I look around the apartment, which I think is an absolute mess, and she must read my expression, because my aunt is good at reading people.
“Beck, it’s not a mess. There is a difference between being cluttered and being messy, and being messy is something that I’m not.” She dumps the contents of dinner onto the wooden table and I hear the box of pasta rattle.
Looking back on it, she was right. Her apartment was never messy, just extremely cluttered. There were bins of jewelry, tiny bracelets and beaded necklaces, flowered hairclips, and heart-shaped lockets shoved in tiny jewelry box drawers. There were cardboard boxes piled on top of each other in stacks taller than I was, filled with childhood gaming systems, old CD’s, and picture frames all collecting dust. There were boxes like this, different shapes and colors that filled the bottom half of her apartment, except for the tiny path that she created to the staircase, that was worn and wobbly underneath footsteps. The tiny kitchen, the even smaller bathroom, and the single bedroom were at the top of the stairs along with the living room with the mismatched furniture. The clutter, I knew, was what she would be selling at auctions and yard sales; it’s how she paid for most of her rent.
“Anyway, I have a saddle down there that I would like to sell. I looked it up—I can get some decent money for it.”
I look at her pictures that cover the white fridge, held not by magnets but by tape. Some are peaceful scenes filled with prayers in cursive letters, important numbers scribbled in handwriting I can’t read, but most are pictures of friends and family.
“Hey, where the hell am I?” I ask.
She’s kneeling on the tan tile looking for a pot in one of the bottom drawers, which she grabs and places on the stove.
“You’re on the side of the refrigerator,” she says, and points to a much younger version of myself.
The picture is faded and slightly torn at the edges. I must’ve been in elementary school, maybe second grade, wearing a purple top with intricate beading. I’m laughing in the picture as I pose with the green garland, the faint twinkling of white Christmas lights in the background.
“Isn’t this the year you had that god-awful cat?”
She throws her head back, laughing loudly, her caramel hair falling to her back. “None of you liked that cat, did you?”
“It sucked,” I say as I grab a seat and watch her cook.
I’m nervous for the conversation to end, to start talking about more serious things, like her voicemail she left me right before she was about to go into the doctor’s office where they would tell her she had stage four liver cancer. It’s late in July; the summer is ending soon. I’m afraid to leave her to return back to school. I make a silent promise to myself that whenever I get the chance to go home, I will spend that time with her. I will soak up the conversations we’d have. She’s taught me how to be a good person, and without her, I don’t think I would know how.
She takes me out of my thoughts. “Smelling food is almost as good as eating it, you know.”
“I just hate the clean up after. Who actually has the time for that?”
I researched that summer. I learned that a liver is typically the size of a football, and it’s an important organ, transporting bile throughout the body. I learned that her cancer was in her liver ducts. I learned just how important a liver duct was, what it did. How the doctors wouldn’t be able to perform radiation, because they couldn’t get inside the liver duct. She would have to have chemotherapy, two weeks on and one week off. She would be getting one of the strongest concoction of drugs that doctors could possible administer, for as long as she could handle it.
Yet, even after I learned all of this, I don’t think anyone realized just yet how sick my aunt was. Maybe we were all in denial. We just knew she was sick enough to lose her hair from chemo treatments and would potentially have to move in with someone. The doctors eventually told her that having cancer and living in a place by yourself was dangerous, especially a place with such steep steps, and shitty ones for that matter. But we continued to eat our dinner, because there was nothing we could do to stop the growing masses that were found in her liver duct that would eventually spread to other areas of her body. She had already stopped drinking years ago, but the damage to her liver was done. We continued to tap the bottom of the Parmesan bottle that poured more cheese on our pasta because she would need her strength anyway. And before the sun set, I made her go outside with me and asked a neighbor to take our picture just in case I needed memories in my hands, something to remind me of the most warm-hearted person in my life.
“You told your doctor to fuck off?” I lean in forward. “What is wrong with you?” I slightly laugh as I raise my eyebrows.
She laughs. “He told me I can’t drink soda anymore.”
I roll my eyes and giggle. “Then don’t drink soda, you nut. He’s just trying to help. Most people try to befriend their doctors, you know? You’ve got a long journey ahead of you.”
I shift my legs in the booth so I’m sitting on top of my feet. I squeeze my lemon in my drink before my aunt can slap my wrist.
“They don’t wash their lemons here, most restaurants don’t. Your water is dirty, I’ll grab you a new one.”
As she goes to stand, she uses the edge of the table for support. She falters a bit, slightly swaying.
I shift in the booth, moving towards her.
“Don’t help me, I’m fine. I just get a little dizzy sometimes. Gotta give my body a little time to get used to all this chemo and stuff.”
She finally loosens her grip on the table and heads for the kitchen. She used to work at the restaurant before she got sick. She had to quit, though, before the cancer got too bad, the chemo too strong. We decided to eat here for the last meal we’d have together before I headed back to school.
“People with cancer can’t continue to work, especially around food. I can’t get sick in someone’s food, could you imagine?” She laughs at herself now, throwing back her caramel hair, and looks at me, eyes smiling.
I shake my head and slightly smile. I have no idea why she is laughing, but I hope I can pull from her strength.
We drive on a busy two-lane highway, and she turns up her Cher music, singing loudly to the song. I can’t help but shake my head. She is the only person I know who listens to Cher in a non-mocking way. We drive by a statue made of white marble with a tiny fence around it standing tall against the trees on the lawn of a church.
“Do you know who that is?” she asks as she points her slim finger with the bitten down nail towards the window. As she begins to explain, I zone out, and all I can think of is how I can jump that fence and run my fingers along the smooth surface.
“…I visited a minister in Philadelphia, this was years ago. He basically changed my life. He cured me in many ways, helped the cirrhosis for a while.”
I silently nod to myself, because I am unsure of what to say.
“I think I’m going to go visit him again. He’s pretty busy, though, but I figured maybe if I go on a day and a time where he might not be, I could talk to him again. Maybe he could help with all of this…” She waves her arms around, slightly spilling her to-go cup of coffee onto her seatbelt.
I bite the inside of my cheek this time and look down at the floor. I stare at the stack of CD’s crammed into thin slots; a stretched yellow rubber band holds the binder together. The hope in her voice is saddening. I find myself holding my breath, but I remember to tell myself to breathe.
I notice a pink binder on my dad’s desk when I return home from school over fall break. When I open it, there’s a stack of notes messily scribbled in his handwriting. Lists about all of the medicines my aunt is on, what they are for, when she takes them, and how much. There is also a list of emergency numbers, including a list of doctors and directions to different hospitals. Some of the documents I don’t understand. I try to piece together the big words but they don’t seem to make sense. There are disks, a lot of them, in little plastic covers tucked in a folder, and I think they’re copies of CT scans.
“I think you should make her a cover.”
I turn around to see my dad looking at me. I can’t read his expression.
He shows me the outside slip on the pink binder that is blank.
“You know, maybe you could customize it or something. I know she doesn’t like the color pink. So I’m sure she would really like that.”
I nod slowly and grab the computer chair sitting down.
“Yeah,” I say more silently now. “Okay.”
As he turns to walk out the door I call out after him. “Dad, what exactly is the binder for anyway? Doesn’t she already know all of this information?”
He’s silent for a moment and looks down at his feet. I look, too, but the answer isn’t there. “Your aunt forgot her name last week when she went to the hospital. She didn’t know what types of medicine she was on either. She got really upset. We just thought making a binder we can all carry around to doctor’s appointments would…” He trails off and breathes in heavily now.
I finish his sentence. “You made this to help make it easier.”
He gives me a slight smile and nods.
I turn back towards the computer while he leaves me alone. I stare at the screen unsure of where to begin. I clench my fingers into tight fists before unclenching and tapping each key. Each time I begin I end up hitting the delete button after, each time a little bit harder than the last.
I try to order a headscarf on line, but don’t know exactly where one buys a headscarf. I don’t really know what I am looking for or what a quality headscarf consists of. There are turbans and headscarves and chemo hats. My aunt doesn’t want to wear a wig; she told me over the phone the day before that they are too itchy. They are also very expensive. I joke that she can change her hairstyle whenever she wants. I also suggest a hat.
“Now when have you ever seen me wear a hat?”
She is right, I never have.
I scroll through website after website of hairless women wearing beautiful fabrics intricately tied at the ends to create different fashion statements. I stare at the colors on the screen and view different fabrics for so long I almost forget why I am looking. Almost. I try to picture what colors will look best on my aunt, which ones will match her eyes. But I can’t imagine her without hair; I can’t imagine her weak. I erase the searches from my history, and I turn the laptop off but don’t close it. I stare at my reflection on the blank screen and widen my eyes. I pull my hair back tightly with my hands and look at myself once more. I try to imagine what it would be like to lose my hair, to have strands come out gently in a hairbrush or with a squeeze from my hands. What would it feel like to have bald spots the sizes of quarters at first, manipulating hair, trying to hide the skin that felt so smooth to the touch? I wince. I push my messy hair back into my face quickly and snap the laptop shut.
All my endless hours searching the web for something that I thought could normalize the situation, make her feel better, wouldn’t matter. I never ordered a scarf; she never had enough chemo treatments to lose all her hair, which she kept tucked behind her ears in a loose but thin ponytail.
I knew it for a while, but I never said it out loud. It became more obvious and harder to ignore. She had missed a lot of treatments, either because she was too sick from the chemo the week before, or her blood levels were too low. The doctor woke her up after she fell asleep in one of the treatment rooms, an area of big comfy chairs, TV’s on every wall, little bags filled with liquids to stop the cancer from spreading transported into tiny tubes in the arms of others. I never knew rooms like this existed. I didn’t know what to expect. In hindsight, I don’t think I was prepared, but I’m still unsure of how someone prepares for something like this.
My aunt, clearly the sickest, could barely make eye contact with anyone. While others were listening to their iPods or were joking with the nurses, she couldn’t even walk up the stairs so we had to get a wheelchair and take her up by the elevator. I didn’t understand why they would put a chemo center on the second floor. She shook as she tried to support herself to stand up and out of the wheelchair and into the chemo chair. I had to explain to the nurses why we were so late. I sat in silence as the doctor explained to my aunt that she wouldn’t be receiving treatment today. Her face sunk and the lines deeply etched around her eyes fell a bit deeper, the creases around her mouth drooped lower. If she didn’t get the treatment, she wouldn’t become better. She knew this, too. She sat up, the fake leather from the seat made noises as she unstuck her diminishing thighs from its grip; she asked if there was anything else she could do. The doctor explained why she couldn’t receive treatment again, and I thought my aunt was going to cry. She leaned back and closed her eyes and let out a short breath. I should’ve said something then, tell him to stop talking, tell her it would get better, that she would get treatment next week and she would get stronger, but I didn’t. I think I failed that day; I didn’t try to protect her. Instead I ran my fingers through my hair and pulled little strands of split ends loose. I shook them to the ground.
“Can I have a blanket? My aunt says I can get them at the nurse’s station, but I’m not sure if that’s what she meant,” I tell one of the nurses.
I lay my palms, which are sweating, on the countertops in between laminated patient reminders. Lately, I haven’t been able to understand what she meant when she spoke. After learning her levels were too low again, I was told that she needed to come straight to the hospital for blood transfusions. When we arrive, the doctors ask for her name, but she just smiles and looks at me. I tell them all of the information that I know. Some questions are easier to answer than others. Sometimes I look at my aunt for help, but she is already asleep. I don’t think she will know anyway. I curse at myself for forgetting the binder.
“No she’s not really eating that much lately, but she likes to chew on ice. Yes, I know that’s unhealthy but at least she’s having something, right? I don’t know what medicines she has taken today. She has a port on the right side of her chest. I picked her up from her apartment in the morning, she called me in the middle of the night because she was unaware of the time, and she thought we missed the appointment. Cucumber water. Yes, I’m aware of how dangerous it is that she lives by herself. She doesn’t like doctors using it for anything other than treatments because it hurts. Yes, I get it; don’t tell me to calm down, it’s just been a long day. Can you just give her the fucking transfusions now? She’s dying.”
My aunt wakes when she hears my raised voice. She asks for a blanket. A simple yet honest request so modest I know it is something I can accomplish; yet, it is heartbreaking. I make a detour to the bathroom. There is no lid on the toilet seat so I half sit, half squat while putting my face into my hands. Silent tears drop on my forearms before I feel the burn in my throat from not allowing myself to make noise. As I stand, my feet tingle, and my knees are sore from being buckled for so long. I hear the bathroom door open and the sound of heels on the tile. I unlatch the stall door and go to the sink to wash my hands. A thin woman with dark features stares at me through the mirror, but she doesn’t say anything. In that moment, I hate the hospital: the stark walls, the beeping sounds every three seconds, the squeaking noises from doctors’ shoes, the rattling wheels from nurses’ equipment, the thin cotton separator between two single sized beds with uncomfortable plastic chairs for guests. Even here, in the midst of it all, you are supposed to have it all together.
As I walk down the grey hall, I stop when I see pictures of children’s drawings, children that are also located in the hospital. The paint dried curling the ends of the paper inwards. I flatten some of the drawings out with my hands, feeling the rough strokes of a paintbrush. Some are rainbows with little pots of gold; others are pictures of families and houses. One picture is of the beach, and I put my hands into the water and close both of my eyes, standing still for a minute. I imagine crinkling my toes in the sand, the warmth on my feet contrasting the cold of the ocean. How it will feel to be blinded by the sun, or hear the seagulls in search of food. In that moment I believe I am there, but then I remember to breathe and when I open my eyes, I slide my hands off of the painting and go back to find my aunt a blanket. I know she is cold. I learned that dying people get cold very easily.
I sit quietly as they give her the transfusion because when I return she’s sleeping again. It’ll take over two hours they said, because she needs two. I nod, but I grow bored and uncomfortable waiting. I feel rude. I take off my shoes and slip on my headphones. Yet each time I try to pick a song nothing relates, and I grow more frustrated. I breathe in heavily now, my back aching and my feet tingling with numbness. I stand and peer out the window. We are on the sixth floor; my aunt was strapped onto a transportable bed as soon as we arrived at the hospital. They were awaiting our arrival, which frightened but also reassured me.
“See, these people are going to help you,” I whisper into my aunt’s ear. But she didn’t smell of chestnuts and coffee beans, just burnt rubber. She didn’t react to what I was saying. I am not sure if she even hears me.
I look down at the tops of trees and people in such a rush. I feel like screaming at them, waking them up. They look so innocent down there.
“There’s sick people in here,” I want to yell. “There’s someone’s loved one in here.” But they will look at me like I’m crazy, the people down below, in a hurry to get to where they are going. I can only see the specks of their heads, the colors of their clothing. They might turn around if they hear me and just look up, stare at the wild girl in the window. Perhaps until they’re the ones staring down below, wanting to scream.
My aunt’s monitor continues to beep. I sit down on the floor this time, my back against the window, and fold my hands together, squeezing my palms until my fingers are slightly red. I can’t believe we’re here again. I am not naïve enough to think that cancer can’t happen to me or to my family. Sometimes bad things happen to good people, and even as I sit on the floor and rest my back against the cold glass, it doesn’t reassure me. It makes me feel worse.
“Turkey’s ready, are you coming out?” My dad tells me I should demand her to eat dinner with us, all of us. I think he fears that it will be her last. But seeing her laying peacefully, I debate waking her. When she doesn’t wake immediately, I shake her tiny wrist, the one with the wooden bracelet filled with dangling saints. I panic and shake her harder; I think I can hear her tiny bones rattling. I can see her eyeballs moving underneath the thin sheet of skin. She stirs slightly and blinks her hazel eyes looking for recognition.
“Turkey time,” I whisper now, as she reaches for my hand, hers cold and small, looking back, slightly yellow, the jaundice starting to peek through. She steadies herself slightly and leans up to step off the bed, but loses her balance and falls back onto the pillow. She stands up the second time, distributing her weight on my arms, which feels like nothing, slipping her swollen feet into her slippers, the only shoes that will fit. She gives me a slight smile, but no laugh. When she laughs now, there is no sound that comes out. Now I forget what it sounded like. When I’m lucky, sometimes I can remember. Sometimes.
She comes on a stretcher, the access straps hanging off the edge of the plastic. She weighs less than 100 pounds now. The EMTs transport her onto her hospital bed set up by hospice in the spare bedroom at my grandparent’s house. There is a window in her room. I enter the room and pull the shades open just in case she wants to look at the snow falling outside. She smiles when she sees me. She still knows who I am. I don’t know where to sit so I stand next to her bed and grab the railing and look down at her.
“Welcome home, pretty lady.”
It doesn’t take long before she falls asleep, exhausted from traveling. I walk outside on the porch without a jacket. I sit on the steps and feel the cold cement through my jeans. I want to be cold. My mother comes outside with a plate of food and places it next to me. Instead, I bite the inside of my cheeks, a bad habit my mother hates, but she doesn’t say anything.
“I’m glad you had the opportunity to come home.”
I nod now before leaning into her shoulder. “Me too. Me too.”
My mother has to return to work because she has already missed too many days. My father and my grandmother are running errands that need to be done. How the world doesn’t stop moving even when yours feels like it is. I move a folding chair into my aunt’s room. I wake when I hear the doorbell ring. My grandfather doesn’t want to be bothered with visitors so he locks himself in his room, pretending not to be home. He is tired of the constant commotion in the house. I welcome the guests and tell them my aunt is sleeping. I tell them to ask the nurse if they can wake her up. My aunt likes visitors, even if she can’t follow what they are saying. I fumble around the kitchen searching for plastic cups and paper plates. I know no one in my family wants to do the dishes.
“Hey miss, I’m going to need your help. I woke your aunt up. She needs her drugs. She’s in pain. Family members must administer the drugs. I cannot do it myself.”
I look at the nurse standing in the doorframe of the kitchen wondering exactly what we hired her for then. I pause, the crackers still in my hand and a plastic plate in the other.
“Um. I don’t know how to do that.” My hands are shaking now. “Let me, let me go get my grandfather.”
I hear my aunt’s soft moans from the hallway as I knock on my grandfather’s door. I think I hear the faint noise of a shower. I slowly walk back down the hall into my aunt’s room. She’s grinding her teeth together.
“I think he’s in the shower, I don’t really know. What would I have to do?” My eyes look over at my aunt.
The nurse pulls out the liquid drugs and shows me how to use the syringe to grab the liquid. She shows me the amount that I need. I kneel down next to my aunt’s bed. “Hey. The nurse says this is going to help, okay?” I pat her arm. The nurse tells me to administer the drugs underneath her tongue. She warns me to do this at a slow pace. My aunt is losing her ability to swallow. I didn’t know that was possible. I learn that the throat is a muscle. After I give her the drugs and wait for her to let it slide down her throat, I grab the room temperature water from her end table and slowly pour a tiny bit into her mouth. I watch as she slowly closes it. After, I grab a wet cloth and wipe the corners of her mouth. My aunt is looking at me now. She doesn’t smile, but I think she wants to. I remember the nurse told me what a good job I had done, but all I can do is stare at her shiny nametag as I walk away.
Our guests are staring at me when I come out. “She’s ready to see you now,” I tell them. I smile slightly and excuse myself to the porch.
It was heartbreaking, just as I assume it is whenever someone dies. I only drink coffee when I’m having a bad day, and sometimes that’s a couple of days in a row. I think about my aunt every Sunday, when I’m supposed to be at church. After she died, I attended church because I thought that would be the only way she could hear me. I always sat in the first pew, listening intently, although I never processed what the minister was saying. I wasn’t sure if I believed him. I pictured the tiny hymns on her fridge and wondered what happened to them, where those tiny pieces of advice that I so desperately needed went, yet I never asked about them. For a while when I closed my eyes, I couldn’t picture her being anything but sick, so I stopped trying to imagine, yet that didn’t stop me from trying to understand. I stopped trying to piece together my life so foolishly in church and eventually stopped going altogether. Soon after, I stopped cursing at her, and quickly after that I stopped talking to her altogether. I didn’t question my belief in God, and I didn’t question my religion. I just didn’t think about it at all, and I am okay with that.
What it did make me question was the ways in which I thought about someone, how the memories fade in some areas and sharpen around others. I questioned what it meant to matter to someone and how people measure this differently. I wondered how I could hold onto something so tightly, but even after I let it go, I could only remember bits and pieces. I distrusted my brain, the way it only remembers the little things it wants. The moments seem to blend together until I question whether or not they even happened at all. I questioned what it meant to miss someone. My aunt was the first person that I truly missed from the deepest center of my core, without being able to fill that abandonment. Her name, the one I scream in my nightmares I still have, where my roommates run to wake me up feeling the sweat on my shoulders, shaking me to life. Sometimes I believe it, that there’s little signs to show she’s with me. Other times I think it’s a figment of my imagination. Most days though, I think nothing at all. There will be no time when the empty void in the pit of my stomach can ever be filled; I will never be full again.