published Monday, September 3rd, 2012

Grand Thoughts: Going with your gut: Lessons in living and dying

Have you ever followed a gut instinct? I did recently, and I will forever be glad.

I was on my way home from work when I got a call from my cousin telling me that my 84-year-old aunt (her grandmother) was very ill.

"She could die tonight or live six months," my cousin said. "We just don't know, but we thought you might like to spend some time with her. Her mind is good, but her body is failing."

Before she called, I had stopped at a toy store to purchase new art supplies for my granddaughters, Tilleigh, 5, and Evie, 2, for a project we had planned for the evening.

"I have plans tonight, but I'll visit Aunt Betty tomorrow afternoon," I told my cousin. (Aunt Betty is my late father's sister.)

"If you change your mind, we'll all be here, and we've got lots of food. I know 'Mimi' would love to see you," she said.

After I hung up the phone, I had a gut feeling that I should change my plans and visit my aunt.

Aunt Betty had a larger-than-life personality with a laugh to match. She surrounded herself with bright colors. She had hot pink carpet in her living and dining rooms and an orange piano in the den. She was the first person I knew to have more than one Christmas tree in her house. She always wore brightly colored, frilly dresses with big fancy hats to match. And she always smiled.

And, now, she was dying.

I knew what I had to do. Art could wait. I picked up my granddaughters and my mom and headed straight to Aunt Betty's.

My cousin greeted us in the driveway.

"I'm so glad you came," she said. "She's taken a turn for the worse."

We were led into the den, where my aunt, shockingly thin, pale and weak, was resting on a sofa that had been converted into a makeshift bed. Her two daughters and a couple of her granddaughters were by her side.

My granddaughters played outside with their cousins while my mom and I visited with my aunt.

"Aunt Betty, it's Karen," I whispered as I took her hand in mine. She opened her eyes, and a big smile stretched across her face. Her cheeks turned rosy.

"Hi, honey," she said, squeezing my hand. "I'm glad you and Evelyn (my mom) are here."

Aunt Betty talked to us for the next three hours. Though her voice was barely above a whisper, I understood everything she said. Her mind was 100 percent functional. Her heart was not.

She shared stories of her (and my dad's) childhood and memories of our many Christmases together. She talked about the three most important things in her life -- "the Lord, family and animals."

She asked me to write her obituary and told me what to say.

At one point, she pressed her forefinger to the tip of my nose, telling me how I was "just a mess" at Christmas, always wanting to open my Christmas presents early.

"Aunt Betty," I said, "I still do that."

My granddaughters came in and out of the room, and, finally, on their own, walked over to where I was sitting next to Aunt Betty. She touched their arms and told me to take them to the den and let them pick a doll from a collection she had stored in a box. The girls were thrilled.

My aunt had no fear of dying. She said she knew she was going to heaven where she would be reunited with her loved ones.

There were no tears, but there was laughter.

We held hands. We hugged. We kissed. We said goodbye.

Aunt Betty died the next day.

about Karen Nazor Hill...

Feature writer Karen Nazor Hill covers fashion, design, home and gardening, pets, entertainment, human interest features and more. She also is an occasional news reporter and the Town Talk columnist. She previously worked for the Catholic newspaper Tennessee Register and was a reporter at the Chattanooga Free Press from 1985 to 1999, when the newspaper merged with the Chattanooga Times. She won a Society of Professional Journalists Golden Press third-place award in feature writing for ...

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