Wednesday, August 19, 2020

the most colorful species

I called my Aunt Vanessa a couple of weeks ago after learning her husband had passed away. Linus was in his early nineties and his health had been deteriorating for a few years. He was Vanessa's fourth husband, a Danish dairy farmer who built their house on an expanse of rolling green hills outside Eureka. He was a curmudgeon who sometimes made rude jokes to Vanessa while babying his parrot, Baby.

Aunt Vanessa was a little jealous of Baby, but she liked birds and drew detailed colored-pencil illustrations of the most colorful species.

"Baby was so good when I took her to see Linus in hospice," she said. "She didn't squawk at all. I told Linus to give me a sign from the other side, and this morning I was out in the front yard and I found one of Baby's feathers. I've never found one of her feathers so far from the house. So I knew it was Linus."


After my mom died, Vanessa told my sister about a painting that was hanging in the other house on their property. It was a portrait of my grandmother with my mom and aunt as children. I don't know who painted it, but were a lot of artists in the family. The tenant living in the house at the time told Vanessa, "One of the girls in the painting is fading, and the other is crying."

Vanessa saw magic everywhere. When I was a kid, she showed me a storybook that had some sort of real-life treasure hunt tie-in. Follow the clues hidden throughout the story and they would tell you where the prize lay. I can picture the book in my mind; it shimmers with mystery and nostalgia. I don't know where it came from, but it was glossy and full-color, not something stapled together at the local copy shop. Still, Vanessa concluded, "I'm pretty sure the treasure is somewhere in the greater Eureka area." Of all the places in the world treasure might be hiding, she certain it was just around the corner.

My mom always said Vanessa could go to the grocery store and come back with an amazing story. Like a star, her gravity pulled things to her: friends, men, adventures, ideas, trouble. When my mom, the nerdy and responsible older sister, made the grocery-store remark, there was an eye roll in her voice, as well as genuine admiration. 

My mom and her sister are together now. Last week, less than a month after Linus' passing, my cousin Maria--who now lives with her husband in the house with the weeping painting--crossed the gravel driveway between their homes to pick up Vanessa for an appointment with an orthopedist. Fixing her knees was one of the long-delayed tasks Vanessa hoped to tackle now that she wasn't attending to Linus all day. But Maria found her face down, not breathing.

Maria and her husband Al had just installed a security system, and the footage later told them she fell. We don't know whether it triggered a heart attack that triggered brain damage, or if the fall itself injured her beyond repair. But after a week in the hospital with no discernible brain activity, Maria made the hard decision to let her go to the place she already was. Maybe it was just a crazy accident, but I can't help thinking about the things grief does to a body.

Maria is the family historian. The photos in this post are all her doing. She was raised by Vanessa, my mom, and our grandmother until she lost my mom to the family she started with my dad, and lost our grandmother to a stroke when Maria was in high school. You can see how the past might be a comforting place. You can see why we both have a stake in talking about our moms and grandmother being reunited.

I don't know what I believe about the afterlife. I think it's hubris to assume think there's nothing beyond our bodies, but it's also hubris to think heaven would be exactly as we imagined it. Sometimes I think our sheer collective wanting can create reality. Vanessa believed in a place where she'd see her sister and mother and father and husband, where she and my mom would sing goofy songs they made up together. And so I believe in it for her. 

I'm so glad Aunt Vanessa got to meet Dash when we visited in 2016. Here's another post I wrote about Vanessa. I'm sad for the stories she takes with her--especially the ones I never heard about my her childhood with my mom--and for the ones she won't get to make on her next trip to the grocery store. Like so many things in 2020, this is all a bit surreal, and too real.