|Me & Jeanne (“Dino”) circa 1994.|
Christmas Eve, 1998 |Monessen, Pennsylvania
The huddle, comprised of siblings and cousins, sat perched in the hallway. The adults, our parents and grandparents, formed their own cohort around the fireplace. They had liquor, we had Legos.
Enter Jeanne dressed like heaven, in all white and gold from head to toe. “Out for a drink,” she was saying.
There was an uproar from the living room. We all wanted her to stay. She turned to her host of nieces and nephews, her son. Blowing one collective kiss across her audience, she resurrected Marilyn Monroe with her sultry tone, “Bye-bye, boys!” she said, waving at us, boys and girls alike. Then she turned and left into the winter night, leaving a chilly draft behind her to settle on our shoulders. It was the most glamorous thing I’d ever seen in all my seven years of living.
November 2012 | Virginia
Mommy burst into the house after my father who had taken a seat at the kitchen table. He sighed deeply and brought his hand to his temple.
“Darlings,” he said. Sharonia paused the TV. Daddy only called us “darlings” to preface something we he thought wouldn’t want to hear.
I have to appreciate my mother for her more direct approach. In moments like this one, I prefer to have the Band-Aid ripped off in one swift motion.
She rushed between the TV and us and dropped her work bags. Her hands flew to her hips, her neck snapped toward Daddy.
“Well, aren’t you gonna tell them?” she demanded. He was typically the bearer of bad news. She wasted no time. That neck snapped back toward us. “The cancer is back. It’s spread to her liver. There’s nothing they can do.”
She said more about grapefruits and options, and radiation, but I heard none of it. My aunt Dino was going to die.
November 2012 | Monessen, Pennsylvania
“I’m gonna die,” she said. She looked up from her plate. The spoons of the other restaurant patrons still clinked on the dishes around me, but aunt Dino’s was mid-air.
“Dino, don’t say that,” my mother scolded.
“I’m gonna die. I’m gonna die!” She stared directly ahead. I braced myself for her anxiety attack. “In a few months I won’t be here!” Her inner storm seemed to calm to a light rain. She turned to my sister and me. “I thought about that this afternoon but tried not to freak out because yence were still sleeping in the bed with me.” She lifted her spoon and continued eating.
Up until that day, I’d been harboring hope. We drove to Pennsylvania the day after my mother informed us that Jeanne would die. I tried to write her off. No more laughs, no more drinks at the bar, no more insane comments at all the wrong times. No more lazy weekends. I accepted her as dead as we made our way up through the mountains to Pennsylvania.
And then we got to her house and she doused me with a hope for which I still haven’t forgiven her. Though it had only been a few months since I’d last seen her, I expected a mangled and morphed version of my Jeanne. I expected her to be withered and worn and sad. Death sentences will do that to you. Instead, she had me doubled over, stomach knotted with laughter as she harassed me about some thing or other. She was dancing and yelling and putting on antics from the moment we walked in the door and I was stupidly hopeful that this was not the end.
Feb 1, 2013 | Monessen, Pennsylvania
Emeli Sande’s “Breaking the Law” reminded me of everything I wanted to but couldn’t do for my aunt. I was hopeless. I listened to it a minimum of four times a day between the months of December and February. I paused the song that day to join the conversation between Aunt Dino and Sharonia. We laughed about the time Aunt Dino shattered her boyfriend’s windshield. We ordered a pizza. We plotted a final midnight mission to slash that monkey’s tires and to egg the the home of the big-breasted woman he thought he was secretly seeing.
Feb 2, 2013 | Monessen, Pennsylvania
“I’m so happy,” she said. “I’m so happy.” Despite the blizzard, all of our family and friends came to out Dino’s to celebrate her 50th, and final, birthday. “I’m so happy,” she said as Mommy, Aunt Willie, Sharonia, and I tucked her into bed. “Im so happy.” I lay her blankets at her waist and produced a strawberry Eos lip balm from my pocket.
“Hm,” I said holding it out to her, “yours.” She’d been after my lip balm for weeks. She smiled her big Dino smile as she accepted her final birthday gift. That was the last time I saw her truly content with anything life had left to offer. That night, as I left the room, I snapped the last photo of the three sisters, forming their habitual triangle at the end of an eventful day.
March 2013| Monessen, Pennsylvania
We began the routine like any other Saturday. I flushed Jeanne’s ports with a saline solution and prepared her breakfast: half a bowl of cereal, a pill cocktail, and orange juice. Mommy had been in Pennsylvania caring for her sister for about three months straight now. On the weekends, we came up and I gave my mother a break.
“Did you ever think it would be this way?” Jeanne asked, her countenance too sunken and tired to handle anything but the truth, “You taking care of me like this?”
“No.” I lied, snapping a plastic bag through the air. I lay it in her lap in the event that she had to vomit, and cracked the door for an easy escape, in case I had to do the same. She stared at me.
“Well…yes. But…just not so soon.” I handed her the bowl of cereal. She took it dutifully and lifted her spoon. I leaned against her dresser, watching her struggle through the meal. I let my fat, hot tears fall loudly to the floor making dull, splatting sounds as they splashed against the tile. She handed me her bowl and we waited for the inevitable return of her breakfast.
March 9, 2013 | Monongahela Valley Hospital
She had freckles, perhaps a flaw in her mind, as she always covered them with foundation. They were majestic to me, often fading from black to brown when we weren’t looking. When the sand in her life’s hourglass was almost depleted, and her body morphed into an unrecognizable host of sickness and pain, Jeanne’s color-changing freckles stood firmly as the last physical reminder of my childhood belief that Aunt Dino was made of magic. If I couldn’t search her eyes to find old Aunt Dino through the exhaustion and pain, I’d look for her in her freckles. And there she would always be.
That day, as I studied the freckles in search of her, she took a deep breath, and, without opening her eyes, she spoke.
“Stop looking at me like that with them big eyes.” I offered a half grin. She was always making fun of Sharonia and me for our big “scary marble” eyes. There was a long stretch of silence. “I’m not going to die,” she declared as if this whole cancer thing was just a trial run and she’d decided death this way wasn’t for her. She would be dead in four weeks.
She shifted on the bed and opened her eyes. Reaching over the bed rail, she laid her hand on my arm.
“Yence are gonna keep me alive,” Aunt Dino said. “I’m gonna live on through you.”
March 2013| Monessen, Pennsylvania
“Don’t fall in love with a tiny dick. You’ll always be unhappy.” Aunt Dino said pointedly. Sharonia and I had become a file of sorts. Once she’d accepted that her impending death was very soon coming, Aunt Dino cracked us open and filled us with family knowledge, secrets, and advice. We made promises too.
“Take care of the family. Don’t let your Mom do it alone. She crazy as hell as it is.” We promised.
“Yence don’t let nothing come between you. Nothing.” We promised.
“Don’t stick around if the sex ain’t good.” We promised.
“When your mother trips or stubs her toe, think of me.” We laughed. Then we promised.
“Don’t let him touch if his hands ain’t washed!” We promised.
“Take good care of my son.” We promised.
March 26, 2013 |Monongahela Valley Hospital
“What do you want to do, Dino? We can’t keep going back and forth. You have to make a decision. What do you want to do!?” My uncle demanded. He was tired. We all were.
The decision was simple: fight a hopeless fight with the support of 1 out of 6 of your doctors or go home and die, as advised by 5 out of 6 of your doctors.
My mother stepped between them. “Dino what do you want to do?” She asked in a much more gentle manner than her brother’s.
So help me God, I will never forget this moment for the rest of my life. I will never forget the look on her face, the heavy, hopeless, befuddled, glassy stare. I will never forget the way her hands trembled in midair when she held her palms up to her siblings, up to God, up to anyone who could make this decision for her. I will never forget the red sweater, the black leather jacket, the silky bonnet. I will never forget the way she conveyed her dwindling will to fight and live for us and and her swelling desire to die in peace with just one sentence:
“I don’t know, Connie, I don’t know.”
April 2013 | Monessen, Pennsylvania
The tables turned after that night in March. Aunt Dino worsened and the decision was no longer hers, but Mommy’s and her brother’s. My mother summed up the complex difficulty during a necessary conversation the two of us had after we buried Aunt Dino: “How do I kill my baby sister, when her body is giving out, but her mind is still there? You know she’s suffering, but you also know she wants to live. My sister is still there! How do you do that? How do you make that decision to stop fighting for someone who has so much fight left in her mentally, but physically just can’t win? How?”
That night my mother asked me to promise to end it if things ever got that bad for her.
“Kill me,” she said, looking me straight in the eye. “Not for my benefit, for yours. You don’t ever want to suffer that way. I don’t want you to suffer that way. Its’s not good. I’m telling you right now, it’s okay, just let me go. Kill me.”
Saturday, April 6, 2013 | Monessen, Pennsylvania
Our last embraces were over a potty chair. The doctor said that in her final days she would be restless. She would wake up in the middle of the night. She might say she have to use the restroom. If she didn’t actually pee, but said she had to, the end was very near, the doctor told us.
I camped out on the couch across from her hospice bed setup in the living room. She woke up every 40 minutes-1 hour, trying to get out of bed. I would jump up and catch her, wrapping my arms around her, transferring her from the bed to the potty and wait for that golden sound that promised us a few more days. That night I opened my arms to transfer her back to her bed. There was a light dusting across her navy sheets.
“Hold up,” I said and sat her back down n the potty chair. She stood back up on her own with a sudden burst of energy and helped me brush away the dust.
“It’s my skin,” she said swiping at the sheet, “can you believe that?”
Sunday, April 7, 2013 | Monessen, Pennsylvania
I began to feel like the only one besides my mother who still treated Jeanne as a living being. Friends and family from near and far streamed in and out of her house, poring over her, to say goodbye to my now unresponsive Aunt Dino. The unexpected heatwave added an extra layer of oppression to the silent house.
When she stopped talking, I began. I rambled mostly, rattling off things I’d never told her. I told her I loved her.
“Would you like to go to California with me?” I asked that afternoon. Her eyes were wide open. I swore she nodded as she pushed shallow breaths through her teeth.
I took her hand and looked at the nails that I’d painted red for what I knew was the last time. I whispered in her ear, “I’ll take you with me everywhere I go. I’m going a lot of places, you know. I’m going to do something great.”
The first great thing on my agenda was to obtain my Bachelor’s degree. We were six weeks away from graduation and, because of my frequent travels and state of mind, I was technically failing. But, by the grace of God, I was allowed two weeks to make up exams, projects, and papers and I graduated cum laude with a 4.0 semester.
Something told me to say goodbye that day. I got the same feeling the night before my Gram died and blew her three kisses before ascending the stairs. That evening when we left for Virginia, I kissed Jeanne’s cheek when no one was looking and told her goodbye. We never said goodbye when we left Jeanne. Her anxiety had worsened in her final months and “goodbye” was a terrible trigger. I always told her I’d see her later. And every time I left, I told her when I’d return.
“I’ll be back on Friday,” I said in her ear.
Tuesday, April 9, 2013 | Virginia
I’ll always be angry with the movie The Best Man Holiday and the way it depicted death by cancer. They got it all wrong. Death is not fair game. Death is not winning the big Christmas game and coming home in time for a final kiss and cuddle. Death is going home to Virginia on Sunday, and her going home to heaven on Tuesday. Death isn’t an encouraging phone call from your loved one on their last day on earth. Death is being four hours away and getting the call from your mother that Dino will be gone in two. Death is having her ring on your thumb, her Bible by your bed, her pictures on your wall, her memory in your heart, and having none of it ever, ever be enough.
I wasn’t there when she died. I had to take that one up with God, asking Him why He thought it would be a good idea to let my mother go through that without us.
My mother compares it to watching the lights shut down in a skyscraper, one level at a time. She stood at the foot of her baby sister’s bed and tried to breathe for her as her lights went out one by one. Though cancer had diminished Jeanne’s dignity and diminished her weight, it could not take her spirit. In true Jeanne Reneé fashion, she went out with an audience. Mommy, Uncle Calvin, Lisa, Winnie, Leslie, LeeAnn, and two nurses all stood around her as she struggled her way out of this life. Her chest heaved its last breath, a final, rattling bow. The curtains of her eyes remained open. And that was it. Exit Jeanne, stage heaven.
April 15, 2013 | Monessen, Pennsylvania
I stood at the bottom of the hill arms linked with Sharonia and wondered if they really expected me to ascend the stairs and just move on with my life. Her death wasn’t real when my mother called. It wasn’t real when I collapsed in the shower that night, knocking off three firsts at once: sobbing in the shower, crying myself to sleep, and sleeping in a bathtub. It wasn’t real when Sharonia and I spoke at her funeral. But it was real as hell then. There was nothing more to do for her. No more meals to prepare, no more nurses to buzz, no more medication to organize, no more arrangements to make. Even after she’d died, there was a casket to select, an outfit to prepare, a message to deliver. But here, as Smokey Robinson’s “Really Gonna Miss You” concluded for the third time and some man in jeans began to pick up the boom box and other items left at the burial site, there was nothing left to do but let my Jeanne go. My parents, aunt, uncles, cousins, and what seemed like the whole town of Monessen, had gone up the hill to their cars. They really expect us to drop this ugly ass carnation over her white and gold casket and just peace out. Everything inside me screamed. I couldn’t just leave her there, in her pretty box, to be covered in dirt, rained on, snowed on, walked on. I physically could not. So we stood there, arm in arm, until my common sense convinced me that I could not go into that hole with her. I had to climb the hill. I had to go up from there.
June 5, 2015 | Virginia
I wrote her a poem in my journal last November, trying to place a little beauty in the bitterness in my heart:
I will miss you for the rest of my life.
Still I savor the stone of sadness in my stomach,
with bittersweet certainty
that it is here to stay.
Time is doing a terrible job of filling this void and healing this hurt. I’ve been back to Monessen twice since her death, once for a funeral and once for a family reunion. During neither trip did I stay more that 24 hours. Every hill, every corner store, every sign, and every rock reminds me of Jeanne.
I miss her. I miss our sing-offs. I miss calling her about trivial things. I miss how she used to cackle all the time when we talked and how funny she made me feel. I miss hearing her call me beautiful. I miss our prank wars: me putting a soapy dishrag in the water she was preparing for pasta, her cutting the lights out on me one night while I was bathing, me cutting the lights on when she tried to sneak her “secret” ugly boyfriend out of the house, her waiting for me to select the most perfect piece of watermelon and then taking a huge bite out of it. Some days it feels like lightyears since she’s been gone, others, mere minutes. I still have fits of fury when I’m splashed by the realization that my Jeanne is gone. Forever. She’ll never know my children, she’ll never get to live out her fantasy of ruining our wedding ceremonies. She’ll never convince my husband to stay far, far away. She is gone. Forever.
There’s always a heavy hurt that exchanges places with your loved ones when they leave you. They were here, now they aren’t. Hurt wasn’t here, now it is. That hurt will never leave you. It will not ever go away. But it might get off your back a little if you reconcile with it. Make a little space for it. Make a little peace. Sometimes, the first step to healing is to validate your pain. Let it know where it belongs, be it in your workout, in a song or in a three thousand word essay about the beautiful way in which your beautiful aunt lived and died. Acknowledge it, deal with it, and in my case, write it out.