How My Aunt Taught Me Selflessness Through Her Struggles


I can imagine no worse sensation than immobility.

In the last month of his life, I saw Uncle John lying in a bed in his kitchen hearth, almost entirely incapable of moving. Looking at him, I thought he might have wanted nothing more than to spring up, give his wife a kiss and head to the bench press, where he was welcomed only two months before hospice.

I later learned that Uncle John suffered from Terminal Agitation, a side effect of hospice which left him restless and unsettled. Whether in bed or his recliner, he constantly battled confusion and anxiety, desperately trying to move about, though he was not able. (Uncle John was often placed in this recliner in an attempt to ease the agitation.)

In yoga, we’re taught that the hardest positions are often the ones we hold for the longest. To be still is difficult. To be forced by your own body to be still is frustrating. To choose to be still for someone you love is devotion.

Uncle John's wife, Marion, had that devotion, going so far as to replace the coffee table with an air mattress to be closer to her husband each night. While John’s immobility contained him to this kitchen hearth, Marion’s contained her to his side.

Uncle John had cancer. Or maybe cancer had him, come to think about it. He was diagnosed with cholangiocarcinoma, a form of bile duct cancer, on September 19, 2013. Throughout the following year, he endured several treatments, including an experimental chemotherapy procedure.

More than a month in hospice went by without knowing what tomorrow might bring. “I can’t promise he’ll still be here when you come,” Aunt Marion told me when I announced I was visiting in late September of this year. I imagine she said that to a quite a number guests over time.

Marion endured every day of Uncle John’s sickness with the strength of an Iron Man participant and the diligence of an anesthesiologist.

Ask her how many bites of food he took on August 26, and she’ll tell you. Ask her how many rounds of treatment he got in July, she’ll respond without hesitation. Number of shots? Pills? Restroom breaks? She knows it all.

No person I have met will ever experience that strength of connectivity to any other person or thing in his or her entire life. The only boy she ever kissed, the only man she ever loved and the one to make her a widow.

She was smitten since the day she asked him to a high school dance. Often at family gatherings, Marion would rave about how handsome her husband was, adding that only their son John comes close to that level of perfection.

Aunt Marion and Uncle John’s love is as romantic as it is cliché and as tried as it is true. I have never seen another love like that. There exists no combination of words to express how powerful and sincere it was. As an onlooker during his hospice, you would have experienced empathy so deeply you’d forget who you are for a moment.

Uncle John was “the epitome of a gentleman” and a true man of honor, as Marion told the Omaha World Herald. He was kind, gentle and loving. He was the kind of person you could rely on to listen and to be accepting. He was someone to look up to.

But Marion, too, is a role model. She’s a prime example of a feminist with feminine qualities.

I often read about the conflict between misogynists and Sheryl Sandberg clones, causing me to lose sight of the unique attributes women possess. But not Marion; she never seems to lose those truths.

Yes, women can lead. Yes, we can make decisions. Yes, we can bear children. But as Marion has shown me, we’re also strong, loyal and compassionate.

I’m not sure I understood the whole meaning of the term, "compassion," until watching Marion going through this wretched experience. Sure, it was easy to see the compassion between her and her husband. It was easy to the compassion her friends had for her. But what I did not expect was to see Marion have compassion for everyone else.

I had a true meltdown the day I learned Uncle John went into hospice. Two days later, Marion called me to ask how I was doing because she heard about my moment of weakness. Her act of selflessness taught me how strong love is; I felt better the moment she reached out.

Bob Dylan famously sang, “May you always do for others, and let others do for you.” And thus, Marion taught me an act of compassion that I had never previously acknowledged: Let others do for you.

The majority of people who visited Uncle John in his last moments were, for lack of a better word, bystanders. And Marion knew this. No matter how badly they wanted to, there was nothing they could do to right this wrong. And yet, Marion allowed others to do for her.

Friends and family gave her numerous casseroles she stacked the fridge, even though she already filled a freezer with them. She lovingly accepted chocolates and candy; she doesn’t eat sweets. She hugged hundreds of people at her husband’s wake; she hates hugs.

Aunt Marion let us do these things for her not because they were helpful, but because it made us bystanders feel like we were helping.

Aunt Marion and Uncle John were a perfect match, and they knew it since they were 15 years old. I think of Marion, and I think I’m fortunate I’ve never experienced a pain like that, yet terribly unfortunate to never have loved like that.

When you look into her eyes, you will see her pain. “He was my rock,” she’ll tell you. But what shines brighter is her strength. To those who have undergone chemotherapy and have fought or are fighting this terrible disease called cancer, I feel for you.

But this piece is dedicated to those around you who want to fight your fight for you.

To the woman who taught me that just about anything can be solved with a Michelob Ultra; to the one who taught me that any amount of space can be measured by a golf club’s distance (sans-hybrids); to the Aunt Marions of the world, we want you back in motion.

When you’re ready, we’ll be waiting. We love you so much.

True strength lies within all of us; you just must have the courage to find it.