The Undoing

This past weekend my brother and sister and I finished dismantling our Aunt Margie’s life. She has moved to the critical care unit after taking a great fall, becoming an uncounted casualty of the pandemic.

She was safe beginning in March when her retirement community in Philadelphia initiated quarantine and stayed that way until the state’s infection rate fell in August. In between, we satisfied ourselves with calling Margie which allowed us to conclude her good humor was seeing her through her isolation. We kind of believed her when she insisted she was diverting herself by following the election and daily trips to the laundry room next door to her apartment. She said she was eating the packaged meals brought to her door every day and retaining social ties by putting on lipstick despite being concealed under her mask, and carefully tying on one of her beautiful scarves, all to stand out in the hall to greet the two or three people who wandered by.

By the time we were allowed inside her apartment it was impossible not to notice how whittled down Margie had become. Her mind required time to fire up and it took her ages to make it from one room to the next. But the joy in finally being able to sit through an afternoon with her or take her to lunch on the patio of a favorite restaurant served to convince us that she remained sharp and alive to the world.

In October, my brother received the call that Margie had fallen and broken six ribs. Two snapped in half. The horror of blood puddling beneath her lungs, the descent into total confusion, her insistence our long dead uncle would soon come along. There was one grace in all this–the hospital allowed us, one at a time, to sit beside her, hold her hand and try to make her laugh even if she didn’t know we were with her.

Margie, a tough bird, survived. She’s mending but weak and bewildered. We cling to the few times we catch glimpses of her intelligence, when her delight in the world seeps to the surface.

There’s no telling how long she’ll remain with us or when we will be able to hold her again. But she will never return to her apartment. She can not afford her rent and her medical care will soon deplete her savings. The decision to let go of her apartment meant accepting reality. And so my brother and his wife, my sister and I have spent this month packing away Margie’s life.

The art and furnishings she and Uncle Frank collected together from the time they became lovers. The treasures gathered from their work in the Foreign Service. Unearthed relics-a clip of her once thick long red hair tied in a pink ribbon; plaques commending my uncle’s service and achievements; mounds of silk scarves; 17 tubes of Revlon’s Cherries in the Snow (#440); two feather quilts that once covered the twin beds they pushed up close to sleep, not separated, but comfortably in their own spheres, their hands clasped together. All the photographs that reveal 92 years of an extraordinarily lived life.

We locked her apartment door and carried the last of that life to our cars. Then we walked over to the outside of the critical care unit and found Aunt Margie’s window where we enthusiastically mimicked a conversation whenever she dropped the phone receiver and it became entangled in her oxygen tube and the nurse call button. We blew kisses to her before leaving her and tried to enumerate the signs that Margie was coming around to her accustomed notion that her present circumstances were no more than a challenge she could overcome if she put her frayed mind to it.

There were no forbidden hugs in the parking lot, nothing to give comfort before we claimed our cars and, one by one, drove down the driveway, her life packed in the boxes behind us.

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