Author's note: This is not how events unfolded in real life, but this is how I play them out in my head if I were able to be by my aunt's side during her final hour. There was no button for revisionist fiction but I suppose this is what you would consider this story. I didn't go far into details and certainly didn't touch on the decision to take my aunt off of life support because it wouldn't serve the story well. But I had this in my mind for days, and thought I better write it down so maybe I wouldn't be haunted by it any longer. I know healing will come, but it seems so far away.
As a four year old child I could remember walking down the silent corridors of Wyckoff Heights Hospital. I can’t remember the pictures on the wall, if there were any, but I do remember the shiny green tile floor under my sneakers as I made my way to one specific elevator. Perhaps it is some sort of poetic justice that now as a 36 year old I was once again walking such a path. Back then, as on this day, it was to see my Aunt Roe. Of course when I was four, my purpose was to see my Aunt at work. She was a hematology technologist, and a damn good one I might add; they had offered to make her supervisor several times but she had turned it down because she liked the safety of having a union behind her. There are only a few things I remember about when I was four, going to see my aunt at her job was one, and her torturing me with a particular Beatles song was another. This day however, was going to be the last time I walked down a hospital hallway to visit my aunt, for this day I had come to say goodbye.
I think I knew early on that my Aunt may not live to see this year through. Back in November of last year she had a stroke. She bounced back but I think it was the ringing of the final bell. I had wanted to move up to South Carolina, but I was told not to. Though I don’t know for certain, I think my mother had a lot of influence on that decision. Nonetheless, I was told to stay put in Florida and I feel I was robbed of a few memories during what would be my Aunt’s last year on Earth.
It didn’t matter, I thought as I shook away any anger or self-pity. It is what it is and here I was about to do the hardest thing I have ever done. I was about to say goodbye to the one and only person who had always been there for me in my life. It seemed sort of surreal as I made my way into ICU and towards the room where my Aunt lay.
I almost expected to be stopped by staff, to be told something like “only family members.” I had a response planned for that, but didn’t get the opportunity to use it. “She raised me,” I would’ve said proudly, but with tears in my eyes, “I am her child.” The last statement would’ve been more a dagger at my mother than anything else. I was emotional, but I remained calm.
I stood outside of the room. I don’t remember what the number was, but that really is important is it. I was glad that at least it was a private room. I took a deep breath and ran my thumb and forefinger across my eyes to remove the tears. The papers were already signed to remove my aunt from life support, another decision by my mother that I will add to the top of the list of reasons of why I can’t stand her, and now it was only a matter of time. The priest had read her last rites the night prior which I found quite hypocritical; the church had excommunicated her before I was born, but I guess in the end they were willing to forgive her of her sins. I pushed down on the hook like handle and opened the door.
I was quiet, and I didn’t think that my Aunt would’ve heard me as I walked in. It wasn’t expected that I would be there. But slowly, as if we great difficulty, she turned her head from gazing out the hospital window and looked directly at me. Her face was very thin, but free of any pain. The IV that was hooked up to her arm fed her some pain killer and that was all. But as soon as she saw me, I knew she still had control of her faculties and she smiled.
I almost broke down right then and there into a sobbing pile, but I held my composure as best I could. I could feel the tear running down my the side of my face, though I wish I were stronger.
“Hi Keith,” my Aunt said barely above a whisper. It was evident that her strength was waning.
I managed a meager smile as I looked toward the heart rate monitor that was steadily beeping every few moments. “Hi Aunt Roe,” I choked out of the words. “How are you doing?”
It was a stupid question I know, but what else was I going to say.
“Not too good,” my aunt admitted freely.
“I know,” I said as I took a deep breath once again and steadied myself. “That’s why I’m here.”
It looked like my aunt tried to nod, but it was barely noticeable as she made the bed rise further into a seated position. “I’m glad you came,” she said. “There’s no one I want more by my side at this time than you.”
“I thought it fitting,” I said as I sat down in a chair that was next to the bed. “You have always been there for me throughout my life, I should be here for you…” I couldn’t bring myself to finish the statement.
My Aunt placed her hand on top of mine. “It’ll be okay. Grandpa and Aunt Catherine and Paul are all waiting for me.”
“Let them wait just a little while longer,” I managed to say. “I won’t keep you long.”
My aunt patted my hand softly. “It seems that for the longest time life has conspired to keep us apart,” she said in a raspy halted manner. “But you’re here now, that’s all I need to know.”
“We were separated by distance, but you have always been close to me.”
My aunt smiled. “And you have always been close to me as well. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think of you.”
I knew she was telling me the truth. Her statement brought me both joy, because I knew that no matter where I was or how bad things got, she was with me, and it brought me utter sorrow, because I knew that in a little while that comfort would end. “And I will continue to think of you all the days I have left.”
“I know. I did my best to love you as best as I could.”
“You did a wonderful job,” I said as brought her hand to my face and let her wipe away a tear.
“I loved you as if I had given birth to you, you know that don’t you?”
“I know. But how many times did I ask to call you mom and you told me no,” I said as I remembered countless Christmases and birthdays where I had bought her a “#1 mom” or “mother” charm, but never was allowed to address her as such.
“I did that out of a courtesy for my sister,” my aunt freely admitted. “But we both know I am your mother by deed, if not by title.”
“I suppose there is no greater title in my book than Aunt Roe. It supersedes mother any day of the week.”
“There’s one thing I was never able to figure out,” my aunt said calmly.
“Here’s your chance,” I tried to make it sound like a joke, but most likely failed.
“It’s about that thing you told me, about you being a girl a few years ago.”
“Oh that,” I said, hoping that my last moments with my aunt weren’t going to be an argument.
“Why did you wait so long to tell me?”
The question took me off guard. I was expecting a different track, one that perhaps I have heard before. I was expecting the bits about me being a wrestler or the question if maybe I were gay. “It’s not something that readily comes up in conversation.”
My aunt smiled once again. “Part of me suspected it when you were little.”
“Why didn’t you say something?”
“It’s not something that readily comes up in conversation,” my aunt shot my own words back at me.
“But how did you know?”
“A mother knows,” my aunt said wryly. “Sometimes it was the way you walked or the way you stood. At times I could’ve sworn that I was looking at a short haired little girl. But I thought maybe that you had those mannerisms because it was just us and that maybe you were picking up on my habits because you had no one else to model after.”
“So I stood like a girl,” I did my best to mock offense.
“It was more than that, it was also the way you would cry at movies or pout or a dozen other things. I just didn’t know that on the inside you were having such a conflict. I’m sorry. If I would’ve known about how you felt about yourself on the inside, maybe I wouldn’t have tried to correct you so sternly. I just wanted you to grow up being the best you that you could be.”
“You have nothing to be sorry for. We did the best we could.”
“I know you told me the name you picked out. What was it again, Kathy?”
“Katie,” I said softly
“That’s right, so close to your other Aunt’s name. You could’ve picked something closer to Rosalie, you know?”
“I picked Katie because it started with a K and so does Keith.”
“It doesn’t matter, Katie, it’s your name, and who am I to judge.”
The tears streamed down my face. “You’re Aunt Roe, you have every right.”
“I never did see you in a dress. I never found you hiding clothes anywhere.”
I could tell my aunt was probing. “I only have dressed up a few times. When I was little it was in your things. Kind of sad that when I was 13 we were the same size.”
“I just wanted you to know, Keith, Katie, the I love you for who you are, not what gender you are.”
“Do you have to go?” I said, knowing what my aunt was implying.
“It’s time, my child.”
“I’m looking through you,” my aunt started singing in halted breath the same song she sang when I was little. “Where did you go?”
“I’m right here, Aunt Roe,” I replied the same way I did when I was four. “Right in front of you.”
“I thought I knew you, what did I know?”
“You know me, Aunt Roe, it’s Keith.”
“You mean Katie,” my aunt smiled as the tears streamed down my face.
That seemed to make my aunt happy. “You sure are different, you have changed.”
“No I haven’t, I’ve been in the same clothes all day.”
“I thought I knew you, what was your name?”
I wanted to stop the tears from flowing but I couldn’t. “Don’t go,” I pleaded.
“It’s not my choice, but I will always be with you.”
“I love you,” I said through my tears.
“I love you too,” my aunt said and then closed her eyes. The hospital monitor let out a steady tone.
“I love you,” I said loudly as I wept and though I was heartbroken it comforted me that those were the last words we exchanged.
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