“Natalie is quickly slipping away.” I read this text on my phone as I sat in the boardroom at work, conducting a meeting with a department supervisor and several leads. As I attempted to talk, to continue directing a political discussion, tears welled in my eyes and my voice wavered. The others around the table appeared tense from my unsolicited emotional response. I tried to explain why.
Stating it makes it real.
Natalie died from cancer two years ago.
It happened at the same time that my husband and I attempted to sell our condo. In spite of the non-existent financial recovery for our real estate purchase, I didn’t want to live in a home where I could tell you exactly where the upstairs neighbor was standing at any given moment and I could smell when the downstairs neighbor’s weed-smoking boyfriend returned home. This wasn’t where I wanted to raise my 9-month old son.
If you’ve sold a home while living there, you’ve experienced living in a 24/7 state of staging. Most of our furniture was stashed in my parents’ two-car garage including the dining room table. Our condo was bare bones and clean enough to eat off of every surface within its 900 square foot walls. We moved the cat out with the table as well and spent our evenings eating over newspaper so we wouldn’t have to clean up any possible spills. My baby’s toys disappeared back into a box before we left for daycare in the morning and the shower was wiped down after every use. I couldn’t imagine how long we could live in this state. We were surrounded by myriad condo complexes, each with multiple units for sale. How many potential buyers might there be and why would they want ours?
And my Aunt Natalie was dying from cancer, just several short months after the diagnosis. We hadn’t had time. I told her we needed to write down her life, her memories, her smiles, her laughter, her adventures, and her legacy. We didn’t have time. We snapped a few pictures shared on Facebook, we shared some dinner together, we watched the Bachelor, and she took a cell phone video of my baby laughing. That was all we had time for.
A few nights before Natalie died, I went to her home to visit. She was disintegrating into the atrocious pain of tumors; everywhere: her lungs, uterus, spine, brain. Hospice filled her with strong pain medication. She was empty. Her eyes were hollow. Her body continued struggling through the motions of living, but her spirit was not taking an active role.
This is cancer.
I didn’t want her to die.
That’s what we put on our social media posts. That was the battle cry at a benefit concert in her honor. The concert was stunning. Breathtaking. Soul-crushing. Appalling. And intimate. Some of her dearest friends played. They just so happened to be national and world-renowned musicians. They played to beat cancer.
I wanted Natalie to beat cancer. I wanted to continue making memories with her, skipping in a speed boat across the ocean in search of whales, organizing a closet full of lotion bottles, curling up under blankets on Christmas Day while it blizzards outside, and laughing about the time I scrambled through her kitchen window to break in to her apartment when she forgot her keys.
I wanted her to beat cancer and grow old like her 99-year old mother and still be teaching music to just as many students. I wanted to listen to her play violin in concerts and on CDs for many more years. I wanted this aunt, who was really my big sister, to stay so I always had my confidant to talk about the hardest things in life. But the hardest thing in life is what was taking her away.
It is in moments like this, when I feel overwhelmed with how dark and devastating life can be. But it is also in these moments when I find myself in awe of how truly resilient my spirit is.
I will always cherish what Nat taught me as we confided in each other our struggles with manic depression: The darkest days allowed us to appreciate the light.
The last thing that I ever heard Nat say was a plea: she wanted the blinds opened. It was gloomy in her bedroom, her sheets tossed to one side and a small blanket twisted around her exhausted body. I kept looking at her feet. She used to tell me that when she was in heaven, she didn’t get in the husband line, but got in the line for beautiful, little feet. Even though her hair was gone, her face was full of pain, her body was quitting on her, and her eyes were empty, her feet still looked beautiful. I know that sounds like an odd thing to notice, but it was the last thing I looked at that evening, the last time that I saw her alive.
I opened up the blinds for her and the sun filled the room. Its rays fell on Nat and her bed. She pushed her body over and lay facing the light. Then she closed her eyes. I stood in the room, holding my baby, for a few more minutes and then I told my son: “say goodbye and we love you, Natalie.”
Even near her very end, she knew that she wanted to turn towards the light. I cherish that my last memory of her alive was of her resting in the sunlight. “And oh, what joy, and what marvelous light I did behold; yea, my soul was filled with joy as exceeding was my pain!” Alma 36:20.
The funeral home gave me one of the beautiful, large bouquets of lilies to take home from her funeral. It was several feet tall and the blooms filled the space in the car as I held on to them while my husband drove.
We placed them on a small table just inside our sliding glass doors, enveloped in the sunlight. Lilies were Natalie’s favorite flowers. This bouquet, bright in the sun, was the first thing you saw when you walked in our door. Our home sold the next day. Nat helped me out one last time.