Last night, we returned home from the college tours, and all the aunts had arrived in New York, all of them flying in for Aunt Winnie's birthday on Wednesday, she will be 93, all the aunts and my mother sitting around their oldest sister's hospital bed, deeply aware of the imminent goodbye. Aunt Winnie barely acknowledges them now, as if the effort is too great. Mostly she screws her eyes shut and sleeps furiously, curling closer and closer into herself, her knees bent almost to her chest, her arms crossed tightly, shutting out all the commotion, braced against her pain. When I walk in, though, and she hears my voice, she opens her eyes and stares at me, just stares steadily, a kind of waiting in the clear green depths of her pupils that makes me ache something fierce. I am the one she knows best now, me and my cousin, the poli sci professor who is her other power of attorney and health proxy. We have been the constants in her life these last few years, the ones she trusted to do for her. She trusts us still. She feels safe when either one of us is there. I feel both gratified and guilty about that. I told my husband, "I have been there for her, but I could have done better." And now the chance to do better at so many things is lost.
I stroke her hair, which she likes, and her eyelids flutter back closed and she drifts back to the internal landscape she mostly inhabits now, but she is less coiled, her limbs loosening slightly. The home attendant adjusts her dress, the pillows under her head, the large sponge booties on her feet. I feel such a rush of love for her, for the way she has cared for my aunt, for the way she cares for my mother when she is in my aunt's home, as she was this weekend while we walked around college campuses in another town.
My cousin, the poli sci professor, brought Aunt Winnie's daughter Pearl (not her real name) to visit last week. We asked her brother to allow her to come to the apartment despite the restraining order he has against her, with good cause. We didn't think we could live with ourselves if we didn't facilitate Pearl seeing her mother at least one more time before she dies. Pearl was well groomed that evening but still a little bit high, not enough to be slurring and stumbling, just enough to be loud and grandiose. She seemed not to notice her mother's recent precipitous decline, or rather, she didn't remark on it. Her mother did perk up in her presence, she snatched back some of her alertness it seemed, her eyes following Pearl's every movement, a habit of many decades of living with her unpredictable and addicted daughter, or maybe it was a mother's unquenchable love.
Last night, there was so much need. After Aunt Winnie slept off again, the needs of the other old folks asserted themselves, bags to be unpacked, beds to be made and turned down, meals to be prepared and laid out, dishes to wash and put away, baths to be had. My mother is 89, and the other two aunts who are in town for the week are also in their high eighties. They are frail, all of them, though greatly strengthened by one another. Still, when I was done with all the feeding and bathing and helping them get ready for bed, I fled to my own home, about to explode with tiredness. I walked into my bedroom where my husband was, and I sank into the chair and began to cry. "I am so tired," I whispered, and he said, "I know," which was the exact best thing for him to say, and right then, my daughter jumped up in the living room, calling, "Mama, you're home! I need a hug!" And I said, "Oh, baby, I need one, too," and she ran into my arms and we hugged each other tight, laughing and rocking from side to side, and I thought how blessed I am by all of it, surely I am the luckiest woman on earth.