Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Too bad she didn't die in an M&M factory...

Saturday, December 2, 2006, 12:00pm
Lila's office, parking lot

"I'll drive, if that's okay," Lila says.

It's un-Decemberlike today, with air so warm and inviting that I roll down my window as we drive. She guides the car to the highway and onto a bridge, and there is something familiar about the dark gray oil tanks and heavy construction equipment that block my view of the water beyond. I've gone this way before, but not for a long time...

"Are we going to the hospital?" I ask, finally.

"Mm-hmm," she says, without looking at me. I wait for her to explain, and she doesn't.

I'm not sure what business she has at the hospital, but we're not going to visit someone; if we were, she would have told me. Besides, yesterday she said she had to "talk" to me, not visit a sick friend or relative.

Suddenly, it occurs to me that Lila might be the one who is sick. Maybe she's being tested for HIV. Maybe she's already tested positive, and she wants a doctor to break the news.

My stomach turns to ice. If she's HIV-positive, that would mean that...

"So, what did you want to talk to me about?" I ask, finally calming myself down enough to speak.

"Oh, nothing really. I just... go there sometimes, and I wanted some company."

"You go to the hospital? Why?"

"I don't... never mind."

We park on the third level of a dank garage. Lila's heavy footfalls echo loudly against the pavement as we walk to the entrance, the way Dan Johnson's do; it's the walk of an important person who would never be here without a good reason.

"Hi, sweetheart," says the receptionist as we breeze by.

"This is where my nana stayed, right before she passed away. She had pneumonia. They took such good care of her. They were so nice."

"The nana I met last year?"


Lila's great-grandmother Fran died this summer; I remember signing the sympathy card that got passed around the office. I vaguely recall that she was distraught about it, but at that point, if it didn't involve eating, sleeping, fucking, or wiping my ass, I didn't have time for it.

The first, and last, time I ever saw Fran was a snowy December day, and it struck me how alone she was, cooped up in a small 12th-floor apartment, while in the cul-de-sacs far below her, families gathered, sharing the joy of the season.

"Did your mom ever go visit her last Christmas?"

"Doubt it. She sent her a card, that was probably it."

"So we were the only ones who visited her during the holidays?"

"I went back a couple of times."

"Hello, dear," says an elderly woman with a walker.

"Hi, Margaret, merry Christmas," smiles Lila. "This is my friend, Steve!"

Lila leads me to the cafeteria, where we dine on leathery roast beef and bruised apples.

"Aren't those beautiful?" she asks, pointing to a series of wintry scenes painted on the picture windows. "This guy came in and did them all in, like, six hours."

"How often do you come here?"

"Couple times a week."

I look at her.

"I know you think I'm a whack job. Forget it, I shouldn't have brought you here," she says, and her face falls into the prettiest pout you've ever seen, with the slightly-jutting lower lip: Subtle, yet powerful enough to empty Bill Gates' bank account.

"I do get it. You miss her."


"You should have seen yourself walking here just now. You kept looking down the hall like you were waiting for someone. Like she was gonna come around the corner in her wheelchair any minute."

"So you don't think I'm coocoo for coming here?"

"Does Nate know you come here?"

"No. You didn't answer me. Am I crazy?"

"Pretty much."

"Steve," she laughs.

I'm sure most of you think she's cracked, but I don't. Everyone always talks about what's really important, and what's really important invariably winds up being family. No matter how successful we are, no matter how much money or how many toys we have, spending time with those we love is the most important thing, or so we are told.

But of course, when someone we love dies, we are programmed just as aggressively to move on, to forget that person and live our lives. We are to light a candle, shed a tear, and then get back to folding our laundry. Why? What is so weird about going to the last place Lila saw her great-grandmother alive, if it brings back good memories?

Being here makes me think, too. My dad was very ill this year, and I'm lucky to still have him here. I don't have to hang around the hospital, wishing I had another day with him; I can actually see him whenever I want.

"I think you're a hell of a lot sweeter than I'll ever be. When I die, I hope someone does that for me," I say, finally.

"I need to show you something," she exclaims, and leads me down the hall so quickly that I have to trot to keep up. We round a corner, and she seems not to notice the breathtaking, floor-to-ceiling stained glass windows to our right; instead, she stops at a wall filled with five-foot-high wooden plaques, each one covered with rows of small brass nameplates. She reaches up over her head and points to a plate reading, "IN MEMORY OF FRANCES LEGGIERO"

"See? That's my nana," she says, like a proud little girl.