The Rhapsody in Sue

It was Good Friday 1996, and in some God-fearing parts of the country, like Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Good Friday still meant time off from work, closed banks, no school. This God-fearing part of the country has reason to fear God: soupy hot summers, mosquitoes as big as hummingbirds, and wicked wild winters with endless snow, storms, and blizzards that cover cars and sometimes even houses in frosty casings. This winter started early and gave every indication that it would end late. But this Good Friday teased the cabin-fevered citizenry with the hope that Munising, Michigan would not be frozen forever. At fifty degrees, it was darned near balmy, and with a south wind, that is a wind that did not blow onto land after collecting cold air from the lake, there seemed a ray of hope that the annual ice age might end.

Easter and its accouterments, Good Friday, Palm Sunday, Ash Wednesday, held meaning to Yoopers (that is, residents of the Upper Peninsula or as it is known to residents, the U.P., hence, “Yoo-pers”) because it happens at the waxing edge of spring and can always conjure images of warmth and a sense that winter was long but not necessarily eternal, that the snow would really, actually melt and the brief summer months would arrive to make the winter months somewhat palatable. And so it was. The Catholic population would attend Mass today. Protestants would go to Good Friday services. Others would take advantage of their nonlegal holiday by cracking open a beer to go with their Bratwurst. I, however, would not be relaxing with a bottle of Budweiser in honor of the death of Jesus Christ, because I had a mission to complete. It was a mission that was literally a matter of life or death, and though I dreaded it, I was compelled.

Sue with my Mom in Grand Marais, Michigan
Sue with my Mom in Grand Marais, Michigan

Being much distracted I’d actually forgotten it was a holiday. When I stopped by the insurance office to pay my bill, there was a handwritten sign on the door: Office Closed for 12 O’clock Service . It was 12:30, but I knew if I waited for the office to open at one o’clock, I would chicken out, and find some reason to postpone my journey west as I had three times already. No, this had to happen today or not at all. I needed to get to the hospital in Marquette, an hour away at a time of day when my Aunt Sue might be awake, and with any luck, somewhat lucid. So, I got into my rust-speckled car, not entirely insured, and headed out on M-28 West.

Early spring in the U.P. is not exactly picturesque with brown snow banks, naked ravaged trees, and puddles of murky water as large as parking lots. Hugging its contours on the north side is the lake, The Big Lake , Superior , Gitche Gumee , which no matter the season, was always stunning. I would have the lake as a traveling companion all the way to the hospital. As I drove out past Munising Bay, which was still an ice-clogged moonscape, blue water glimmering in a beam of sunlight which had broken through the clouds, began to appear, looking deceptively tropical to the untrained eye. This mirage helped me breathe a little easier.

Lake Superior's icy south shore between Munising and Marquette, Michigan
Lake Superior's icy south shore between Munising and Marquette, Michigan

But I needed even more inspiration. I raked through a small pile of cassette tapes on the passenger seat, Ray Charles, Ella Fitzgerald, Manhattan Transfer, until I picked up one with a hand-written label that read: Sue 8/11/95 . I pushed the tape into the deck and cranked up the volume.

“I don’t know. This living crap is getting on my nerves.”

“So, play me some Gershwin, Sue.”

“You know I can’t touch these damn keys without a cigarette in my mouth and a drink within reach.”

“Play me Rhapsody in Blue. You promised.”

“Not without a cigarette and drink.”

“Okay, light it up . . .”

(A shuffling of feet, the click of a lighter, ice tinkling in a faraway glass.)

“Here . . . now play.”

A deep breath, then music . . . the opening arpeggio of Gershwin’s Rhapsody filtered through magnetic tape, recorded on a cheap recorder, in mono, and yet it was voodoo. Sue had fingers that radiated music before they even skimmed the keys. It seemed that she never really touched the keyboard when she played, as if she had telepathic fingers, a gentle empathy that nudged the music from dry black notes on white paper to an expression and articulation purely hers. It was Sue. I could see her bend toward the keys, close enough to kiss them.

I closed my eyes. Then suddenly remembered I was driving a car on a two lane highway next to a very large body of water and my lids sprung open and . . . a rabbit. “Shit!” I swerved and pulled over to a scenic turnout, sliding to an uncertain stop over muddy gravel.

I turned to look for the bunny. I had missed it, hadn’t I? I saw him just across the highway, tucked under a naked maple sapling, looking at me as if to mutter, “Asshole.” If he’d had a middle finger, he would have shown it to me. Then he disappeared, his brownish mottled coat camouflaged in the leafless foliage.

The music billowed from the car’s speakers, and I saw Sue forgetting about the drink I had given her. I could see the ash from the cigarette that was dangling from her lips drop into her lap as she navigated Gershwin. I gazed out over the waters of Lake Superior. The ruffled white caps were being blown out to sea colliding with the incoming waves. The Big Lake looked confused. So did I. We were as one. I was at home at the shore.

Gitche Gumee in early Spring
Gitche Gumee in early Spring

After many minutes, the familiar grand ending of Rhapsody in Blue could be heard over the speakers.

“A little Chopin, Sue?”

(Tinkling of ice as Sue bottoms-up her glass.)

“That will require another drink.”

And so it would go. Two drinks would get me Chopin’s Etude in C Minor , three drinks and her old Catskills jazz combo special of It Could Happen to You and then the fourth drink, which always, without fail would get Sue singing – never her strongest musical gift – her own adapted lyrics for I’ve Grown Accustomed to His Face . . . “that ugly puss.” (From the sublime to the ridiculous in four vodka tonics.) The music was over, but the drinking had only just begun.

There was a metallic rattle and clank over the speakers as the machine was turned off.

I felt such an acrid aversion to my mission, that procrastination was required. I turned my car off and got out just as the wind switched and swept a blast of cold north air through me. I shuddered from the cold and the realization that I could be such a whore for Sue’s music that I was willing to feed her poison in order to get it. And alcohol was her poison, the drug that prodded her to play but then shut her gift down completely.

I headed down the deep steps, which were made from old railroad ties, toward the edge of the lake. The whitecaps were building along the northeast horizon just in front of a curtain of gray precipitation that was probably snow.

What would I say to Sue when I saw her? “You want to live or die, Sue? Do you want to keep breathing or should we kill you?”

Sue, with obligatory drink and smoke
Sue, with obligatory drink and smoke

The vascular accident, as it is so clinically called, had happened two months before, a migraine, they thought. But it was no migraine. It was an aneurysm and in a bad place, too, at the base of the brain near the top of her spinal column.

I was with my Mom when she got the call from the ambulance while Sue was in transit to the emergency room.

“What is it this time?” I asked as my mother put the phone down.

“Your Aunt Sue’s on her way to the hospital. I’m going to meet her there.”

“I’ll drive you.”

The five minute drive was as suspenseful as a Hitchcock movie. More than a few times Mom had met Sue at the hospital. Sometimes she was convulsed with DT’s, sometimes racked with withdrawals after a hard binge, and sometimes mercifully unconscious after taking too many tranquilizers. When she was conscious, she was often incoherent and there was always a dark, blistering rage which brewed then seethed before it exploded to the surface. Trays would fly and so would profanity that made even me blush, and usually she ended up in restraints. Mom would turn white and grope for a chair or flee the room swallowing waves of nausea.

We reached the hospital and got out of the car in time to hear the siren and see the ambulance careening towards the emergency entrance. They rolled Sue out. She was pasty, clutching an emesis basin, her eyelids drooped a little unevenly and she squinted as she looked up at us as if the late afternoon winter gloom was as glaring as a spotlight pointed at her face.

This was something new.

We followed the gurney into the hospital and waited outside the only examination room for a few moments as they undressed Sue and wrapped a hospital gown around her.

We went to opposite sides of her bed and each took one of her hands.

“Thanks for coming.”

“Just hang on, Sue,” my Mom said.

“What?”

She stiffened, her aquamarine eyes widened as she sank into the pillows, and just like that, she was gone.

I looked at my Mom and her jaw went slack, a quizzical expression painted across her face in reaction to this sudden and stupefying turn of events.

The nurse was lost in her charting. “Get the doctor,” I snarled. “She’s dying.”

Eventually, the nurse agreed with my lay diagnosis and we were pushed out the door as the doctor rushed into the examination room.

Mom and I sat in chairs not speaking, overhearing all the machinations and defibrillations and orders for medications, and the doctor’s insistent, cadenced, redundant, beckoning, “Susan, Susan, Susan, Susan . . .” Then a somewhat astonished, “Susan?”

And just like that, she was back.

The doctor came out of the room, shaking his head, peeling his latex glove off his right hand and mopping his brow.

“We need permission to do a CAT scan.”

Mom nodded vaguely, then, “She wouldn’t want to be kept alive artificially.”

Like a silent movie double take, the doctor and I looked sharply at my mother, then at each other. For a moment we were both at a loss for words.

“We don’t know anything yet.” The doctor said.

“Yes, do the CAT scan.” Mom said.

“I’ll have the nurse get you some paperwork.” The doctor said, and with one last quizzical glance at my mother, he walked toward the treatment room.

“She wouldn’t want to be kept alive artificially.” My mom muttered again, to herself as much as to me.

“Mom,” I replied. “We can’t turn the machine off until it’s been turned on.”

From then on, Mom and I would be in fervent disagreement. Sue’s saga had begun. Mom was ready to send her little sister off to a better life. I still thought she had a shot at this one. The music would die, too, along with any chance of her ever knowing what it was like to be happy, or to feel good. This could be a wake-up call, I reasoned, a shot at really thriving, and not just going through the motions of this “living crap.” Yet, during her illness, there would be times when she was on a ventilator, so not there, so completely absent from herself, that I wondered if I was wrong and Mom was right. Then it struck me: Why don’t I just ask Sue what she wants us to do? It was a deceptively simple solution.

They had transferred her to a regional hospital, diagnosed her with the aneurysm, did brain surgery, and then another brain surgery, and then another brain surgery. Her vascular system reacted to each invasion like a set of dominoes, tipping over rhythmically, pushing the injury from one part of her brain to another. She had astounding resilience. After the first surgery, she was comatose, catatonic, staring at nothing, responding to no one, for almost two weeks. Her first complete sentence was vintage Sue: “Where can you get a cigarette around here?”

So, on this suddenly cold bitch of a Good Friday, with a snowstorm pushing in from the northeast, I was shivering on a beached log, postponing my mission. I walked to the water and stirred it with the tips of my fingers, and the cold shot through me. Enough. Go do this.

Sue, a golden child
Sue, a golden child

I headed back to my car and started it up, heading west with new if shaky resolve. I clutched the steering wheel with both hands, and checked my rearview mirror which was filled with ominous storm clouds that would chase me all the way to the hospital, like a grey-gowned angel of death. A sudden urgency gripped me. What if I was too late?

In less than an hour I was pulling into the hospital parking ramp to the strains of How High the Moon , having plugged Ella Fitzgerald into the tape deck for added inspiration.

Though I had been to the Neuro Unit a dozen times, I had trouble finding it. I nodded to the nurses as I passed the Nurses Station and walked into Room 626, where a nurse’s aide had just tucked in the last corner of a clean set of sheets.

Sue lay flat on the bed, an IV plugged into her arm which was green and blue with bruises from her elbow to her wrist. A heart monitor beeped an innocuous, steady, almost soothing cadence. She had been in and out since her aneurysm, and seeing her now, it looked like an “out” day. Still she was sublimely beautiful, more childlike than I had ever known her. Even with a bandaged head and patches of shaved scalp, her blonde hair was thick, wavy and lustrous. Her eyes, which stared toward the wall in front of her were clear aquamarine. I have never before or since seen eyes that color.

With a deep breath, I walked over to her bedside, touched her hand and said, “Hi Sue, it’s Dee.” She didn’t blink.

“How are you feeling? I can’t wait till you get out of here. But, believe me, you’re not missing a thing.”

Nothing.

“Mom and Dad are coming on Tuesday.”

The aide tossed the dirty linen into a hamper and left the room.

“I really wish you could talk to me. I have something important to ask you. I know you’re in there, Sue. You’ve gone through hell these past two months, and you’ve got to be wondering what the hell happened. I’m not even sure anyone told you, but you had a brain aneurysm and they had to do some surgeries.”

Sue’s face was so empty of affect, she could have been a marble statue.

“I have a hard question to ask. Everybody who has no business making your decisions has their opinion of what your answer might be. Everyone seems to think they know, including me, I guess. I just wish you could tell me, so that we can do right by you. They’re planning on doing another surgery. Can you talk to me about what you want. I’m just wondering if you’ve had enough, or if you want to try this surgery. I don’t know how much your poor head can take, but I’ll tell you this, I want you around. But if that’s not what you want, then I want what you want. I’m sick of everyone thinking they know you well enough to read your damn mind. And anyone who knows you at all, knows that no one has ever really known you at all, anyway.

Please, Sue, can you squeeze my hand if you want this surgery? Can you maybe do that?”

I looked down at that little transparent hand with the long slender fingers that had once been filled with music. There was no sign of movement. I waited over a minute, staring down, studying her hand, and then looked at her eyes which were two sea green disks.

“Can you squeeze my hand if you don’t want any more surgery?”

I watched her hand again for any hint, twitch, flutter. Nothing.

“I’m sorry, Sue. Maybe I shouldn’t have asked. You’re tired, probably, and I won’t stay long. I’m just going to go sit down in the chair at the end of the bed. I’m not leaving. I’m just going to sit here for a while.”

I turned and took the few steps needed to reach the end of Sue’s bed, and was suddenly aware that the heart monitor’s steady beeping was building in speed. I reeled around and Sue was sitting bolt upright. Her eyes, stationary in her head, were pressed into a squint as she searched unseeing for what? Me? I froze and watched. The heart monitor continued to accelerate, as Sue searched unseeing. Both hands raised up towards where I had told her I would be. Her lips moved slightly. The herculean effort it had taken for her to pull herself up, try to see me, reach out to me, was evident as the monitor beeped out an increasing tempo allegro . It was fast enough that two nurses rushed into the room to see what was happening.

“Susan,” said one. “You should be resting. Do you need something? Here let me get you another pillow if you want to sit up for a while.” With a hand pressed to Sue’s shoulder she attempted to push her gently back down into the pliant, prone position she had been in. But Sue wouldn’t budge.

What had I done?

“Susan, don’t tire yourself, dear,” the nurse murmured as she urged her to lay back. But Sue held her ground.

The other nurse, now jumped into action, putting both hands on her other shoulder, and between the two, they managed to force Sue back down into bed, as the monitor beeped a little slower. The moment they let go of her, she was sitting upright again, the monitor accelerating once more.

I stood staring, paralyzed, useless to the nurses, even more useless to Sue. But I knew she had not only heard me, but was trying to answer me. She was spending every ounce of energy that her ravaged body had to do just that.

In an accusatory tone, one nurse looked at me and asked, “What happened?”

I could only shake my head and stare at Sue before I realized I had to say something or she might kill herself trying to tell me whatever it was she so obviously was trying to tell me.

“Sue,” I said rushing to her side, taking her hand. “It’s okay. I’m right here. Please don’t upset yourself. Please just lay back. I’m not going anywhere.”

Sue turned her head toward me, though her eyes still looked slightly over my shoulder and past me. Calmed slightly and completely spent of the energy she would have needed to continue her protest, she fell back into her pillows. After a short time, the heart monitor relaxed too. The nurses finished their charting and left.

“She heard me,” I thought. “She is in there.”

I held her hand, for a while. It was limp, and cool to the touch. After a short while, her eyelids began to blink, and then reluctantly, to close. I sat staring at her for many minutes, stroking her limp and chilly hand.Then I placed it beside her, kissed her on the forehead, and left.

The surgery proceeded. In a month, Sue recovered enough to be moved out of the hospital and into a care facility, really a nursing home. She would have hated that. She was given physical and speech therapy. She began to take some faltering steps. She even had coffee and conversation with Mom and me. Of course, the question of whether she wanted to live or die became moot.

Sue, playing the Catskills
Sue, playing the Catskills

At the beginning of June, Mom and I made our usual weekly pilgrimage to see her. We brought her favorite cookies, Russian tea cakes, a pouch of decent coffee, a warm weather bathrobe, and some cassette tapes filled with the music that she had been missing all these months. We did not bring her cigarettes.

We walked up to the front door of the nursing home, our faces creased with stress not knowing what kind of visit we would have. As we walked through the door, music filtered down from the Rec Room at the end of the hallway: piano music. The melody brushed across our faces, caressed and nuzzled our ears, and wrapped itself around us. This was no ordinary recital. We stopped to take it in, then we looked at each other in wonder. We listened to a few more measures to be sure we were not hallucinating, then simultaneously, we rushed back toward the Rec Room. Tears filled my Mom’s eyes, and our smiles grew into grins as we slowly tiptoed toward the music, afraid to make any sound that might interrupt this unexpected concert.

Arriving at the doorway, we peeked around a small group of nursing home staff who had gathered at the door, and saw the image that neither of us ever expected to see again. Sue was sitting at a beaten up spinet piano, her physical therapist, clipboard in hand, seated next to her on the bench. Though the piano needed tuning, and even in better days, it was no grand instrument, the music coming from it was sublime.

There she was, leaning over the keys, coaxing sirloin from hamburger, champagne from ginger ale, lulling the second or third-hand upright piano into thinking it was a concert grand. Of all things, she was playing Over the Rainbow , a song I’d never heard her play before. The only things missing were the dangling cigarette, the sweaty glass of vodka and tonic sitting on the piano, and any hesitance on Sue’s part to play without them.

We watched and listened, Sue’s back arched over the keys, her hands graceful, lucid and alive, the music full blown, rich, heartbreaking.

Sue was back.

The very next morning, the phone rang. It was the nursing home. Sue had been taken back to the hospital with another bleed in her head. Found sitting in the hallway outside her room, she was propped up against the wall, dazed and languorous.

“Susan,” the passing aide said. “What are you doing out of bed?”

“I had to pee, what do you think?”

“You should call for a nurse when you need help. You know that.”

“I didn’t need any help.”

Within an hour it was apparent that she would need more medical attention than the nursing home could give. A CAT scan showed she was bleeding from yet another part of her brain. After Mom gave her permission, they took Sue back into surgery. Afterwards, she lingered on a ventilator in a vegetative state for almost two weeks. The morning after one of our visits, Mom said to me, “It’s time to turn off all the machines and let her go.”

I sighed, still not willing to concede total defeat.

“Yes,” I replied. “It’s time to turn off all the machines and see what happens.”

We took one last trip to see her and to sign the paperwork.

Walking into her room, and seeing how quickly she had deteriorated in just a few days, I knew that I was probably saying goodbye. So did Mom. Sue’s skin was transparent, and her body looked suddenly emaciated. Mom walked over to her bed and took her hand.

“Sue.“ she said. “It’s time to let go. Enough, Honey. I love you.”

Then it was my turn.

“It’s okay, Sue. You’re a tough broad. You have more courage than anyone I’ve ever known. But if you want to stop fighting now I can’t say I’d blame you, dammit. It’s up to you. I'll really miss you.”

I never saw Sue's green eyes that day or ever again. I felt nothing in her hand, nothing in her heart. Mom signed the papers and we left.

They removed the ventilator the next day. She kept breathing for about twelve hours after they shut it off. I don’t know the details of her passing, whether she fought or slipped away without a peep. I didn’t want to know. I only know that her heart stopped beating one last time and nobody tried to start it up again. Sue died late in the day on June 15, 1996, just a few hours after Ella Fitzgerald had passed away, as a matter of fact.

I guess Ella needed an accompanist.

Susan Spencer Nittle Pangborn ---   November 15, 1931 ~ June 15, 1996
Susan Spencer Nittle Pangborn --- November 15, 1931 ~ June 15, 1996

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Comments 6 comments

shea duane profile image

shea duane 5 years ago from new jersey

Wow, I feel like I knew your Aunt Sue. I feel like I'm mourning her passing. Thank you for this beautiful story.


KaisMom profile image

KaisMom 5 years ago from Keizer, Oregon Author

Thank you for your comment. I really did want to do right by Sue. She was extraordinary.


pennyofheaven profile image

pennyofheaven 5 years ago from New Zealand

There is no doubt in my mind you did right by Sue. You and your mum are both extraordinary human beings too. I love the way you write. So much so it was like I was with you on this journey. Giving Sue her vodka so she would play. Fag in mouth and fingers like an angel. Parts made me laugh, hold my breathe. Freeze and breathe again. So many emotions. I wondered as you got to the hall when she was playing again whether or not that would be the last time you would hear her play. My thoughts were that this was her last tribute to you and your mum before it was time to leave. Then the sadness crept in as I had suspected and I mourned for your loss. Beautiful sad but very beautiful Journey. Thanks for sharing.


Hong 23 months ago

I waited enguoh so that some one else posts something for me so that I can comment with Khiale Rahat :) I like the way you are saying. Well we have open stacks here but the way you have it there sounds better! Anyway ye mozzoe bi rabt I was looking at farsi stacks in our university the other day I saw some farsi books published in Day mah 1382 baba in che vazeshe ketabe hanouz ye mah az chapesh dar iran nagzashteh inja chi kar mikone?


Helene 23 months ago

What a plrausee to find someone who thinks through the issues


Lydie 23 months ago

there are soome kind of self-checkout machines in many liaibrres here. So even though everything is computerized one can come and checkout a book whenever she needs.

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