Pandemums

Aunt Pat had a sunny, cantaloupe-colored room at the VA hospital. From her automated bed, she viewed a large expanse of green: a manicured lawn, oak trees, and the green benches by the paved walkway that encircled hospital grounds. Her private room came replete with a bathroom, sparing her the embarrassment of walking down the green linoleum floors in a flimsy, pink standard issue gown to the communal restroom.

In college, they called her Tiger. She appeared the poster child for 1950s America: pert, upturned nose; bright blue eyes; well-defined heart-shaped lips, dyed valentine red in her yearbook photo. She might have been the archetypal daughter of the era, except that her mother died of tuberculosis before she turned three. Except that she lived on three continents before she graduated from high school. Except that she turned down two marriage proposals before the age of 25. She aspired to be a nurse, and retired from the Navy in the late 1980s as a nurse and a decorated captain. She broke some rules.

Pat harbored a deep passion for mischief. She watched sports programs hungrily, yelling back at the television when a certain play annoyed her. Sometimes she got a fire about her and she sparkled dazzlingly, swearing in Swahili and smacking her hands together like cymbals.

The cancer started in her breasts, and she had mastectomies on both sides, though she withheld this from the family to prevent our worrying. She did not see us often, so it was easy to keep this secret. Gradually, however, the cancer spread, and when she could keep the secret no longer (largely because her health had fully deteriorated), she moved to the town where most of the family lived. She bought a beautiful, two-story house in a wealthy neighborhood, but slept on a foldout sofa on the main level because she lacked the strength to ascend the steps. She wore a body brace around her torso, basically, she said with a half-hearted smile, “to keep everything in.” She loved life and her two small dogs, and she kept her bright spirit up even as she found herself in the hospital.

As her health worsened, she focused increasingly on the view outside her window, watching the trees move in the wind. She asked for her dogs. When they arrived, they ignored her and peed all over the floor. They didn’t seem to remember her – not her freckled hands and squared nails, not her mild Chanel scent. Concealing her disappointment, she watched the trees some more.

Long in the past, she taught me to fish at a pool below the embankment, into which, on an August day, one could throw a stone and scatter a luminescent red prism of kokanee trout. I was a slow learner and succeeded more often in almost gouging Pat with my fish hook than I did in catching. Pat stood by patiently as the morning sun rose over the hills. We cast and reeled, over and over. I remember her there: knee-deep in the pool, her khaki shorts splattered; how her tan, freckled arms worked smoothly against her plaid shirt. She wore her father’s fisherman’s hat, decorated with tackle and feathers. Her skin shone as she stood alone in the deep, green pool.

Years later, at the hospital, she spent her days looking at a different green, her shining skin gone ashen and her blue eyes dark and dull. Her teeth hung against chapped lips.

“Bring me some Pandemums,” she said to those of us holding vigil by her bed, her brain filled with inoperable tumors. When we didn’t understand, she reiterated. “Pandemums,” she said, gesturing with her hands. Pandemum: I envisioned red blossoms, with petals made of kokanee, with stems of rosemary and spruce, and poppy seeds for a heart; some spicy, red opiate to ease her pain; a hot fire swirling above the green pool of a forgotten river. We asked what pandemums were, but she no longer understood the words.

“Pandemums! Pandemums!” she shrieked. It was not long after when we lost her. The cancer ravaged her body, one fire battling another until only ashes remained.

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