For Sylvestros, there are no clean departures. We lurch from home in fits and starts, my daughter Casey and I always making it first to the car. Then we wait while Dave scurries about collecting (if all goes according to plan) his phone, his keys, his wallet, his watch, each of which has been placed in a separate location. His first segue to the car, while promising, is no guarantee. He takes his seat, hands on the wheel, but invariably leaps from the car at least once. He makes this exit quickly, without explanation, as if hoping we might not notice.
“What now?” we wail, a whiny chorus.
“I forgot my sunglasses, the directions, my water bottle…” whatever. It is not uncommon for us to reach the dip in the road before the stop sign at Morehouse Road - Casey and I holding our breath, hoping we’ve made our getaway - only to have Dave smack the wheel in frustration. If I’m feeling bitchy, I ignore this obvious invitation to inquiry hoping that by so doing, we can proceed. This strategy rarely works.
True to form, our initial foray to the car to take Casey back to Merrimack College for her sophomore year was aborted with my husband’s announcement that he‘d forgotten the batteries to his camera. With a sigh, Casey and I exchanged our oft-repeated eye-rolling look and trailed him back to the house. I’m not sure why we all went inside, but those missing batteries are the only reason we were there to receive my cousin Jenny’s call.
“Mom’s sick – riddled with cancer. It doesn’t look like she’s going to make it.”
Aunt Barbara had broken her hip in the spring and had been slowly, too slowly, recuperating. But dying? How could that be?
I thought about our phone call a month ago. I’d asked about her hip. It was sore, but she and Uncle Ding were looking forward to their upcoming visit to Bridgehampton. She filled me in on her daughters, Jenny and Julie. I gave her the update on Mom and Dad, my sisters and nephews. It was a long, companionable phone visit with nary a wisp of premonition.
We last visited Aunt Barbara and Uncle Ding at their home in Greenwich in June. Enthroned on multiple cushions, Aunt Barbara looked beautiful. We gathered on the patio by the pool with Julie, her husband, Sam, their four-year old daughter, Carter, and Jenny. We chatted as Carter, a ray of joy in human form, danced her way into the water.
What had been a pleasant but uneventful visit was now memory-lit with Aunt Barbara in high relief. Had her smile hidden a secret fear? The cancer was far along once she was admitted; how could she not have known?
I hung up the phone and told Dave and Casey the news. We decided to detour to Greenwich to see my aunt on the way to Merrimack. As we drove the Merritt Parkway South, I remembered my childhood attempts to soften Aunt Barbara. She and I had not always been close.
Uncle Ding, my mother’s brother, adored us. He was ever willing to produce Disney-perfect drawings of Mickey Mouse for his admiring nieces, or to join us in tide pool explorations along the shore in Weekapaug, seeking crabs and periwinkles beneath the kelp.
I was eight when he brought his slender, blond fiancé to meet the family, and she was reserved from the start. My attempts to win her over were modeled on the “pigtails in the inkwell” method of courtship, and perhaps leaping from behind a chair to shriek “Boo!” in her face did not translate as the endearment intended. She reacted always with exasperation. She had been strictly schooled in hiding her own youthful impulsivity and was impatient when my exuberance spilled over, splashing into her space.
She was a tight one, so different from Uncle Ding. Their match was a puzzle, and perhaps over time, it became a puzzle to them as well.
* * *
Through extensive renovations, Greenwich Hospital has shed that dreary hospital look. The richly appointed corridors of deep green carpeting and cream-colored walls warmed by mahogany trim seem more in keeping with an elegant cruiser. Uncle Ding looked so tiny, waiting for us at the end of that long, tasteful corridor. The illusion of walking Titanic’s halls was complete in décor and my sense of dread.
“I’m all right,” he said as he hugged us tremulously. “I’m going to be all right.”
Aunt Barbara was always so done. When we’d invite them for dinner, I’d say pointedly, “We’ll be in jeans, totally casual.” Still she’d arrive in a snappy red pair of Talbot’s slacks, a silk blouse, embroidered slippers and gold accessories. Due to neck surgery a few years back, she walked like a dancer, ramrod straight. But she and I had made our peace with the quirks we’d found in each other and could talk and talk and talk. This unadorned Aunt Barbara, lying in bed in her pale green hospital gown, was even more beautiful, but she bore the gaunt, resigned look of a prairie woman eyeing an uncertain future.
I wormed my way through the network of plastic veins threading from her nose and fingers to give her a kiss. Spent though she was, her “Hi Sweetie!” sounded chipper and loving.
She was tired, and snapped in annoyance at dear Uncle Ding as he fumbled to put the oxygen tube in her nose. “I love you, Ding, but you’re a nudge.” Later, when I related this scene to my cousin Julie, she was amazed at this almost-loving statement. The bar of affectionate exchange between my aunt and uncle must have been set lower than I’d thought.
There were rules to this visit: only one person at a time in the room besides Uncle Ding, and Aunt Barbara’s own demand that there be no tears. Casey and Dave were in the hall awaiting their turn. I struggled to honor Aunt Barbara’s wish as I gave her a kiss and told her, for the first - and last - time, that I loved her. Without even a hint of good-bye, she said in a business-like tone, “I love you too, but of course you know that.’
And I realized that I did.
I am grateful for Dave’s absent-minded ways, for those forgotten batteries, and for the Power that maneuvered us back to the house in time for Jenny’s call. In the face of so much that seems senseless, it is a comfort when things appear to happen for a reason, where grace is granted in the most ordinary ways.
We were given our good-byes…and she died the next day.