My footfalls on the drab linoleum echo against the institutional, cream-colored walls.

Don’t let me be too late.

I pause outside the darkened room to compose myself. Family sit in chairs huddled around the hospital bed. My eyes haven’t adjusted so I can’t see her, but I hear labored breathing. Ruby’s still alive.

I’ve never been around someone who’s dying and—frankly, at this time in my life (7 years before Goldfield)—death frightens me and I’m praying I won’t  have to witness it. Complicating my wellbeing, the CFS has been revving up and zapping the little energy I possess.

If I didn’t love Ruby so much, I wouldn’t put myself through this emotional and physical trial.

The circle of humanity opens and invites me in. I stand by my aunt’s side. Her eyes are closed. Nothing about her countenance acknowledges she knows I’m there.

The body in bed doesn’t resemble Ruby. My aunt was a meticulously groomed, practical woman who carried herself with grace. I thought of her gentle laugh and how her thin frame would shake with mirth. Of how her smile resembled that of a young girl who harbors a fun secret. Everything about Ruby was soft: her clothes, her shallow wrinkles, her short, curly hair and melodic southern drawl.  Now, my aunt’s facial features jut out and her breathing becomes raspy.

I squeeze her hand. “It’s Kathy. I came to see you. I love you.”

Her mouth’s stuck open as she gasps for air. I search for clues she’s heard me, but see none.

I continue, “I wanted to thank you for everything. You’ll always be very special to me.”  I stroke her head and will her to realize that I’m here.

Quiet sobs emerge in unison—their cumulative effect grows into a defused wail. Someone says, “She’s gone.”

Aunt Ruby lets go of life while I hold her hand.

Her chest still rises, then falls, but her body’s cooling. Bending over, I kiss her cheek. Her face seems more relaxed.

I look to my cousin, “How can she be gone? She’s still breathing.”

She points to the heart monitor displaying a long flat line resembling the Texas horizon.

The doctor stands at the door. “It’s muscle memory. She’s been struggling to breathe for so long her body just keeps doing it.” He walks to the monitor and turns it off. “Take all the time you need,” he says.

The room fills with palpable peace and love, as if many angels flock into this space to welcome my aunt to their realm and console those of us staying behind.

I realize I’m holding a lifeless hand, yet I don’t let go. I don’t recoil at death—and that astounds me.

One of Ruby’s sons says, “Mom was expecting you today. This morning, the doctor said she would die at any moment. When she was still hanging on at noon and her vitals were almost non-existent, and the doctor asked, ‘Who is she waiting for’…. Mom was waiting for you.”

Her love and determination fought off death until I was by her side. Thank you, my dearest Ruby, for a gift that can never be topped and for a love that lives on through eternity. And, thank you for showing me that death can be beautiful and that it’s nothing to fear.