On Giants' Shoulders

Thursday, January 03, 2008

The End of An Era

Yesterday at around 2:09 A.M. my husband's aunt died. She was 92 years old and had not been in good health for several years. It was not an unexpected death and she died peacefully at home surrounded by people who loved her, including an especially generous caregiver who offered to spend the night so that my sister-in-law wouldn't have to be there alone when Auntie died. So while death is always accompanied by sadness, as deaths go, this was a good one.

However, it is the end of an era for us. For the past 25 years or so we have been dealing with aging and ailing relatives. For me it actually went back even a little further since my own father was battling an illness that ultimately led to his death from the time I was around 18. Taking care of the elder generation has accompanied taking care of the younger one. Now that era is completely closed and, for better or worse, we are the elder generation. It's still a bit of a new thought that there is no one we need to be buying supplies for, being on call for, taking to the doctor's, etc. So much of the last few years have revolved around medical decisions, sitting in hospitals, reviewing once again the Church's teaching on death and dying.

It isn't that we won't face those decisions again, it's just that the next time it won't be with parents or closely related elders. I still have cousins and in-laws who have those decisions to face, but those elders live far from me, I'm not a part of the caregiving or the decision making.

It seemed Tuesday as though I were getting a glimpse of some of the next tasks. As my sister-in-law and the caregiver were dealing with Auntie and the visiting nurse, I was dealing with their grandchildren. A little girl of 6 years old was listening to the Christmas story in several versions, she began to learn to sing Immaculate Mary, we talked about it being the feast of the Mother of God. She's only started to go to church and Sunday School late this fall. She's longing for baptism and, other than her Sunday School teacher, I'm the person most involved in sharing the faith with her. I sang Immaculate Mary to her just because it was the feast of the Mother of God and we were reading Christmas stories. Learning the song was her idea. Of course the question of what Ave meant came up. That lead to my praying the Hail Mary with her for Auntie. We sang Immaculate Mary over and over, and then she decided that she wanted to sing it for Auntie. All of this (which ended up including a discussion of the Trinity and the fact that even Mary asked "how can this be") made for not only a diversion for a little girl in the midst of a difficult time, but a sense for me that this is in fact how life is. One person was departing this life, another was learning about our life in God.

Auntie spent nearly her whole working career as a secretary for the Vermont Conference of the United Church of Christ and it's former organization the Vermont Congregational Church. She loved God, was a deacon in her on congregation for a number of years and was one of the kindest people I've known. She never had children of her own. Consequently, my husband and his siblings were treated as the children she never had. Our children and my nieces and nephew were welcomed into her home, were given to generously, and loved her in return. My niece Amanda spent many hours in the past few years here in Vermont caring for Auntie with great love and affection. Auntie and I shared special hours when I was hospitalized before my daughter's birth. I was in Burlington where Auntie lived and each day at her lunch hour she would arrive at the hospital, complete with Scrabble board and we'd play Scrabble. Sometimes she was back in the evening as well. My husband and son stayed at her house on weekends so that they could visit me. Of course during all those Scrabble games Auntie and I learned a lot about each other as well. She'd had an interesting life (including being a captain in the Civil Air patrol and having a private pilot's license). We liked some of the same sorts of books, so buying books for her was fun for me. One of the last meaningful things I was able to do for her from my perspective was to read Melissa Wiley's books about Laura Ingalls Wilder's Scottish grandmother to her when she was in the hospital last spring. At that point the jokes in the book could still garner a smile. Later she seemed no longer able to concentrate well enough for books.

So, you see, it was fitting on Tuesday that I spent my time reading and talking about God with a little girl while this elderly woman whom she loved was dying in the next room. It was fitting that she learn a song that she could share with her. It was fitting that she learn a prayer to pray for her. It was a meaningful way for me to spend those hours. Later in the evening I was back again to sit and talk with people without the children there, but in the afternoon when we were dealing with medical personnel and procedures it was important that someone deal with a little girl and her even smaller brother. I felt very fortunate that I was the one who got to do that particular job. All of this elder care has never come easily for me. Kids, on the other hand, I've got a little bit of talent for. And sharing songs and stories with kids is probably the thing I'm the very best at.

There is a time and a season for everything under the sun and for us this seems to be a changing of seasons. Your prayers would be appreciated both for Auntie and for the rest of us (especially my sister-in-law whose life is about to change dramatically since Auntie was living with her).

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