Aunt Betty Jo (left) and my mom (right) dancing barefoot in the sand.
Aunt Betty Jo (left) and my mom (right) dancing barefoot in the sand.

“What can we say or do for someone who is dying? How do we navigate the delicate terrain between life and death? How can we hold on to those we love and simultaneously let them go?” 

Having lost both my parents, my father in very unexpected and shocking circumstances (suicide) and my mother to the slow death of Alzheimer’s Disease, I have learned that saying goodbye to our loved ones is a gift. It is a sacred and rich expression to have the opportunity to share with our loved ones how much they mean to us and to acknowledge and reassure them that while death may temporarily separate us, our love and memories will forever keep us connected. Often as someone approaches death, they cannot speak for themselves. I have found it is important in those precious moments to speak honestly, even if it makes us uncomfortable, as often one is speaking for the two.

I have struggled with these questions over the last few weeks as my Aunt Betty Jo’s health deteriorated. (Always I must explain, how Aunt BJ is my first cousin but I grew up thinking she was my aunt; her children called my parents “Aunt” and “Uncle”. Over the years, especially since our own mother died, Aunt BJ has become someone between a sister, a best friend and a mother.) For my sister Janie and I, it is better said that Aunt Betty Jo is the compass which points North, a source of such stability and fierce family love that the thought of losing her causes us to feel set adrift at sea without an anchor. She is our Steel Magnolia. Elegant. Beautiful. Independent. Strong as hell.

In the week before what would be her passing, I stepped into her room. I had come to comfort her and cheer her up, bearing a 4th of July flower arrangement and freshly applied lipstick so I wouldn’t look my end-of-the-day haggard. Unable to act in opposition to my emotions, I immediately let us both down. Between sobs, I offer up my excuses. I say that I am angry. That her being sick sucks. That I am so very sorry. There is, of course, this elephant in the room: my aunt/ cousin/ sister/ mother is dying. Probably soon. I wonder if I should speak of it? How does one begin to speak of it?

I am totally unprepared for the etiquette of dying. I hold her hand with one of mine; it is cool to the touch. I stroke her forehead with the other. I smooth her soft blond hair like she’s my most favorite and most beautiful doll (and that is true.) Then, if only because honesty is something I express out of sheer default, I share with her my heart. “There’s so many more things I wanted us to do together…” I say which is such a selfish and lame thing to say amidst all her suffering, then I add (because I know she is strong and her strength flows into me) “but we will be together again” and she nods her head yes, that is true. There is a faint setting of her mouth and I am unsure if it is a faint smile or an expression of determination.

I assure her that all the ladies of the family, my sister, my cousins Patty and Elizabeth, her daughter-in-law Julia, all of us- will keep the family strong and together by following the example she had set for us. Over the years she has done the hard work by building us a path. “You have taught us so well,” I say and that is true. “You will be with us every step of the way” and she reaches out into the air those hands for mine, fragile and translucent as a bird’s wings and what more is there to say?

I have always admired my beloved Aunt BJ’s nails. These are her real nails, even on this day and in her failing health they are polished a beautiful mauve colored rose, long and tapered. I hold her delicate hand inside my own and can’t help but notice my own ragged nails. “I’ll remember to push the skin back from my cuticles” which I immediately think sounds like a stupid thing to mention at such a sacred moment but it’s one of the many practical things she was always telling me to do.

Aunt BJ is happy for me to rub some lotion on her hands and I rub the excess into my own. All that is so very wrong in this moment and this simple act feels like the only thing I can do to help. The elephant is still in the room but he’s sitting over in the corner, still huge but not as threatening as he was when I first entered the room. I realize in that moment that love, LOVE has no need for words. Love speaks for itself. It shows up, a spark of light that becomes the brightest thing in the room if you will let it. Love is all-powerful and I know in that moment with the kind of certainty I’ve rarely known about anything that it cannot be extinguished.

At Aunt BJ’s memorial service, her family planned a “Celebration of Life” party in the fellowship hall of the church I grew up in. Aunt BJ had requested a menu of Stamey’s Barbeque and sweet tea. Friends and cousins helped by bringing a spread of fabulous desserts. I helped decorate a table with photos and news clippings from her life and those of he children and grand-children. Hundreds joined us in seeing her off on her journey. Our families’ good friend George Washington Smith brought his band and played an assortment of beach and soul music. In those moments surrounded by family and friends it was difficult to be sad as Aunt BJ’s spirit was so prevalent.

For the past few years (and her service is no exception), my relatives have been lamenting our shrinking family. How many times have we paused to say “We’ve got to stop meeting at funerals” and it’s true. My sister and older cousins fidget nervously, wondering if they are next in line.

The truth is none of us are ready to die. We have children to marry, weddings to pay for, mortgages to pay, retirements to experience, grandchildren to be born and raised and stories to tell. I figure I need to get my husband good and mad at me at least one more time when I announce I am going on another of my harebrained adventures. I am thinking about walking the 150 or so miles across England or perhaps I will visit New Zealand or Tibet.

It is amazing how even after all the suffering and loss, there is this fierce call to life. During one of George’s songs, my cousin Patty, who has suffered extensively the last years losing both parents and only brother, began tapping her feet to the music. Patty loves to dance; she knows all the line dances. We hold each other’s hands, swaying to the music before running up to George and becoming his “doo-wops” in the song he was singing.

Later I would wonder if our actions were inappropriate; I mean how could we be so joyous in such grim circumstances. We danced at our cousin’s funeral, for heaven’s sake! And in a Baptist Church, albeit a pretty liberal one by most standards. All I can say is that we were overcome by spirit at that moment to the expression of joy. I believe there is something powerful and primitive in our human condition that drives us towards the life force. We sing; we beat our drums; we move our bodies in harmony to spirit. Destiny comes at us full on, even as the hands of time spin faster and faster.

“I did that for BJ” my cousin confides later (a bit mischievously I might add) and I understand what she means. I am, after all, her co- conspirator.

There is no etiquette for the dying. It’s not important what we say or don’t say as it is that we treat the dying with the dignity of the living. Let them know they are loved and that they are not alone. Life is not about being correct or happy or wearing the right kind of clothes or being any kind of way. The simple essence of life is about learning to dance in the rain.

I hold the hands of my cousin. Time stops for a moment and I follow her lead. We share a secret smile and for a while, we twirl.