Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Hay Fever

I am coughing.

I’ve been coughing since the July 4th weekend, and I can’t make it quit. One day, I had that little throat tickle that means your summer cold is about to arrive, and the next day I needed a little band of grade-school kids to follow me around saying, “Oooh, She POPPIN.!” Now it’s just this never ending, sinusy little cough and it’s driving me insane. We went to see Harry Potter over the weekend and I was so nervous that I was going to be the annoying theatre cougher who ruins the movie for everyone, and then I had a realization.

I sound just like Aunt Marian.

Aunt Marian kept a case of what she called “the hay fever” through all four seasons, 365 days each year. I could sit in the balcony at church and hear her coughing into her Kleenex all through the service, and know the back corner was taken care of for another day. The coughing was kind of comforting from a distance, because you knew she was in the building, but from an up close and personal perspective, it embarrassed the fool out of me. No matter where we were, people were offering her water, cough drops and handkerchiefs, and she would just smile and wave them away as she got herself under control. Restaurants, movies, department stores…it didn’t matter where we were, there always seemed to be someone who looked ready to jump her with the Heimlich Maneuver at any second.

It drove me CRAZY. And until now I didn’t realize how much I have missed it.

I’m not sure when exactly it happened, but somewhere early in her series of stokes she lost the cough, along with everything else that followed: her independence, her driving, her speech and her memory, as if she was being chipped away piece-by-piece. She was mostly confused, often ornery, and seemed to be stuck in Fayetteville, circa 1930. She loved to have visitors, but would get extremely frustrated with her inability to communicate and eventually tire herself out. The last time Pete and I were there, you could get the start of a sentence, with a patented AM catchphrase, “Well, I declare…” and then she would fade off to a soft whisper and we would ask her to repeat herself. But, then sometimes she was a pistol from the minute we walked in the door, adamant that she was going home – sometimes to her childhood home and sometimes to the home we have recently put up for sale – no matter that she could not drive, bathe herself, or move around without help.

And now she is gone.

I have been wondering for quite a while how I was going to handle this whole death thing. I’ve never lost anyone really close before, so I had figured she would be the first one. It’s not going particularly well, which I really find ridiculous especially taking into consideration the length of time we were given to prepare for this.

It’s not as though I don’t have any closure. I sat there at Hospice, both alone with her and beside the rest of the family, watching her fade away from us as we followed Lulu’s instruction that she not ever be left alone. Stubborn, determined Lulu, the most like Aunt Marian of all of us, was holding her hand when she died.

The memorial service captured her perfectly. The pastor, who knew her well and referred to her as “Aunt Marian” rather than “Mrs. Davis” talked about how much of a mother she was, although she had no children, and to me that was always her defining quality. When I was younger I always felt sorry for Aunt Marian, and once I asked her why she and Uncle Jack had never had children. Now I can see the flip side of the situation, and how she had the opportunity to be so important in the lives of so many more children – neighborhood children, church children, all of my Dad’s generation and their children – than she could have if she had been a parent, which is something I am starting to think is a superlative choice.

Now it’s been almost two months, and I think the old bird is haunting me. I dream we are at her old beach house, and can’t get a dial tone on the pay phone she kept in the hallway and I can’t find any change. I keep buying strawberries and those 6-packs of yellow shortcakes rounds to make for dessert. I pore over her datebook from 1981 and call my parents to explain mysterious entries, and wonder how anyone could have that many luncheons. Last weekend I saw a locust, which I thought had all died off earlier this summer, and I laughed, thinking how much she hated locusts and how religiously she stomped them. Pete has caught me crying several times over old photo albums that are supposed to be in storage at my parents’ house.

And now I have this cough. This stupid, annoying, “Jamie, do you want some water?” hay-fever sounding cough.

I get it, old woman. I miss you, too.

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