“Waiting for Death” Club

“I’ll see you tomorrow at 2pm,” my father tells me, “but you never know what can happen. I keep waiting for the phone to ring and for him to tell me she’s dead.”

My father is waiting for his sister to die. Her son is waiting for his mother to die. I am waiting for my aunt to die.

You know the anticipation and anxiety with which you await a new baby? There is pure joy in imagining all the hope and possibility and light which will flourish and radiate upon a family which the baby is bestowed. Waiting for death is the complete antithesis to this. It is a harsh dichotomy of emotions experienced at once; sweet and bitter instantaneously on your taste buds. How could you want death to come and sweep this precious, important human into the dark? How could you wish for her to go to sleep and take one last painful breath? How can your brain contemplate such ugliness, yet still not want the day to come? Because even though she is a shell, she is still here to remind us of her life. Once she goes, she will become dust, a cloud, a mirage, a memory, which will get hazier as it drifts away.

“I have to call the cemetery,” my father says, and I think about his “things to do list” and my “exchange glass shower doors to Home Depot” and “mail Bryan’s baby gift” and even “fight with Lumber Liquidators” pales in comparison. How grateful I should feel for the privilege of another day of PAIN-FREE, boring, annoying errands.

Yesterday was my aunt’s 72nd birthday. She got 72 years, plus or minus a few days/weeks? A study found 14% of people over 60 die around their birthday. William Shakespeare died on his actual birthday (April 23rd) as did Ingrid Bergman (August 29th) and FDR (August 17th) but my aunt gets to see another day.

My father visited her and we had discussed whether or not he should actually bring a birthday card. “What the fuck do I write in a birthday card for my dying sister?” he asked me and I said, “Maybe no card.”

He went to her house after work (with a card) and he said she didn’t know if it was her birthday. She was in and out of restless sleep and he said she looked like a mummy, bones protruding through her white ashy skin. Her voice was barely audible and she was frustrated with the very fact that she’s still alive. Her son, who has been dutifully caring for her for the last five years, has transformed into her 24-hour palliative care nurse because she didn’t want a stranger caring for her and he honors her every wish.

My father sat beside the hospital bed in their small Brooklyn apartment and held her hand. “She was so cold,” he told me more than once. “I held her hand the whole time I was there so I could heat her up. You know how my hands are always so warm. She doesn’t eat anymore and won’t even sip water. We had to help her open her mouth to give her morphine through a medicine dropper. She fell asleep after 45 minutes and I tried to move my hand but she reached for it in her sleep. What was I supposed to do?”

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving. Last year I hosted the holiday at my house. It was the first and only time my aunt was in my new apartment. She looked good and we tried to linger in the savory moments, somehow knowing this was the last time we’d celebrate life as a family.

Our family sits in the shadows of this dark cloud, as we shift uncomfortably in our skins, waiting for death to claim her and incorporate her into the earth, into the atmosphere, where she will become a part of gazillions of particles. Though she may join a part of “the light” or dwell in some unfathomable realm we cannot understand, from our mortal view, it will seem she has been extinguished and we will miss her desperately for the rest of our days.

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