I can’t turn back now. What would be the point? I’ve already gotten past the police line, into the house and am now standing at the doorway of the bedroom. What would be the point of turning around and walking out now, when I’d come so far? Closing my eyes I forced myself to take a deep breath, feeling the air expanding very feeble lungs and hearing it hiss as it escaped again between my barely parted lips. This was it. I’d never dealt with something like this before, but I couldn’t put it off any longer.
My first step into the room and the opening of my eyes were simultaneous, and I instantly wished to shut them again. What I saw could only be described as traumatic, and I had no doubt that I would relive the vision over and over in my dreams for the weeks to come. Still, I had to keep going. My breaths came in sharper now, and the creaking of the wooden floorboards echoed in my ears as I took a second step, feeling time move at a painstakingly slow pace.
I tried to keep my eyes off of her as much as I could. Instead, I looked around the room. I saw the family photos on the wall, the desk all neat and orderly as it always was, the dresser with a few drawers barely ajar. I saw the closet door pulled back a little from the wall, and my eyes were drawn to the call button on the floor. Maybe she knew? I shook the thought from my mind. None of that mattered now.
As I took my third step into the room, a bit more boldly, my breathing returned to normal until my eyes fell on the oxygen tank near the unmade bed. The gentle whirring noise that had become so commonplace to me over the past few weeks now screamed at me, though the volume had not truly changed. Though I was told by police not to touch anything, I couldn’t help but reach down and switch off the machine as another deep breath entered my lungs. Not only must I not turn back, but I must not lose composure. For her.
My fourth and fifth steps came without me really noticing, for I was still busying myself looking at the things around the room. After all, I’d never really studied it before. The vanity on the other side of the bed that housed the very few beauty products she owned, the mirror that looked like it hadn’t been cleaned in a week. And then there was the open window. At this I had to chuckle softly, only for a few seconds, for I should’ve expected that this is the way she would go.
Before I knew it, I’d reached the bedside and I finally lowered my eyes to look at her. She seemed peaceful… content… and that was ironic to me. After all, from what Sherri told me, she either had a heart attack which stopped her lungs, or her lungs failed which stopped her heart. Either way, both seemed like a very painful experience to me. Yet she still looked completely at ease with the way her life ended.
I seated myself on the floor, closer to the end of the bed than to her, in order to avoid the small puddle of blood coming from her mouth somewhere. No doubt she bit her lip or her tongue. For a moment all was quiet, or at least as quiet as it could be with Sherri hyperventilating in the living room, cops swarming the place, and the small crowd of neighbors gathering outside the small city house, with their questions about what happened to the sweet lady who lived in this blue house.
Finally I swallowed hard and opened my mouth. “Hey, Karen…” I meant for the words to come out as casual as they had in every other conversation I’d ever had with her. Instead they were a bit more forced, but this could easily be understood. I was choking back tears to stay strong. I had to stay strong. For her, for Sherri, for the neighbors. I couldn’t break. Not now.
Cautiously, once again against the wishes of the cops outside, I reached my hand towards the body of my aunt and ran my fingers gingerly through the thinning, curly hair atop her head, allowing one single tear to stain my cheek. “What happened, honey?” The question came out with a little more ease, although I obviously expected no response. “I guess the stress was a bit too much, huh?”
The sniffing sound of my failed attempt at holding back more tears echoed in the deathly silent bedroom as I heard the sobs of Sherri in the other room. I shook my head a little and looked back at my aunt. “You’ve really thrown Sherri for a loop. Can you hear her? She’s really in a fit…” I sighed softly and looked up at the sky as more tears finally left my eyes. I hadn’t let go entirely, though. I was still being strong.
When I felt I was ready, I looked back to her and was silent for a moment. The peaceful look on her face highlighted the laugh lines on her face and I smiled through the now constant stream of tears welling up in my eyes before beginning their journey down my cheeks. I couldn’t take it anymore and I audibly sobbed for a few moments, unable to say anything. My hand just stroked her hair as I listened to Sherri, to the cops, to the neighbors… I listened and just cried.
“You’re okay now, though, aren’t you? You don’t hurt anymore…” My thought trailed off, voice choking with tears that I couldn’t stop from falling. As I looked at the woman beside me, one of the three that helped to raise me, I couldn’t wrap my mind around the fact that she was gone. I knew she was with her husband now, and that she wasn’t suffering anymore, but what about us? What about me, and Sherri, and Granny, and Dad, and my daughter…?
“I just… I couldn’t let them come in and take you away before I got to say goodbye…” My hand fell from her hair and I sighed, the stream of tears slowing a little bit. I had to pull myself together. I heard the sound of the stretcher struggling through the front door which meant that the funeral home was here to take her. I couldn’t let them or Sherri see me this way. I took one last look at Karen on the floor next to me and whispered, “Goodbye… I love you,” before wiping my eyes one last time and starting my journey back out into the hallway.
The first step was the hardest, because that’s when the weight of the realization that this would be the last time I saw her as she truly was set in with a weight so heavy I thought my knees might just buckle right then. But then I took the second step with a sniff as I tried not to cry again. Then the third. And the fourth. Before I took my last step through the door, I turned and looked over my shoulder at her one more time, whispering again, “Tell the boys I said hi, and that I’ll see them again someday.” And with that I stepped back through the door. I couldn’t turn back now. It was done. And I had to let it go.