What if you sit many hours by a dying woman’s side and she many times begs you to deliver a final message to her daughter?
My aunt Marjorie was diagnosed with small-cell lung cancer in the autumn of 1995 and died in January of 1996. My mother and I largely took care of her. My aunt had been visiting her daughter when she received the diagnosis and she never went home. But her daughter was unable to do all that needed to be done, so she asked my mother to become the primary caretaker. She also had me fly in for several periods throughout the illness.
One time the daughter, my cousin, needed to go on a Disney cruise with her children to console her because her mother was dying (no, I don’t understand her logic but the optics were not lost on me). Her mother asked me repeatedly to see to it that this daughter would make sure her own daughter received a college education. It was my aunt’s regret that she had never gone to a university. She wanted this so much for her granddaughter.
Many times she clutched my wrist and looked earnestly at me and said: “Please tell Barbara that she must send Norah to college.” In truth, I rather assumed that Barbara was planning to do that in the fullness of time. But her mother kept telling me: “Please tell Barbara that my final wish is that Norah go to college.”
Months after Marjorie died, I wondered if I should share that her final thoughts had been about the future college education of her granddaughter. She had become monomaniacal about the issue. And she was not speaking too much to Barbara, who was assuming the role of Camille.
Several months later, I decided that I did owe it to Marjorie to let her family know what her final wish was. I had made a promise. Of course, it might insult her daughter, but it also might enlighten her as to the inner nature of her mother—facing death, Marjorie regrets her own lack of formal higher education and is determined that her granddaughter get one.
22 years later and I remain the family pariah. I told Barbara (with as much diplomacy as possible) about her mother’s thoughts. Barbara decided that I was drunk and/or on drugs and/or mentally ill.
What do the dead know? What do the dying know? Are we obligated to convey the thoughts that they urgently want to convey? Are they capable of understanding the relevance of their messages? I think that my cousin’s older brother believed that I was “stirring the shit” by speaking of his mother’s thoughts.
These cousins “out-sourced” the care of their dying mother. She knew it. She must have been furious that her daughter was snatching the final prima-donna moment away from her. Family life is dark and murky.
I’ve become a lot less compassionate since then. I will no longer go running to the call of entitled people.