By Mary Grace Richardson, Co-editor
Purple stains had settled under her eyes. Her sharp cheekbones created small, shadowy caves on either side of her face.
“What’re you wearing?” she asked, her voice tremoring with a fragile and aged sweetness. I found it hard to put together that this was the same source of pointed slights and raucous cackle I had known all my life.
Since Thanksgiving my aunt had covered her head with tropical-patterned scarves. It didn’t matter if people saw her sickness in hospice, though. Sun from the open window glinted off the angles of her bare, smooth scalp. It was one of the first days of spring.
Her brown skin didn’t show her decline — actually, it was the opposite. A few months earlier my mother had told Hilary how strange it was; how her skin almost seemed to glow.
“It’s the chemo,” Hilary had said.
Before she was sick, her fifty-three years, as well as her thirty years of alcoholism, were apparent. Her bloated face blended into a thick neck. Crows feet were etched around her eyes.
But cancer smoothed out the lines, and her sparrow-thin neck could barely support the weight of her head.
My mother and I had been at hospice with her all day, waiting. There were hospital beds in each room, but everything else looked as pleasant as possible. Light yellow walls framed rooms with wooden chairs and a scattering of wicker baskets. Still, loss was woven into the fibrous blankets and the sheer curtains.
“What’re you wearing?” Hilary asked again.
I fingered the hem of my dress. The top was a soft white; at the waist it changed to a robin egg blue with small red rosebuds. I knew my voice was going to break. “This, Ho Ho?”
When my sister Ashley was little, her toddler mouth couldn’t form the words “Aunt Hilary,” and she called her “Ho Ho.” Then so did the rest of the cousins, and that’s how our aunt signed all of her cards to us. As teenagers my sister and I tried to call her Hilary — we thought we might have been too old to use the little name — but Hilary scolded us, saying we weren’t as grown up as we thought.
But back in hospice, my mother gently said with a soft smile, “No, honey,” in response to my question. She was composed and peaceful. I remember wishing my eyes were open and kind like hers instead of scrunched to hold back tears. I wished I could show Hilary the end she was coming to would be calm, not distressing. “I think she means this.”
My mother lightly touched the gold necklace I wore. The slender outline of a bird rested over the cotton ruffle scoop neck of my dress. Hilary had worn it when she was a girl and had given it to me for my eighteenth birthday. My aunt was pointing it out so I could tell her how much I appreciate it and her. When Hilary would do something nice, she was always sure to remind people of it — to have them acknowledge that she is good, despite those terrible nights, and generous even with her vicious drinking.
I told her how beautiful the necklace is, how lucky I am, how people tell me it’s gorgeous every time I wear it.
I wore the necklace every day, and I’m still not quite sure why. Was it a way to connect to her in a way I never could when face to face? Was it because it’s simple and lovely, something I craved, something I wanted for her and with her?
The nurse and my mother held Hilary on each side as she made her way to the bathroom. Hilary’s gown was tied too loosely in the back, revealing the knobs of her pelvic bone and the wavering of her thin legs.
An overworked and over-criticized college student, I’d been away for most of the time she’d been sick. I worked in the newsroom on campus, sending revised drafts to anxious copy editors and quarreling with graphic designers late into the nights that sometimes turned into mornings. To find out how Hilary was doing, I’d call my mom, who had catered to Hilary’s every reasonable and unreasonable need. She’d stay for every chemo treatment and apologize to the nurses for what Hilary said to them — what b-tches they were, how slow they were, what sl-ts they were. When they were back at home my mother would rinse trays of vomit, make injections, and then go out to pick up bottles of wine and liquor when Hilary pleaded for it.
I would listen, but I couldn’t take care of either of them. I also didn’t know how.
Six months earlier Hilary had been in the hospital for surgery. They opened her up and found she didn’t just have cancer — she was full of it. When I went to her bedside, her swollen, bandaged body was sleeping and still. My mother left to speak with a nurse, and it was just Hilary and me. Ridged tubes jutted out of her sides to suction out the excess liquids. They gurgled and sputtered. With every breath, I took in the sour smell of disinfectant and crust, and the nurse returned to see me crouched and sweating, about to faint.
But in hospice I stroked the top of Hilary’s petal fingers with my thumb and lightly massaged her palm, aware of her frail bones. What I wanted, though, was to grip her hand with everything I had to prove something, anything. How much I loved her, how much she meant to me, how difficult it had been to be close to her — not just while she was sick but my whole life. At this point I could do none of those things. I hadn’t given Hilary my time even when hers was running out.
She gasped. This is it, I thought. It wasn’t. She wheezed for another hour. At the thought of her niece’s suffocated whimper being the last thing she would hear, I stepped into the hallway and ducked into an empty room. It was decorated to look like the cozy living room of a happy family, and I appreciated that the nurses had tried.
My mother looked me over when I came back and told me I shouldn’t have to see this. It felt pathetic and true, that I wasn’t as grown up and strong as I thought I was. I don’t remember my last words to my aunt, but as I left I could hear my mother saying to her, “It’s okay, Hilary. You can let go. You don’t have to struggle. I’m right here.” I stood outside the door to hear her list, “Gran loves you. Mom loves you. Dad loves you. Ashley loves you. Mary Grace loves you. I love you.”
My mother told me later she stepped out to the patio soon after, and it was then that Hilary died. Alone, as if slipping through a rift.
“That often happens,” the nurse later said to us. “People don’t want to die with others watching. They want to hold on, not for themselves, but for you.”
Photo courtesy of Mary Grace Richardson