She didn’t ever say it. But I knew it was there.
I don’t know if my aunt ever once said she loved me. That’s because my family doesn’t do that kind of thing. And when I said it to her I could feel her discomfort. There was often a silence at the other end of the phone.
But it did not deter me, because I understand now the importance of expressing our feelings, and building relationships through them. I didn’t know it was the last time I’d talk to her, but the last time I talked to her was on the phone on her birthday. We had the kind of call you might like to have if it was the last one you’d ever have. Really. I am glad to say I was actually living my life as if it was her, or my, last day here! Yeah! I did a good thing! I called her because she was turning eighty and I had not been able to go down to see her as planned. She had a doctor’s visit scheduled that might have generated further tests, and given how poorly she’d been feeling it seemed best we wait. So we decided that instead of sit on her elevated patio and enjoy the view of her gorgeous roughly manicured gardens on a sunny fall day as we’d planned, we’d wait and see what came of the medical visits and then reschedule. I have to drive a few hours to get to her so it was just too unpredictable last Tuesday.
On her birthday phone call she said her CAT scan results weren’t very good. They were showing liver cancer. We talked about how she was being given different treatments and drugs to help the symptoms of fluid accumulation and pain. She was having significant trouble breathing and for weeks already she’d been saying that eating was difficult. Food wouldn’t stay down. She reported that as far as the pain went she couldn’t be more uncomfortable, yet, there she was talking to me on the phone, stoically reporting the grim news. She declared at the end of all are talk, “I can tell you this much, I am not in the mood to prolong death.” She’d seen my father suffer for weeks in a hospital bed, us kids running up to be with him hours away whenever we could, and she wanted none of that. I believed her, but I misjudged her.
She told me she was passing the Model A Ford project she’d worked on for a decade into capable hands, and that she was planning on thinking about other ways to move out of her life since this was a dire diagnosis. A biopsy in a few days would tell whether the liver cancer was a primary one, or related to the original breast cancer she suffered years ago, and that would be next Monday.
I told her how much I loved her. That she mattered to me and I was sorry she was suffering right now. She wouldn’t be inclined to say she loved me back, but I heard what she did say. She told me our friendship had been very nice. Doesn’t sound like much does it? I want to edit it and make it that she said our friendship was ‘fantastic’ and ‘really important’, honestly, the word ‘profound’ comes to mind, but she didn’t actually say that. She, being of solid family stock, did not risk such words. Doesn’t matter in the least because I felt how important our relationship was to her. I felt it when she called me wanting to know something difficult to ask, or at least difficult for her to ask, like how was it going with the family counselor we’d decided to see to help us figure out some issues. This is unheard of in our family on about three different levels, but she was terribly curious and wanted to know and risked asking me because she knew I would gladly tell her. She called for recipes (really, at nearly eighty she still wanted new recipes!), for questions on managing people who were difficult to manage, and on all kinds of things friends ask one another. But for her this was monumental I know. People with our genes are prohibited from acting like this, but she trusted me.
She wouldn’t hear of it when I told her I couldn’t afford another penny or ounce of effort on my husband’s part to move stuff out of my parent’s old homestead after they died, and that I was leaving the old family piano behind. She insisted on paying to have it moved professionally for me. She wanted it for me. She loved me and what I am doing with my family. She sees that I am doing it differently. She told me, on another random day not during this call, that she admired me for raising a family of decent people who love each other and want to be together. She said she loved being with us because we all got along so well, that our kids are respectful and fun and they talk, and participate, and we have a family feeling to us that she wished she’d been able to manage in her own family.
She didn’t say it but I could feel it. She loved me and my family. She herself had decided late in life to change the way she did things. She saw our family having fun and wanted to be part of it, so she joined in. She validated for me what I do with my kids and husband and life, and it is all the sweeter because she has stood witness to what I brought with me to my life and how I have improved on it greatly. She has been my witness to making changes that matter, that are hard, that are scary, that make a difference, and she has been my cheerleader as I forged ahead.
And now I miss her.
I told her I loved her, and her answer was that our friendship had been very nice. And she was precisely correct….it HAD been very nice. Coming from her I could ask for no more. These are glowing words of praise from a woman who doesn’t say, “I love you.”
Well next Monday, when the biopsy was to happen to tell us specifically what kind of liver cancer she had, never really came, because she died at 2am on Monday, apparently, sincerely and literally, “not in the mood to prolong death”.