Her rough voice rang in my ears. "I was just saying to someone at lunch I would far rather get a basket of those little packages of special food than get flowers. They just die."
Sitting thousands of miles away, I felt tears puddle in my eyes and my throat started to close.
"But Aunt Elaine, when I called at Christmas, that is what you said you loved."
At 89 and living in a serene retirement home in downtown Toronto, Elaine was my only living elder relative. A beautiful woman, she lived a solitary life, faithful to Timothy Eaton United Church, content in her years of retirement.
She stayed relatively remote from dysfunctional relatives. But I can remember her coming once to the Northern Ontario foster home and taking me to an ice rink to see Santa. Children always cling to any form of caring. I held that in my heart as proof I was loved.
Cards were sent over the decades – all the holidays, plus St. Patrick's and Mother's days – and when I learned she had moved into the facility that gave her a private apartment, yet provided her with scrumptious meals in a dining room, I was relieved.
She told me two cousins whom I had never met visited her occasionally and I wished I could travel to see her.
On one recent call, I asked her about her health. A dedicated walker and swimmer, she strode downtown Toronto streets for hours each day. A bit of hesitation filled the telephone line and I pressed her for an answer.
"Oh, I've got a bit of Parkinson's – just my right hand shakes a little when I eat my soup."
So I read up on Parkinson's and my aunt assured me she takes her pills when she should.
But at Christmas when I called, I was shocked by her weak voice.
"I've had a stroke. But it's just the one side and the physiotherapist comes each day to work on my leg."
She said she still walked to the dining room for her meals, "I'd crawl if I had to," and was on the mend.
"What can I do?" I asked.
"Well, the woman next door got the most beautiful bouquet of flowers . . ." said Elaine.
I dashed to a florist and together we found just the right arrangement and I flashed my plastic that had just enough room to buy Elaine's Christmas treat.
Come her birthday – Feb. 8 – I knew to send a sumptuous bouquet of flowers.
So I was startled, shocked and really hurt when I called and she said she would rather have food and rang off abruptly.
Lesson learned and with Mother's Day a week away, I scoured all the catalogues and picked out several gourmet food baskets I thought would tickle my aunt's pallet. But I wanted to call her just to make sure I chose the right basket.
The phone rang and rang in her room. Tried again. It rang and rang. Called the administration office and they rang her room too. Then another voice came on and said they were transferring me to the medical centre. Again no answer.
The voice came back on the line and said they were putting me through and someone would answer. They did and I asked for my aunt.
"Oh she died," said the voice. Frozen in shock I asked, "When?"
"April 11," replied the voice.
Weeks ago, the night that I had woken up after struggling through the worst nightmare of my life. I did not know why the night terror happened. But now I did.
The next day I searched out one of my cousins by phone. She understood my shock and since she and her husband had been called by the residence, she filled me in on Elaine's final hours.
Thinking Elaine had flu since she was having trouble swallowing, she was sent to the hospital and the medics at St. Mike's decided to keep her overnight just to monitor her. My cousin got a call from the hospital a few hours later to say Elaine's heart failed and she died.
How I wish her last words had not been harsh and that my present had not disappointed her. As one of my heroes, Father Mychal Judge, would say of my feelings, "The guilt, the guilt, the guilt!"
My cousin also told me that Elaine's "Parkinson's" was actually a major heart condition that caused her to have to move into the residence five years ago. For an instant, I was angry about Elaine's fib. Then I realized I too would never tell anyone if I was ailing.
I pray for her. I miss her. And I wish our last conversation had been gentler.
(Lasha Morningstar email@example.com)