Today marks a bittersweet anniversary. Five years ago today, I lost my Aunt Peggy. Even though it was a heartbreaking loss to me, my family, and everyone who knew her, it was also the end of a life of tremendous suffering at the hands of cystic fibrosis. It’s safe to say that Peggy didn’t die from cystic fibrosis. She lived with it. She lived life to the fullest and was an inspiration to everyone with whom she came into contact.
From the time Peggy was born, she had health problems. At this time, cystic fibrosis was somewhat unknown. As a child, she spent time in a tuberculosis clinic. It wasn’t until she was in her 20s that she was diagnosed. Though her condition now had a name, there was little that could be done to help her.
Though she was ill, she persisted. She refused to let anything get in the way with living life. The most remarkable thing about Peggy was her refusal to be bitter and her sense of humor.
Cystic fibrosis is quite a disease. The primary manifestations of the disease revolve around the lungs. However, it also affects the endocrine system and digestive system. Besides these symptoms, Peggy also had frequent bouts with shingles. She also lost an eye. To a degree, if it could happen to a person, it happened to her.
With all of these strikes against her, she was resilient. Her sense of humor sustained her. The inspiring stories about Peggy are legion. Some of my earliest and most treasured memories are about Peggy and the times I spent with her. It’s safe to say she was my favorite aunt, if not my favorite person in the world. We always had a special connection until the day she died.
One of my favorite stories about Peggy comes from one of the lowest points in her life. After a surgery, she had to have a colostomy. (Remember that at this time, she had only one eye). Somewhat exasperated at her situation though still maintaining a positive attitude she remarked, “In my next life, I want to have two eyes and one asshole.” That was Peggy. She found humor in the deepest of personal tragedies. She never wanted anyone to feel sorry for her. She just wanted to live a full life and that’s exactly what she did.
As a child and still to this day, Peggy was my hero. I, along with my sister and two of my cousins, spent countless hours with her. During the summer, we’d ride to her house on our bikes. She’d let us do things our parents never would. She taught me to love Jimmy Buffett. She taught me to love life no matter the circumstances.
One story with Aunt Peggy stands out above the rest. As I mentioned, she let us do things our parents never would. Living on a farm, we had numerous ponds. However, we were forbidden from swimming in them. With just a small amount of convincing, Peggy took us swimming in one of the ponds. We had a blast as Peggy stood on the bank with her camcorder to record the escapade. A few weeks later at a family dinner, Peggy was showing the family a video of something unrelated. She accidentally let the tape play too far and the footage of our playing in the pond started. It was a little embarrassing and our parents were furious. However, it was a small price to pay for a priceless memory.
During the last few years of her life, Peggy spent a lot of time at home with her dogs. She had a lot of them. Every dog that showed up in her yard, she kept and loved. At any given time, she had about 10 of them. She also developed the odd habit of raising pineapples and maintaining their “pedigree.” By pedigree, I mean that she kept the receipts from the grocery store when she bought them and kept up with which pineapples were “descendants” of the originals. It was a little quirky, but that was Peggy.
Around October of 2011, Peggy sensed a change in her health. She routinely spent about a month per year at the hospital in Atlanta and had an hours long morning regimen of breathing treatments. However, these treatments became less effective at keeping the symptoms of her disease at bay.
She traveled to Atlanta numerous times during the last few months. She had the same doctor in Atlanta for over a decade. According to him and the tests that he could run, her condition was the same. However, he knew Peggy and believed her. He told the family that the patient is rarely wrong with things like this and that if she knew that her condition was deteriorating, it probably was, even though he couldn’t see it from a test. She was his longest surviving patient and also had become a friend. He was just as alarmed and upset as any of the family.
In early March, my mom and aunt took Peggy to the hospital in Atlanta for what turned out to be the beginning of a three-week period of deterioration. Family was at the hospital around the clock. I traveled to Atlanta a few days after she got there and stayed with her for the weekend. The first night, it was just the two of us. She was weak and struggling for breath. I remember that she asked me if I was scared to stay with her. I told her, of course, that I wasn’t. We weren’t able to have much conversation, but it is one of the most treasured moments I’ve ever had.
That night, I dozed off for a few moments. I heard a clamor and realized that she had tried to get up to use the restroom and had fallen. I scooped her up, helped her use the restroom, and put her back in bed. It hadn’t occurred to me to call the nurse. I was just taking care of her like she had taken care of me.
She was scared with the knowledge of what she knew was the inevitable. However, whenever she was able to speak, she still made us laugh. A few days later, she was put on a ventilator. Being intubated is a last resort for a patient with cystic fibrosis because they are almost never able to be weaned from it. Over the course of the next week, they tried twice to wean her but the attempts were in vain.
One of the last things she said was that she didn’t’ give up on life – her body just gave out.
The night before she died, I remember sitting in the hospital at about 1 am with my grandfather and the doctor. I went and got McDonalds for us and we sat around and reminisced about her. We all knew the end was near and there wasn’t anything we could do about it. Even though it was a terrible time, my memories of it are fond. It was a time of unity and we all thought about Peggy and what she meant to us.
In the days leading to her death, nurses, doctors, respiratory therapists, orderlies, and people from every branch of the hospital came to see her one last time. They were her family too. She had spent countless months with them and she inspired them.
The next day, the inevitable happened. There was about a thirty-minute period of rapid deterioration. Her room in the ICU was filled to the brim with family. The waiting room was filled with family. As I left the waiting room to return to the ICU room, I distinctly remember seeing tears in the eyes of all of the hospital staff. We all stood around Peggy and comforted her in those last moments as her struggle to breathe became greater and greater. Finally, she gave out. She didn’t give up.
I remember leaving the hospital room to go to the waiting room to tell the rest of the family that she had passed. Tears flowed. However, after the initial moments of grief, our pain turned to laughter. The stories of her life, her humor, and resilience gave us hope. Most of all, we knew she was in a better place.
I stayed overnight in Atlanta. I was too exhausted to drive home. Also, it would be the next day before she could be taken home for the funeral.
Aunt Peggy is buried in a family plot at her church. The epithet on her grave simply says, “I had fun.” That summed up her life perfectly. She had every reason to be bitter at the world, but she wasn’t. She refused to let her condition interfere with her life. She refused to let her circumstances dictate the reality in which she insisted living. She lived life to the fullest. Her infectious laugh brought joy to anyone who knew her. Her memories provide strength and comfort to me when life is hard. I still miss her every day, but am grateful for the life she led, the inspiration she provided, and the for the joy and hope she still brings me every day.