Last week at this time, I was driving through snow with my dad and his wife en route to catch a plane to sunny Fort Myers, Florida. My refrain in telling people about my trip was that I would certainly have some fun in Florida but that I was going primarily to see my grandma's sister for the last time.
A survivor of esophageal cancer, Elaine found out last fall that cancer had developed in her lungs. At 90 years old and now less than 90 pounds, she decided to forgo rigorous treatments in favor of a daily chemo pill that (I'm guessing) slows down the cancer's growth.
The sun had just begun to set when we drove off in the rental car for an hour's drive further north. When I talked with her that evening, Elaine sounded good: "Stop in any time tomorrow," she invited.
Before the trip, I had heard from other relatives that Elaine tired easily and spent a lot of her day in bed, so I imagined that my normally bubbly and energetic great aunt would appear run-down and withered, bedridden yet stoic in experiencing her last months of life.
When we walked through the door, Elaine sat comfortably in her recliner, bright-eyed and smiling wide. During each of our several two-hour visits, Elaine entertained us, as usual, with colorful stories of her world travels, detailed memories of long-gone family members and interesting descriptions of her Florida neighborhood 50 years ago as it was being developed. I was eager and grateful to listen to Elaine’s tales, and I took many notes as we sat in her 80-degree living room.
Elaine turned 91 on the last full day of our visit. Surrounded by bright Mylar balloons, we sang "Happy Birthday" and ate frosting-smothered cake and vanilla ice cream together that evening before Elaine shooed us out the door for her own bedtime. That night's goodbye was no different than the one the night before. Except I know that was the last time I will have seen Elaine. Despite how great she sounds and how well her mind still works, the reality is that Elaine won’t likely live to hear "happy 92nd birthday."
Back in Minnesota, I've been reporting on Elaine's health and appearance to relatives here. Two days after we left Florida, we learned that Elaine had passed out in her bathroom, hitting her head as she fell. She got stitched up in the hospital and is back home again in her comfy recliner.
For as long as she's able, Elaine will continue to crochet row after colorful row making afghans to give away. One day, both her active mouth and her busy hands will lose momentum. She will, indeed, become bedridden as the cancer wears her down. One day Elaine will not want a scoop of ice cream or even a spoonful. She will fade away into the Florida sunset while our memory of this special lady will survive: on the handwritten pages of storied letters she sent across the country and in the hearts of those who love her.
We all need to let go of people we love, and I feel grateful that I was able to create a memorable "last goodbye" experience with Elaine and also with my grandpa. Do you have a "last goodbye" story to share? Share it here in a comment or via twitter.