Quiet these past few days. Sure, the rush of the holidays, garland-strung and wrapped in bows, but over it all . . .
Christmas Eve, my mother had just handed me a small gift bag, which I began to open before I was interrupted by a sound at the door I would have called a knock had it been softer and come with less urgency. It wasn’t, and it didn’t; we have a doorbell, but our nearly-midnight caller eschewed the chimes to pound on the door. The only people who knock like that are cops or panicked, and I’m not sure you want to see either on your doorstep on Christmas Eve at 11 at night.
I set the bag down and opened the door to find my uncle/neighbor on our porch, his eyes wide and startled and confused. He’s not really my uncle; I just grew up across the street from them, thirty years going now, and so I always called them my aunt and uncle. That was always just the way of things.
He didn’t ask for my mother; he demanded her.
My aunt had been sick for a long time, I knew. Cancer. Of the just about everything, I think. I’m not sure. I’d never asked for the details, but I knew it was going on years by now. It started before I left for California, but I’d thought it had gone into remission.
It had. Until it went into remission from remission. Came back with a vengeance, like it was indignant it had been beaten, however temporarily, and it intended to make up for lost time.
I got home a couple weeks ago, now. I’d planned to stop by to see them, but put it off; almost the holidays, I figured, and they were probably getting ready for the stress and festivities at the same time that my aunt was just trying to survive to see her daughter graduate from high school. It seemed doable, but only because her daughter is now a senior and will be graduating in a few months.
I got this information from my mother. My mother graduated from nursing school nearly two years ago now, and she’d been stopping by my aunt’s house fairly frequently, or as fairly frequently as my aunt chose to invite her. My aunt was a very private person, which my mom respected, but then, my mom was a nurse, which my aunt at times probably needed. She was a very sick woman, my mother had told me, but she seemed to be getting through, at least for now.
I figured I’d wait until a little after the New Year. Things die down a bit, you know? After the fuss and the stress, after the pecan balls and egg nog, after no one’s buying things to wrap anymore. When life got back to normal.
My uncle was demanding my mother because life was about to get to that singular point from which it doesn’t return to normal, if only because you realize normal’s different than you thought.
I turned around to grab my mother. I had been drinking, of course, its being Christmas Eve, but my uncle’s tone and my knowledge of the situation kicked me into full-on emergency mode. I got really, really calm as I took my mother’s hand, as I followed my uncle back across the street to his house. Along the way, he mumbled something about my aunt passing out, that they couldn’t rouse her.
A police cruiser pulled up as we crossed the street. My uncle paused as if uncertain, more like a full-body stutter than anything, before he gestured wildly and then continued on toward the house. I told the cop, as he stepped out of his car, that so far as I knew, my aunt was unconscious and unresponsive, then continued toward the house myself.
I don’t know why. My mom’s the nurse, not me. I guess I just wanted to be available to help, however I could, in however small a way.
I held their storm door open for the cop, who followed the noise toward the bathroom, where my aunt was unconscious. I don’t know; I never went that far. Instead, I pulled the mechanism that would hold the door open because, even as I’d walked in, another cruiser had pulled into my driveway and two more cops were crossing the street.
I only managed a step or two into the house. I didn’t know what I’d be able to do, if anything at all, and then I looked up the stairs to see their daughter descending the steps. Her mascara had already run, and she looked panicked and confused and like she didn’t understand. She seemed about to look toward the bathroom, but I reached out for her hand, and then suddenly she was hugging me tight and crying onto my shoulder. Which surprised me; I hadn’t seen her in years, and in the meantime she’d grown up. I just held her a moment, while she cried, and then I ushered her out of the house. I figured she didn’t need to see what they were doing, that we should just let the paramedics do their job, that they would let us know if we were needed for anything, and I hoped we weren’t, because she was crying and I wasn’t sure what further use I’d be, which was fine considering I figured I’d found use enough.
I stood with their daughter until other family members arrived; one of the better things about living in suburbia is that everyone’s a block and a half away, in some cases.
I stood and watched as they wheeled my aunt out. At least, I think it was my aunt. To be candid, I averted my eyes when I saw her partly clothed body, and even then, it really didn’t look like her.
One of the cops was a buddy of mine, guy I’d graduated high school with. He asked my aunt’s name, recorded it in a little notebook like a detective might use. I gave him the address, too, as if I didn’t realize he’d had to drive there, because I hadn’t.
I was still stunned. I was still hoping my aunt would pull through, still denying the reality of the situation, like maybe I could determine the outcome through sheer force of will alone, like if I just denied the possibility that my aunt might not make it, I could keep it from existing.
In a way, I don’t think I thought it did. In a way, I couldn’t believe she wouldn’t make it to her daughter’s graduation. Of course she would.
My mother was standing in the doorway still, her head against the jamb, crying. The cops told me I should maybe go comfort her. I nodded a little dumbly, and went and hugged her; by the time I led her back across the street, back home, the street was clear again. Like nothing had happened.
Before it all, I’d been drinking enough so as to be tipsy, if not loaded, but all that’ll sober you up quick. I poured another glass of wine as I sat down, still a little jarred, still a little shaken, mostly a little numb and uncertain.
My uncle called ten or fifteen minutes later to let us know that my aunt hadn’t made it.
Only ten minutes away from Christmas.
She didn’t make it to see her daughter graduate, but she spent her final moments with her, so that must count for something, I think.
Then again, it’s the kind of thing that makes you want to make sure everything counts for something.