Hope Is a Green Bean Casserole

There’s a single hearing aid on the corner of my desk. I’ve picked it up and put it down several times. It belonged to my aunt.

Back at the end of May, my sister and I planned a fiftieth anniversary dinner for my parents and invited all our relatives, including my dad’s younger sister, Aunt Nancy. As we were heading to the restaurant to decorate, we learned that she was being rushed to the ER.

We soon learned that she’d had a stroke and then spent the next few weeks unconscious in Barnes Hospital, suffering multiple seizures. It didn’t look good.

Then one day, she woke up. When my dad and I went to see her, she was tired and a bit confused but more alert than we’d expected. We counted it a miracle. After she was discharged, she spent a few days in a rehab facility before going home to be cared for by her most loyal and loving friend, Beverly.

The whole summer was a roller coaster for her, with trips to the ER and surprising comebacks. When things were going well, I joked about her having nine lives. I came to expect her to bounce back, since she had defied the odds so many times.

A few weeks before Thanksgiving, she ended up back in the hospital. When I stopped by her room one afternoon, she looked frail and helpless, with a feeding tube threaded through her nose. But she was awake and smiling and talking – the picture of health compared to her comatose-like state back in the summer.

Mostly, she was disappointed to have missed Caroline’s birthday in October – our family’s big fall gathering. Although she had been too frail to join us, she was determined not to miss Thanksgiving.

“Tell your mom . . .” she said, turning to me with the NG tube taped to her nose. I waited while she caught her breath.

“Tell your mom . . . I’ll bring the green bean casserole.”

I glanced over at Beverly and we both smiled. Bev tried to temper her big plans, and we both agreed that she should maybe play it by ear and work on getting strong enough to go home first.

We were amused, but we also knew better than to underestimate her. She had come back from much worse. So we made plans for her to ride with us to my parents’ house on Thanksgiving, and Phil agreed to carry her up the front stairs. By that point, she weighed less than an average fourth grader.

However, Thanksgiving dinner was not in the cards — she’d landed back in the hospital. I was secretly relieved, because I’d been mentally stress-rehearsing how to get her safely in and out of the car and then up and down my parents’ stairs. She’d always been petite, but she’d become unthinkably tiny and fragile.

Early in the week after Thanksgiving, I visited her in the hospital. She was alert and as hopeful as ever. She talked about the PT team who’d walked her up and down the hall that day, and how she was working hard to get stronger. Bev asked me to bring a pair of scissors next time to trim my aunt’s bangs.

Two days later, I trimmed and curled her hair, and she looked like Aunt Nancy again. Just a few days, and she’d be back home. That was the expected pattern, anyway.

Early that morning, my phone buzzed. Bev asked me to drive her to the hospital. A nurse had called to tell her that things did not look good. I stayed a few hours in her hospital room but had to go home and get ready for work. My sister came after I left and continued the vigil with Bev. A couple hours later, she texted that Aunt Nancy had died. Part of me couldn’t believe it, even though I’d witnessed her sudden decline.

A few days later, her siblings gathered for a simple memorial. Afterwards, my mom gave me her bag of belongings from the hospital, which I planned to wash and donate. I emptied out the tiny hoodies, track pants, and socks into a laundry basket. Then I heard something land on the carpet with a dull thunk. Squinting at the floor, I thought it was a blob of gum. When I picked it up, I saw it was her hearing aid.

“Oh,” I said involuntarily.

It wasn’t the sadness, the surprise of her death that had knocked the wind out of me but the sudden realization of her struggle. She had lost her hearing at a young age and struggled not only with that but with people often treating her poorly for it, shouting a bit more aggressively than needed. As if she were not hard of hearing but stupid.

It was hope that had led her to half-helpful surgeries and hearing aids, promising technologies barely hidden beneath tufts of her hair. And it was the sheer force of hope behind that promise of green bean casserole on the Thanksgiving table.

I still plan to do some googling to see if there’s a group that collects used hearing aids. Just haven’t gotten there yet. For now, it sits on the corner of my desk, missing its mate, a reminder that every one of us struggles in some way, some more visibly than others. It’s also a reminder of hope, that thing that keeps us afloat against the current, that thing that sets it heart on green bean casserole one more time.