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Auntie

I stand outside the hospital room, in the stillness of the ICU hallway. I always prepare myself for the silence; for the awkwardness of our one-sided conversations. Laryngeal cancer has taken Auntie Monica in bits and pieces. She fought until she was skin and bone, all the weight gone from her, then lost the battle and her vocal cords. She communicates by mouthing words and writing on a small notepad.

Most people don’t have the patience to wait for her to write a sentence anymore. She’s drained them of that politeness. She still has a sharp tongue, even if it’s now a voiceless whisper. Nobody is all black or all white, but my Aunt Monica has always existed in the greys. She dives deep into the shade. She dives deep into the bottle. Her excuses, always so well-thought out, are nonetheless empty and painful. None of that matters to me. She is my Auntie, my Godmother, and the blackest sheep our family could have.

I adore her.

I enter the chill hospital room, wondering how her ninety-five-pound frame could ever spark warmth inside. I wonder if there is even room for warmth, or if bad choices eventually wormed their way through the whole of her, leaving deep pockets of cold in her soul.

“Hey, Auntie Monica,” I pull up the blanket bunched at her feet. “You must be freezing.”

She shakes her head and grins at me wryly, holds out her dry, wrinkled hand to show the shakes. Once she had thick, shiny chestnut hair. Now it is dull brown wisps, greasily clinging to her head. She’s a skeleton, grasping for life.

The Cryptkeeper from that old show on HBO.

I push the terrible thought out of my mind.

WHY DID YOU BOTHER COMING IF YOU’RE EMPTY HANDED

she writes furiously, all-caps loud on her notepad and thrusts it in my face, which forces me to pull back. I find focus on her words, then shake my head.

“I know,” I softly say, holding my breath as I bend to kiss her sweating forehead. The sharp smell of her is rank in my nostrils, and I choke back a gag on the ripe scent of her death. “I can’t get you anything to drink, Auntie. You know that. I’d get in trouble. So would you.”

I’m fucking dying, she mouths, arguing her case.

“I’m not having this conversation about your drinking. Not again. Besides, I brought you a present,” I say, changing the subject, but there’s a tightness below my sternum that is starting to take root.

She glowers at me now, her chin thrust out in a picture of defiance. I imagine her as a teen, making that same face, and I am heartsick for her; for a life that was lived so needlessly hard.

Her mouth moves.

Bitch

“I’m not the bitch, you bitch,” I joke back. It feels hollow. “Seriously, what do you need?” I change the subject again, picking at a loose thread on her sheets as I study her gaunt face.

She is pale as an albino, and her medications make her dark pupils so large that they suck the cornflower blue out of her eyes. She coughs. It’s a wet, loose sound that comes out of the hole in her neck. She tries to keep it covered, but her hospital gown hangs low on her collarbone. I use that as my cue to take out her present. It’s a gauzy, flowy, bohemian scarf made of the colors of a Sonoran sunset, and I imagine it wrapping her in its warm embrace.

I love it thank you

she writes on her notepad, but her hand hovers over it, hesitating, as though thanks were something rusty. Shakily she winds the scarf around herself, then stops when she runs out of energy. I finish for her.

I don’t need anything just COMPANY!

she writes in answer to my earlier question. I sigh quietly, not wanting her to hear my frustration at the consequences of her choices. They’re hers to live with.

“I’m here,” I say gently, knowing her children will probably not come. I don’t blame them in any way. They’re wrung out with this long goodbye. She’s been lingering on the edge for a while.

I don’t need YOUR company, I WANT TO GET LAID I MEANT

she writes, then leans back on the pillow, laughing her silent, phlegmy cough-laugh.

I’M 47 NOT 87!!!

she boldly adds at the bottom of the page.

“You mean the stripper I ordered you didn’t show?” I play up a shocked expression, and that prompts a grotesque smile; her dentures are too big for her sunken face. She lost her teeth to the radiation. A tear stings the corner of my eye, and I quickly blink it away.

I SCARED HIM AWAY WHEN HE SAW ME

Scary isn’t the word. She’s skin and bones, with papery flesh, the kind you find in extremely old and incredibly sick people. Skin that makes people afraid to touch their loved ones, who then lose the comfort that comes with simple human contact.

“What an asshole. I’ll have to find him and kill him, then.”

I smile big as I say it, proud to be the baby grey sheep of the family. I existed in the greys and the bottle for a while. I shudder, glad to be free of that experiment.

I think of our grey-and-black statuses, and half-wonder if there are some who are just not built to forgive, because it means they’d have to say they were sorry.

Her loose cough returns, mixed with a laugh, and some phlegm flies out of her neck hole. I try to pretend I don’t notice. She adjusts the scarf. I wonder if she knows she’s septic now.

The last thing I say to her before I leave is the last thing I ever say to her.

“You know what’s funny? At any given moment, at least one person in the family is pissed at one of us. We should make it a drinking game.”

She fist-bumps me as she cough-laughs, so lightly I feel just a brush of cold knuckle. Then closes her eyes and in the space of a jagged breath, she’s asleep. I tuck her in tightly, hoping the pressure of the covers will feel like a hug.

Goodbye, Auntie.

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