of crying and watching a loved one die? It’s strange. But, somehow therapeutic. The world has shifted, but there is still pizza.
Aunt Anne was loud, bold, sometimes rude, always honest, generous, and – did I mention loud? She could start an argument like no one I’ve ever met – usually because she was at the heart of it. She didn’t have an emotion that she didn’t have passionately – she loved things or she hated them. She had many hot buttons, but her biggest was her family.
When you are one of eight kids you have to work hard to be noticed. You have to fight for space and attention. And if that’s not the reality, that’s certainly how Anne saw it. She could fire up that family like coals on dry grass. Sometimes in a roll your eyes sort of way. Sometimes in an awkward family Christmas sort of way. The thing is…everything will be quieter now. Too quiet.
Where’s our firecracker?