Written on 9/12/06
Sometimes things don’t turn out okay.
Yesterday, at work, I got a call from Mom. Two calls, actually, I was just starting to play the one on my voicemail (I had been away from my desk, refilling my fishtank) when my cellphone rang. I did not know right away that something was wrong, but I found out soon enough.
I’m up in Willits, she said. Nana is dying.
Willits is the small town in Northern California where my mother grew up and her parents and brother (my uncle Bruce) still live. Nana is her mother, my grandmother, Hattie Ogden Burton, the keystone that keeps this family from collapsing in on itself. She has been sick for a long time, a fact which I have dealt with in the same way I deal with anything that disturbs or upsets me: by thinking about it as little as possible and pretending that everything is going to be all right. Which is probably why my first response was incredulity.
Seriously? I asked. Seriously, she said. We talked for a little while and I cried onto the open pages of my lab notebook. Then I got up, told my boss I had to go and asked him to take care of the cells I had growing to freeze down for the cell bank, got in the car and started driving. I had been housesitting for a friend last weekend, and had some toiletries and a couple changes of clothes is my car, so I only stopped at home for long enough to feed my cat and send an email to my writing group saying I wouldn’t be able to make this week’s meeting.
With no traffic to speak of, I made good time up 101. I didn’t want to think of where I was going or why, so I made up a feud between myself and a particularly obnoxious actor I had just read about in Entertainment Weekly and really gave him a piece of my mind. That jerk. I also listened to my satellite radio, which has spent the last month working through every pop song that ever charted. We were just finishing with the eighties as I passed through Ukaih. There’s something comforting about listening to the lousy music you loved when you were twelve. Works even better if you sing along.
I got there around three, and Mom took me back to see her. She was sleeping, sedated, really, so I gave her a kiss and said I loved her and I would be back to talk more when she felt better. Which was stupid, but there you go. I went in again, later in the afternoon when Mom was giving her her medicine. I thought I’d wait around in the hope that maybe she would wake up and I could talk to her. But I didn’t. Because I am weak and a coward and I couldn’t handle seeing someone who I had admired and respected being fed medicine from a syringe like a sick kitten, and so I ran away.
By the evening all the available family had gathered at the house and a few close friends had stopped by. We kind of took turns going back to visit and sitting out in the front room and talking. Uncle Bruce played her some songs on his banjo, and at Mom’s request, Dad sang the Lord’s prayer in Russian. Around eight-thirty I went in to say good-night, kissed Nana and told her I loved her.
I’m not going to talk about finding out when she died, because I don’t want to.
When the people from the mortuary where on their way I ran away again. Entirely away, out of the house and down the hill in the dark to the tennis court, so that I wouldn’t have to see the truck or the stretcher or the people saying we’re so sorry for your loss, now if you could just sign right here at the bottom. All of a sudden this person, who was a very important person, is just a problem of logistics, and that’s too wrong to even think about.
So instead, I stood in the middle of the tennis court and looked up at the stars and said the most honest prayer in the history of praying:
I have the luxury of being outrageously cynical (and, occasionally, cynically outrageous) because I know that my life is never really going to be that bad. That if worst comes to worst, I can always call home and my parents will do whatever they can to fix it. And even if they can’t (for example, grad school) I know that at my baseline state I have a place to live and people who love me and I will never be without food or even, for that matter, laundry detergent. And Nana was part of that. Nana was, in a lot of ways, the founder of that, the person the people I turned to would turn to when they were out of options. I know she was not as perfect as I once believed, that she was, shockingly, human. But, coming from a childhood that was not the picture of stability, she built a family where “family” was the safest place in the world and for that, if nothing else, I owe her everything.
Good night, Nana. I love you.