I first met Phyllis Brooks about 10 years ago. At the time she was 82 and living with her older sister (my wife’s grandmother) in a high-rise apartment in Toronto. She certainly didn’t seem like an octogenarian, even if she had shrunk down to less than 5 feet (which always looked funny when she hung around my wife’s family, where the average height is about 6 foot 1).
I was introduced to Phyllis as “Annie Fell.”
“Excuse me?” I asked my future mother-in-law.
“Just call her Annie Fell,” she repeated. “She likes it better than Phyllis.”
I had no idea what the hell “Annie Fell” meant. In my mind I constructed a series of elaborate stories about how she had once been a Mexican Wrestler that had gone under the name Annie, and who had once crushed a far larger opponent using a poorly translated move called the “Annie Fell.” She toured the country, taking on all challengers and inspiring an entire generation of Mexican children to leap from their couches onto each other screaming “Annie Fell, ay ay ay!”
Frustratingly, I had to address a Christmas card to her within a month of that meeting. Not wanting to seem like an idiot, I wrote her name verbatim and hoped for the best.
My wife’s family mocked me mercilessly for that one.
It turns out that they were all saying “Auntie Phyl.” I still have no idea of the etymology of the strange pronunciation (the whole family is incredibly smart and literate, so I can’t blame it on a case of the stupids).
Now, I’m not an “old people” kind of person. I don’t know why that is. Maybe I’m too afraid of my own mortality. Maybe I have an aversion to white, permed hair. Maybe I never understood the appeal of curling. But Auntie Phyl never seemed like an old person to me. She was as sarcastic and quick-witted as anyone half her age, she didn’t insist on talking about prunes all the time (old people do that, right?), and she never once (and I do mean this, without hyperbole) complained about anything.
When she had a heart attack, she said that she was mildly uncomfortable. When we visited her in the hospital and saw that she couldn’t breathe, she tried to dissuade us from going to the trouble of replacing her oxygen mask for her. As her lungs were slowly filling with fluid, the nurse asked her if she was having any trouble that day. She just said, “No dear, I’m fine. I’m just tired. Don’t know why I should be. I’ve done bugger-all today!”
She never said a bad thing about anyone, except on my last visit to her in hospital, and I blame the drugs for this one. A really obese man ambled past the room. Auntie Phyl, speaking loudly because she was a little deaf, blurted out, “Some people really shouldn’t wear shorts,” and then promptly clamped her hand over her mouth with a look of pure horror on her face.
I nearly peed myself at that point.
Everyone talks about how they don’t want to linger on in hospital. They say that they want to go quickly, don’t want to be in a home, don’t want to drag things out. Phyllis lived independently up until the month before she died, which – at 92 years old – is a hell of a feat. But she kept it together in hospital (a place she really didn’t like to be) long enough for pretty much her entire family to see her one last time. The last thing I said to her was that I would be seeing her soon. I hope someday that I will.
She died on September 24. My mother-in-law, Brenda, had stayed in the hospital with her the previous two nights, even though Phyllis was sleeping pretty much the whole time. The people at the Brantford General Hospital put her in a really lovely palliative care room, something I had never heard about before, but now am so thankful exists. The fact that such a thing is there is definitive proof that the Canadian healthcare system is doing something right.
On that Thursday morning, after the nurse told Brenda that Phyllis was stable, Brenda left to go have a shower and get changed. She kissed her aunt on the forehead, told her she would be back in half an hour, and left.
Auntie Phyl, little bugger that she is, up and died as soon as Brenda left the hospital. I know for a fact that she did it so that she wouldn’t be a bother while Brenda was there.
Well played, Auntie Phyl. Well played.
Part 2: Where the Author and his Family Put the “Fun” in “Funeral Arrangements.”
Part 3: Where the Author and His Family Partake in the Age-Old Rituals of Sitting With the Body and Eating Egg-Salad Sandwiches with the Crusts Cut Off to Make Them Look Dainty but Really Just Resulting in Egg-Salad Falling Out the Sides Which is Really Quite Gross