I was going through some files recently and came across some writing I did a while back for a local magazine. It was a series of columns under the theme, “When Was The Last Time…” Thought I’d share one with you.
WHEN WAS THE LAST TIME YOU EXPERIENCED THE KISS OF DEATH?
Don’t you find word association beguiling?
I was in the midst of a friendly debate about lawyers when I found myself uttering “That’ll be the kiss of death!” And quicker than greased lightning, I was mentally transported to years before and thousands of miles away.
It was on the west coast where I had traveled to attempt a farewell to Aunt Pat. She was losing ground to the curse of cancer and we'd been warned the chance to bid adieu was now or never. Pat and I had been close so I lost no time.
She was the wife of Uncle Dave, my Dad’s youngest brother. Contrasting his role as a somewhat diffident consort, she was multi-dimensional, a wonderfully red-headed eccentric lady, outspoken yet never out of opinions. Shocking the peace with a vibrant, horsy laugh (Phyllis Diller if you kept your eyes shut), Pat was a beaut. Yet she had about her a duality, being at once a loyal friend to the chosen she deemed “authentic”, but an impatient nemesis to those who didn’t. She could smell a phony a country mile away.
That Aunt Pat believed she was a white witch was merely accepted as par for the course.]
Two memories of her abide. The first was overhearing her on the phone ordering “chicken fronts” from the butcher. “Imagine what he'd think if I said 'breasts' in public, dear? It's hardly becoming of a lady,” she explained earnestly in answer to my query. And she certainly was a lady. The butcher knew that. We all knew that.
The second, more stirring reminiscence resulted from our last encounter.
Being in the final throes of cancer and never one to miss a beat, Pat knew her days were numbered. Yet she wasn’t about to go quietly into that good night. She’d set up residence abed in the lavish main floor library with its view of the pool (“A bedroom is such a depressing place to lie around in, don’t you agree?”). Dave, bless him, was seeing to her every need, albeit trying to maintain compos mentis in the vigorous process of anticipation while she tilted at windmills long since stilled to other lances.
The place, once the scene of her boisterous, “très gaie” parties for hundreds, was now hushed as a hospital. Some who arrived to pay homage were turned away. I was among the lucky ones.
Pat knew I’d flown in from the east and you could tell she was pleased to be acknowledged. We talked of this and that, including her frustration with the weakness this illness had brought. Other than the sign of tired resignation in her eyes, there seemed little about her that signaled life’s ebb.
But then, without warning, her hands began flailing at her head as if a swarm of bees had found the honey motherlode. Sensing delirium, I panicked at what must surely be the end. All too quickly, though, her actions bore fruit. She tore from her head the luxurious wig she was wearing, much to my surprise. Bald as a billiard ball, the calling card of chemotherapy, she announced “This thing’s so damn hot and what the hell, I don’t need to impress you!” And so, we spent the rest of our time talking, she sans hair and me full of admiration but guarded emotion lest I reveal my inner sadness (surely verboten to one as stoic as Pat).
It being time to go, and knowing that she loathed protracted goodbyes at the best of times (“Always say simply ‘See you soon, dear’; that will suffice!”), I held her face in my hands and kissed her farewell. It was one of those moments you cherish when you know the world can never again be the same. But suddenly tears dampened her eyes and she motioned me away, embarrassed. “What’s this?” I demanded. Deftly composing herself as best she could, Pat explained that no one had kissed her in ages fearing they might contract her disease through touch. It had left her desolate and physically detached from the world.
“Hey, anything you’ve got has to be miles better than what the rest of us have,” I offered and vamoosed before she could see me crying like a baby.
A few days later, Pat was gone, the kiss of death all but a sad memory between us, waiting to be culled from the shadows of my mind.