I told a little lie to my baby Sunday morning as I got ready to leave for the day.
“Where you goin’ Mama?” I didn’t want to tell him that I was going to see Papa and Nana. To him, “Nana and Papa’s house” means cousins in the swimming pool, four doggies, popsicles, searching for eggs in the chicken coop, and that drawer full of Jackson’s old Transformers and race cars. But this summer hasn’t been like that.
“I’m going to get gas…” then under my breath I mumbled, “first.” I’m going to get gas first then I’m going to see Papa in the Rehab hospital.
After a long drive and a little bit of crying after listening to Dan Savage tell a story on “This American Life” about when his mom died, I got there. But I sat in the parking lot and checked my phone. I finished my glass of tea. I cleaned a couple of receipts out of my purse. I checked my phone again. Played a game of Scrabble. The parking lot was busier than I’d seen before. Lots of people still in church clothes headed for the entrance doors. I sat there as the minutes ticked by.
I’m 46 years old, but I wanted to be the baby for a little while longer. I just couldn’t summon enough adult to walk through the doors and see how my dad is doing. I don’t want to deal with this.
Last time I visited, my sister was in town, so I got to walk beside her like I’ve done for so much of my life. I feel safer when I’m with her–she takes care of things. She’s got no qualms about the smell of Purell or the inelegant details of illness. She’s used to being in charge and I am used to letting her be in charge. But she’s in Bolivia on a surgical mission. And I’m sitting in the parking lot acting like a baby.
Twenty one years ago, my Grandmama Eunice was in this same building. We called it “the nursing home” then. I had gone over to visit Daddy and Big Gay one Sunday in February and Daddy said, “Come on and ride over with me. Mama would love to see you.” So we went, and I walked through the entrance doors next to him and let him handle things. I remember that day so vividly, because it was the last time I saw her. She lay in bed wearing that surprised look she had in her last few months. I knew she had given up on living that day because it was the first time in my life I ever saw her without lipstick and with some gray roots showing in her hair. I remember picking up a photo of one of my Florida cousins that was propped in her window sill. “What’s Jeff’s baby’s name?” I asked her. She couldn’t recall.
Just as Daddy and I were getting ready to leave that day, Grandmama Eunice reached out her thin hand and held on to Daddy’s arm. “I haven’t had a letter from your father and I’m starting to worry.” Daddy’s face got that surprised look on it that we all seemed to be wearing as we figured out this part of life.
“Mama, Daddy died back in 1965. Remember, he was in a car wreck with Mr….” Her hand fluttered up to the side of her face before he finished and she shook her head like she was being silly. She even smiled a little with embarrassment.
I kissed her on the cheek. We said our goodbyes. As we were walking down the hall, I told Daddy, “I didn’t know she was losing her memory.” He said, “Yeah, it comes and goes more lately. A couple of days ago, she told me that when she gets out of here, we need to find a house closer to town because Evelyn can’t be walking that far to school.” Grandmama Eunice was the oldest, and Evelyn was her baby sister. Even though Evelyn was in her 80s at the time, something fluid in Grandmama’s mind had her talking to her grown-up baby boy about her baby sister.
On the drive back to the house that day, Daddy and I were riding along in silence down a long straight stretch of piney highway. It was the middle of the afternoon on a sunny cold day. Before I even noticed anything moving, Daddy pointed at the windshield and barked, “DEER!” A good-sized doe bounded out of the pine woods and slammed into the truck in front of us.
She limped across the highway and collapsed into the ditch on the other side of the road, still trying to run. The black truck pulled over and we pulled over in front of him. Daddy reached under the seat for his pistol. I sat there stunned at how quickly this man who had spent most of his life tending to animals knew that there was no fixing this. He stepped out of the truck and called to the driver who had hit the deer. “You need any help?” He held up the gun so the man could see it.
“Naw, I got it. Thank you.” The man lifted a deer rifle from the rack in the back of his pickup as a teenage boy climbed out the passenger side. This was rural Georgia after all. Most of the venison we ate when I was a kid was killed with my dad’s truck on the back roads he traveled to make veterinary calls. He once got two in one season without ever firing a bullet.
Daddy got back in his truck and we went on our way. “It’s not normal for deer to be running this time of day. Something must have been chasing her.” I couldn’t think of a thing to say.
That story was going through my mind today as I sat in the parking lot. I needed to summon up the courage to be an adult, to know what needs doing and do it. But I sat there wishing I could be that baby for a little while longer. My daddy’s baby. He was Grandmama Eunice’s baby, I’m his baby, Carlos is my baby.
I went inside and we had a great visit. Told stories and made jokes. When his nurse came in for vitals, he introduced me and said, “She’s gonna be an author. I’m really proud of her.”
It was a long day, but a good one. When I got home after dark, G had the Littles in the tub with suds piled up on their heads.
As I put on my pajamas, Carlos, wrapped in a red striped towel, climbed up on the big bed. “Let’s have a pillow fight, Mama.” So we did. “Tickle me firty times, Mama.” And I did. “What’s dis spell, Mama?” He pointed to the cover of Jenny Lawson’s new book. “H-A-P-P-Y…that spells Happy.”
In that moment my little baby, I accepted that this is the way it has to work. Babies have to grow up but they always stay the baby. She loved him, he loves me, I love mine. And that will never change.