I’ve spent the month bedside with my dying aunt because nothing says summer vacation like fighting hospital staff for more meds while your incredible shrinking aunt disappears into bed sheets writhing in pain.
There’s gotta be a better way.
When alone in the room, my aunt tells me how she wants me to kill her if I can’t get her more meds; use a pillow, whatever I can think of –you’re smart, you’ll think of something – because she can’t go one more day like this. She begs me to tell her the truth: was it like this for my dad (who suffered from the same genetic jackpot pancreatic cancer)?
“Kathy – you’ll do something about it, you promise?”
But when the nurses or attending or chief resident or mini-me itty-bitty-baby-baby doc rolls by on rounds, this is what she says:
“I’m beginning to feel slightly uncomfortable, about a 3 but I certainly do not want it to get to a 4,” she says smiling, with a little lipstick. Always with the lipstick.
This is not what she had just threatened me with, her hands squeezing mine, grasping hand over hand up to my elbow, clinging to my arm like a rope as her own lifeboat careens toward the edge of Niagara Falls.
But she doesn’t want to be a bother, doesn’t want to get anyone in trouble, for questioning doctor’s opinion, so she waits until they leave the room before crying, with real tears, do you think they believe me? Will get more medicine?
I do not.
Use the same language, the same tone, the same words, the same desperate panic pleas when you talk to the doctors, Auntie.
They will not medicate you because I asked, but not for lack of trying.
I tried, I swear I did.
I translate her specific pain into their language:
Her “slightly uncomfortable” is me throwing this chair threw the window.
Her “beginning to escalate” is a regular person driving their pick-up through the ER.
“Can you please massage my back?” is her insides are exploding, the nerves strangling her spinal cord.
Something is lost in translation, and while she sits with pigtails and lipstick, Wimbledon on the tv, and a line of visitors out the door, I plead with her to talk to them like she talks to me. Alone. Without anyone else to hear: no friends, no family, no tennis.
She pinky promises.
And so the next time the doctor brigade rolls in, she says, like a professional wrestler who has rehearsed her script a thousand times, which she must have, in her mind, because now she roared:
I WANT MY G-D MEDICINE AND I WANT IT NOW and I don’t want you to have to call it in AND you better read my effing chart BEFORE walking in here because I want that G-D MEDICINE and I want it NOW.
“Aunt Sue? Think you can use the words? All the words?”
I’m a young mom again, teaching a toddler to talk, except this time it’s my incredible shrinking aunt who has never ever EVER had a shortage of words, but frowns at vulgar language. Such a potty-mouth, her niece has. Makes her giggle, the language, but not from her own, proper country club mouth. Nope. Ladies don’t talk like that, especially ladies who lunch, of which Aunt Sue most definitely is one.
Until with solid coaching from yours truly, we get it done.
G-D becomes “GOD DAMN” barked strong and sharp, like an angry dog, and efffffff-ing becomes “fucking” but soft and dense, whispered under her breath, like a fire-breathing dragon because that’s what she is: a fucking fire-breathing warrior woman shrinking away in her bed but making her needs heard – loud and clear – even if this isn’t really her voice of choice, but one hijacked by pain, a ventriloquist of cursing getting shit done: charts read and meds hung, so lipstick can worn, flowers arranged, snacks available for the friends waiting patiently, to see not what cancer has done to her, but what she has done to it, put it away, for the time being, so she can smile and visit and forget for just a few minutes why she’s cursing on the oncology floor at the stupid hospital on this beautiful summer day, and not swinging a racket on the tennis court and swearing at the balls she cannot get.