Well, Today Didn't Go As Planned
I should have known my Dad’s missed call before 8 A.M. meant something was wrong – I should have known when I randomly grabbed her watch yesterday to wear, and her leather jacket the night before, and when we all read the LA Times: Calendar section article on Sunset Boulevard and Lou Adler on Sunday, a street she worked in various offices along and man she worked for, for years… that she was in the air. But in my family’s uber-Germanic style, I focused on what needed doing and followed what was already set out in my schedule, before my phone rang again.
My Dad’s soft tone came through, one I’ve sadly, gotten to know well over my thirty-one years. “Babydoll, if you want to say goodbye to your Aunt, we’re guessing you have today to do so.”
Immediately I saw her Christmas card sitting on my desk, I had touched it just last night with my left hand – her watch in view on my wrist as I did. It has a few twenty-dollar bills in it from Christmases I wasn’t home in LA to collect them in person… I promised myself I wouldn’t spend them until I went to thank her in person – to bring some of her favourite candies, or Nicorette gum, to hug her and remind her how much I still appreciate everything she’s done for me throughout my life.
I hadn’t seen her but a handful of times these past years – she became so mean after the stroke it was hard to stand her demands and what felt like a complete lack of gratitude for my efforts. Unfortunately by the time I was old enough to know how to handle her – how not to take her jabs personally, how to say no, how to look past her superficial shittiness to the reality, which is simply, what made her this way?
What hurt her so badly that she needed to lash out at those of us who were still here, still showing up at her bedside, pushing her wheelchair, bringing her whatever things she asked for… Which were always against her better health, but we brought them with the hope she’d finally quit smoking and drinking and taking drugs like she’d been doing since, well probably since her days at Burbank High School in the early 1960’s. I worry that if I can’t figure out whatever it was that cut her deeply enough to make her this way, those very things have the possibility of making me end up this way too: old, angry, hurting, and, worst of all, alone.
I pulled up to the intersection line at Doheny where Melrose begins off Santa Monica Boulevard, sure to avoid a position that could cause gridlock if the light turned yellow. This left a clear view to stare at Doug Weston’s infamous The Troubadour, a venue Auntie worked with for much of her early career. As I did, the stories of our family there rolled like movies through my head as they’d been passed down to us in our maturing years. It was the Swinging Sixties and my Auntie was on the front lines of the LA music scene.
This made me nostalgic of course, guilty even, for all the times I meant to go visit her… but didn’t. For all the selfish things I’ve used as excuses, shrugging a missed opportunity off as, “Oh, life just gets in the way.” I knew all these years that she was slipping away and that her amazing stories were going to die with her, but still, I didn’t make the efforts to get them from her – or better yet, share their memory along with her, like a slightly less kid-gloved scene written by Lois Lowry.
And there, on the verge of tears with all these complex feelings zinging about inside me, the light turned yellow… And an old Honda hit the gas in the lane next to me releasing an ugly, muffler-ridden noise, where he purposefully cut in front of me, and gridlocked traffic to make the light. The funny part? The part that brought me relief from this remorse, came unexpectedly from the universe the way solace often does: today, by way of a Kansas license plate. A rarity out here, it is the place of her birth and almost her death as well, about 75 years ago. I laughed out loud. It felt like a reminder from god that, no, no – she too would have cut you, me, or anyone else off had we given her the chance, in a beat-up old junker, or a mint sportscar.
I cried again on my drive over the hill to Bob’s Big Boy, the very hills her parents are buried on. I thought about all the times my father has said I remind him of her – and he didn’t usually mean that in a sentimental way, focusing on his big sister’s good sides. Oh, no… He meant it in the confronting way I felt it today. Selfish, work-focused, unwilling to compromise, abrasive, expensive, big, bossy… He also warned me in my stint working for immense, wealthy corporations that the same things that happened to her again and again, could easily happen to me. That my creative insights would be subliminally stolen, and the credit given to men poised as my (often undeserving) superiors.
“Fries & a Coke,” was apparently her standard order well before I was a twinkle in her little brother’s eye, but I knew to order her favourite from my own childhood of weekend nights spent with her at the car hop. She introduced this past-time of her own hey-day to me as a young girl and I grew up loving every night we drove over and had our food hooked up and hangin’ out of her Jeep’s windows.
Like an endless stream of girl’s date nights, she spoiled me always, and most often in the chunks of contracts when she lived in LA. I’d stay up to the wee hours of morning making a Disney Princess-esque mess of her various apartments as I tried on every piece of clothing, accessory, and makeup she owned, building grandiose ensembles and snapping away Polaroids like I was Cher in Clueless. (Ahem, before Clueless came out.) And she never got angry with me for it… She’d pass out somewhere along the evening, even if I was on whatever fancy new piece of workout machinery she’d had delivered.
But on this day, I knew none such fun would be had.
I chose Martino’s teacakes, since Bob’s sells them now in the gift shop/bakery, along with lunch for her twin, my Dad, and myself. The Martino’s grew up with the Proffitt’s, of course – as everyone pretty much did back in the good ol’ days of post-World War II Burbank. I felt another comfort of a family tradition was more than appropriate.
“The stroke didn’t kill her – it was a turning point in her life, only she didn’t turn,” my father told me over our burgers. His words always hit me so profoundly, like some famous writer who’s been dead for a century for two. He’d been there since the wee hours of the morning, and her twin for over a week – back and from hospital to hospital, and nurses in between. Most of the family had been too. But today it was just the three of us with Auntie’s heavy, desperate breathing. When my Dad said goodbye and left to drive back up north, his eldest sister walked out with him. “I just need to call (my daughter) – I just, I need a little break,” she told me.
“By all means,” I told her. “I’ll be right here with her. I can settle into some work, but I’m right here.” She wasn’t gone from the room but maybe six minutes.
I picked up the latest copy of my manuscript and brought it to my unconscious and pained Auntie on the bed, got up to lay with her, and cradled it in her arm. “I want you to feel the weight of my work.”
“There are so many stories in here, my only regret is that I didn’t get yours down before now… Thank you so much for everything you’ve done for me, for everything you’ve taught me. Designers, Manhattan, Chicago, business practices, NOLA, Salt Lake City – random as that few years in your life was!” I laughed. “It’s okay to let go. It’s okay. It’s been so hard for so long, you don’t have to fight anymore. I love you so, so much, we all do. I love you,” I repeated, touching the fine hair on her frail head with one hand as I held one of her blue hands in my other. “I love you.”
And that was it. Her abrupt breathing lightened and smoothed, and then it stopped altogether.
I could hear the sound of the oxygen tube change to a quiet hissing sound, as it wasn’t being taken in anymore. I froze. Tears welled up in my eyes but I wasn’t crying. I felt lighter. I felt grateful that she could finally be at peace. Just then her twin sister walked back in. She said something, but I can’t remember what, and I answered in my own blur, “I think she stopped breathing – I think she’s gone.”
Now, my eldest Auntie, the matriarch since 2009 when we lost my Grandma, is as steadfast as they come. I have never seen her weaknesses, although I know as a human they must exist somewhere, in private moments. The twins were born in 1943 in a rural farming town called Sterling, in Central Kansas, six weeks early – my grandmother’s pre-eclampsia almost killed her and both babies while my Grandpa was gone to war, training in the Air Force. A donated incubator from another state is the only reason they both lived and for months they existed predominantly inside these contraptions. She is strong, calm, politically correct, and entirely proper (for a SoCal family anyway).
“Fuck,” she said quietly, in the rational tone she normally speaks. Then, “Fuck,” a little louder, followed by, “Fuck! Fuck! I knew this was going to happen!” My tear-filled eyes pushed further into full-blown crying; I didn’t know she knew the word. And I felt guilty all of a sudden. I felt like I had stolen this moment from her. Twins, born not 35 minutes apart, I felt like she was the one who was supposed to be here, alone in this room with her sister as she crossed over… Not me.
She frantically searched for her phone, which was in her hand, and spouted off whatever words seemed to make sense in the moment when I reached out to hug her. And for the first time in my life, she actually hugged me back. Not well-mannered and empty like she usually returns a hug, but she held me as tightly and lovingly as I held her. Apologizing, I cried into her shoulder, and she cried into mine.
“You better call your Dad,” she said a couple of minutes later as we both calmed down. “I’ll call the hospice nurse.”
“Make sure Auntie tells us what the costs are, and that we’ll add everything up past and present to divide by three – we’ll each just give back toward what Mom and Dad left us.” I loved the way he put that. It felt so comforting to hear him speak as if everyone who touched all these situations were still here, still among us, still putting in and taking out, the way families and friends do in this world… Adding to the situation as best they can, needing to take from it at other moments. And, “You’re a good kid,” he kept repeating through our conversation, as if he actually meant something else.
Auntie and I spoke while we waited for the hospice nurse, there with her twin on the bed across from us. It was the deepest, closest, most meaningful conversation we had ever shared, even though the subject matter it included was nothing special. When the hospice nurse arrived a couple of hours later, she told me to get to class, that she’d handle all the questions and paperwork for the death certificate, as she didn’t want me to be late because of traffic.
“Yeah, I think I’ll need a coffee to get through tonight,” I said.
“There’s a Starbucks on the corner of Lyons and Orchard if you make a right when you leave. And that way you can take the 14 to avoid some 5 traffic,” she told me so efficiently, labeling each of the street names along my journey back to Santa Monica. Amazed, I looked at her, because this is also the way my own logic functions.
“Are you serious? On the corner of Lyons, and Orchard?” I said with my eyebrows raised. “As in the highway exit just past Sterling, where you were born, and Orchard Drive, the street you grew up on?”
She gave a stern little smile, “Well, I guess so. How appropriate. Now, go. Don’t be late,” she hugged me goodbye.
I thought about them my entire drive, of course. I thought about what it would feel like for my surviving Auntie to know that the last person who knew the most about her life, was now gone. There was no one left to remember or converse with her about their childhood in the war, or their relationships with their grandparents, or what it was like to ping-pong back and forth for twenty years between the small towns and family farms in Kansas, and the big city life in LA they predominantly existed in.
Driving home late tonight across the 10 the moon was breathtaking… I could imagine her sitting in the passenger’s seat sharing it with me the same way we’d shared it on the rooftops and balconies of her various apartment buildings throughout my life. And going to bed as everyone’s “I’m so sorry’s” rolled in, I couldn’t help but admit that I’m not sorry. Not at all. My heart is filled with all the blessings for being a part of my family, and gratitude that my dear, wild Auntie, chose to share that sacred moment with me.