talitha cumi

My aunt Ann died last night at 8pm. She was 97 years old. She never had children and the only people she has recognized for the past few years were my mother, my grandmother and myself. She’s been in the Alzheimer’s unit for the better part of a decade. Unlike most people in her condition, however, Ann was cheerful, gentle, and concerned with the well-being of others. She was helpful, clearing and washing dishes after meals and looking out for her roommate. The nurses described her as a blessing, because she was the only resident in their experience who behaved in such a way. My great-grandmother died very young; my great-grandfather couldn’t care for my grandfather and his siblings so they ended up spending several years in an orphanage. I think Ann adjusted to communal living back then so the nursing home wasn’t actually too difficult an adjustment.

After she had moved into a retirement apartment but before she went to the Alzheimer’s wing, she gave me her diaries. There’s nothing scandalous in them; no accounts of wild parties with the Algonquin Round Table or binges with Zelda Fitzgerald. There is some priceless information in there, such as the name of the village in Poland that my grandfather’s family came from around a century ago. She wanted me to have them while she was still lucid; she had been noticing that she was losing the ability to write and wanted them to be safe. One of the last entrues is a large question mark.

Seventeen days ago she fell and broke her hip. The pain and fear overwhelmed her tenuous hold on herself and she no longer recognized anyone, did not know where she was or perhaps even who she was. She refused food and water. After the surgery they moved her to a hospice. I’ve been visiting her pretty regularly. I would sit and read the Gospels to her. I noticed when I talked or read aloud her breathing would calm and her face would relax. Earlier this week she moved her head towards me and opened her eyes a bit. It was when I was reading Mark to her and Jesus raises a little girl from what seems to be death. It’s a strange passage to me because it says ‘and he said ‘talitha cumi’, which is to say, ‘arise maiden’. It seems odd to me because the entire book is translated, but it seems that the Gospel writer went to some effort to make sure these actual Aramic words were preserved. In any case, it was when I said these words that she stirred, and her face, which had until that moment been mask of pain and fear, relaxed.

I felt great relief when I got the phone call last night. The suffering she has endured is over. It’s been weighing on my mother and grandmother, and that has worried me more than anything. The three of us spent Thursday afternoon there and they got a chance to say goodbye. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the humbling compassion of the nurses and aides who do the necessary and difficult work of being hospice caregivers. On a dark winter nights when the world outside was celebrating I watched nurses take the time to gently explain what and why they were doing to my aunt, who very likely was utterly uncomprehending. The lovingkindness this stranger demonstrated to her was a tremendous comfort for me.

I understand the complicated questions of euthanasia more clearly. While I can’t say that starving in a bed while waiting for one’s heart to give out is the kind of death one would hope for, neither can I say that I would have wanted an anonymous functionary to inject her with a lethal dose as part of their scheduled duties, even if they did have the vaunted title of ‘doctor’. She may well have wished for such an intervention but we cannot inflict that on someone who cannot consent. The only compassionate and ethical approach is to make a person as comfortable as possible and let them know that they are not alone even if they have forgotten everything and everyone including themselves.

My aunt led a long life filled with much joy. She lived simply and was generous and kind to everyone she encountered. I loved her deeply and will miss my visits with her. The lessons she taught me have formed who I am as a person, and she will always be with me.

3 Responses to “talitha cumi”

  1. That is a good life… and to be able to leave her mark on the world in such a beautiful simple way is precious. Wishing you and your lovely family sympathy in your loss and also joy in the celebration of her life!

  2. Much love to you and your family. I knew how much you cared for her and her you. – Love, L

  3. Many sympathies…my own great-aunt died last Sunday, and while I didn’t know her very well she sort of observed me from afar with great interest.

    Obviously this is different, of course, but I echo the previous sentiments. We should all be so lucky to have as long and good a life as she did.

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