We all have the family we were born into. Some of us are also lucky enough to create family of our choosing. Know what I mean? Those people who we simply love so much we consider them family even though we aren't related by genetics? This is a post to honor just such friends. My Uncle Norio and Auntie Nobu were married for 70 years before they both recently passed away.
70 years is a long time to be together. To do things right, make mistakes, to laugh and cry and to create memories and a bond with one other person that a very rare few of us will ever have the opportunity to experience.
It was three weeks ago I flew to Nevada to be with my Uncle Norio, a very dear friend my parents had known since before I was born. At 95 years old he was entering his final stage of life and I was fortunate to have the opportunity to offer care and comfort to him in his remaining days. My parents had arrived a week earlier and together with his family we all did our best to make each day he had left as enjoyable as we possibly could.
After my return home I read a news article titled Never to Part. It stated that a surviving spouse often passes away within 6 months of the death of their husband or wife. I guess the article was right as it had been 6 months since my Auntie Nobu passed that my Uncle Norio left this world to follow her.
To be honest I didn't know what to expect as I flew to Nevada. Though his body was failing I soon discovered that his mind was still incredibly sharp. He could remember everything and told me stories from his life beginning from when he was a small child to what he had done most recently. Unexpectedly to me our days together were both fun and sad and we spent as much time laughing as we did crying. It was the epitome of "bittersweet." He was still making jokes even when he was too weak to laugh himself and was so appreciative of the many visitors who flew to town to see him, the phone calls from friends and his daily emails friends and family had sent that we would read to him.
A few days after my arrival my Uncle asked me to make him a gold origami crane. I can make a crane no problem, the issue was where to find gold origami paper in a city with no Japantown. A little brainstorming and I realized the best I could do was to find some gold gift wrapping paper. Longs drugstore had a two toned gold birthday wrap that did the job nicely. LOL then he asked if I could mount it on a piece of board. Some cardboard wrapped in red gift wrap met with his approval. LOL then he said it would be nice if we could mount the crane on a piece of round paper, but not one with a plain cut edge... Something fancy like a crown. A trip across the street from his apartment to Walmart and I found these tiny, gold, oval shaped paper cut outs.
Once I'd mounted the crane on the gold oval on top of the red base he "wondered if it would be possible" to get a plastic display case to put the crane into. LOL my mom suggested buying a container of "something" and using the container. I recalled seeing crystal clear containers of Ferrero Rocher chocolates at Walmart and went back to buy a pyramid shaped one just to empty and use. He loved it! He asked to place it on top of his tv, and later when he was too weak to watch tv, asked to see it close up, holding it in his hands and gazing at it. Just a little folded piece of gift wrap transported him to some special reverie.
What is sure to become one of my fondest memories of those two weeks is when I learned how to make strawberry margaritas off of Google so that he could enjoy one each evening before he went to bed. Huh? Am I serious? I am! The first day I got to town he recounted the best one he ever had decades ago, which prompted me to suggest to his daughter we should try to get him one as a surprise. She said let's just make him one everyday! We even got a real margarita glass just to make it official. We went very light on the alcohol and the last one was (unbeknownst to him) a virgin margarita. With or without alcohol he savored each one, his eyes lighting up each time I brought it to his bed with a double long straw (his idea) we rigged to make them easier for him to drink.
At first we watched his favorite tv shows, he made empty kleenex box organizers for his bedside table, told me stories about people and places from his youth and shared important life lessons with me. As he grew weaker day by day I did my best to help him to not feel alone, scared or confused. When his memory became hazy I would remind him where he was, the day of the week and the time of day, several times a day. I'd also talk about who was coming to see him each day and sometimes reminded him of what had happened the day before.
One morning when he was too weak to do it himself, I looked out the window of his room and saw the sun rising. I took the photo above and showed it to him on my camera display screen as he laid in bed. He smiled. It was peaceful and beautiful and even as he was nearing an end, I knew the end in itself would (just like the sunrise) also become a new beginning...
A few days later he passed quickly and quietly early in the morning just minutes before the sun rose.
I guess my main point of this post is that if you ever have the opportunity to go spend time with a loved one who doesn't have much time left and who doesn't want to be alone... Go. Don't think about it, just go. If you can go while they are still able to speak do whatever it takes to allow you to be there while there's still time to converse with them. Even if they are too weak to reply or they aren't conscious or cognizant they may still be able to hear and understand you when you speak to them. I know my Uncle could understand what people were saying. The trick, the hospice worker told us, was to tell him things instead of asking him questions since he could no longer answer us. Just make sure you speak loudly enough so they can hear you. You can listen, reassure them, reminisce or just be with them to hold their hand. Being there is what matters most. Not what you do or say.