Carrying Aunt Karen Out

She helped bring him into the world. I thought it appropriate that he should help carry her out.

It is true. I wish I had pictures of my childless sister Karen as she stayed in the delivery room with me, making her usual jokes, and watching those machines to tell me when to push. The pictures were in my mind as I read all the machines she was hooked up to in her last weeks on this earth. What an honor it was to have her in the room helping me birth my son 21 years ago, and what an honor it was to sit with her in her final hours, and what an honor it was to see him carrying his Aunt Karen out.

I wanted to share some other things I observed while sitting in Karen’s hospital room with my sister Rita, brother Mike, sister-in-law Judith, niece Lovie, and in that last hour, our cousin Laura.

I have developed in the past few decades a distrust of those in the medical profession, but what I witnessed in that room gave me a glimmer of hope for that profession. With each of their visits they treated Karen with such respect. I watched them look at the machines, talk about the numbers, use all the big words, but then physically reach out to Karen and speak so tenderly. There were doctors who stopped in to check on Karen who had been with her for many years in this battle with her blood disorder. They showed me a wonderful blend of science and humanity. Often the nurses would reach out to lift Karen’s gown back up to her shoulders even after she was heavily sedated with either the oxygen mask or the tubes down her throat. They really cared about her dignity even in her condition. I pondered the contrast between this care for dignity and “the freedom” to show skin in the world outside that room.

I was raised in a very strong spiritual family who has always handled death in an emotionally and spiritually stable way. Along with the death of grandparents, we have lived through the loss of our youngest sibling at age 31, our dad at age 97, my daughter at 3 weeks (as well as other pre-birth losses amongst us), and all of our uncles and aunts and several cousins, and friends outside the family. I’m not saying it was not hard to watch Karen die — when they first unplugged all the machines that were keeping her breathing (as we had planned, so I knew it was coming) I let out a gasp which was followed by the tears and hugging of family in the room. When the monitor turned off because her heart had stopped beating, I felt mine would stop, too. She will be so missed, but she’s done with suffering, and we are secure in knowing she is in a better place, and we all imagined her being greeted by Dad and James and Grace and cousin Wanda and….

I realized also in this time what a difference my last years of studying Story has made in my spiritual stability, especially these past two years in the House of Humane Letters Fellowship. It is through the stories told in the literary tradition and being exposed to the thoughts of literary critics like Northrop Frye, C.S. Lewis, and Tolkien that I have come to believe more strongly in the transcendent, the unseen world. To be enchanted by story is to be granted a deeper insight into reality. I felt even more connected to my sister Karen because of her love for stories, and I’ve grown to appreciate the story-telling of her favorites like Andy Griffith, Perry Mason, and all the westerns, especially, of course, John Wayne. I could be at peace that it was Karen’s ‘time to go’ because I had watched her live life to the full here, and I’m confident in that ‘other world’ waiting for us. No, not back to Eden, but on to the New Jerusalem.

At Karen’s funeral I spoke about favorite memories from childhood to adulthood. Karen was there for me always, whether we were sharing that groovy basement bedroom or living across the country from each other. I read two poems from Karen’s favorite poet Emily Dickinson. (We got to visit Dickinson’s home in Amherst, MA together .) And then I sang Wonderful Words of Life, with many voices in the room joining me. (I realized some days later I had just done Story, Rhyme, & Song! How appropriate for Karen and for me.) I was blown away by some of the people that had travelled quite a distance to remember Karen with us. So many childhood memories with friends and cousins in the room. I felt like Karen was blessing me all over again when a mutual acquaintance, whom Karen had worked with locally in music and I had only met online, said to me, “You changed my life” (not in regards to music, but to educational philosophy). So many parts of my whole life came together in that room, and it was because of Karen.

If I can stop one heart from breaking,
I shall not live in vain;
If I can ease one life the aching,
Or cool one pain,
Or help one fainting robin
Unto his nest again,
I shall not live in vain.

Emily Dickinson

Sing them over again to me,
Wonderful words of life;
Let me more of their beauty see,
Wonderful words of life;
Words of life and beauty
Teach me faith and duty.
Beautiful words, wonderful words,
Wonderful words of life;
Beautiful words, wonderful words,
Wonderful words of life.

P. P. Bliss
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