I wasn’t, by any stretch of the imagination, a serious child. Although quiet and shy and often nose-deep in a book, I generally preferred to be chasing down punch lines over being profound or introspective.
Yet somewhere in my early years, I had a realization that has stayed with me. Tainting some experiences; enhancing others. It’s nothing more than that I simply began to recognize, in the moment something was happening, that it might be for the last time.
The last time singing about John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmit around a fire at Camp Carlisle. The last answering machine message, spoken in Polish, from my Papap. The last bag of popcorn handed across a concessions counter at a high school football game. Odd little notings my brain would make as it tried to freeze the moment forever.
Every time I’d drive away from my parent’s home in Red House, I’d wonder.
Every Christmas. Every birthday. Every phone call.
When I became a mother, it ramped up even more. While other moms were busily celebrating their children’s firsts, it was the lasts I kept watch for. The last time she’d sit in my lap at a movie. The last time she’d ask to be carried or hold my hand while crossing the street.
The last time she needed me near so she could fall asleep.
While it might sound morose or obsessive, I view it as more of a relishing; this fleeting recognition where I’m sort of taking a mental snapshot or video before moving on.
It’s an odd way to go through life, trying to save so many ordinaries, along with the specials. Maybe it’s a writer thing. I don’t know. It’s just this part of me that’s been there a long time and shows no sign of going away.
Yet in spite of all this, there are big lasts that I miss. Like the last time I would speak with my Aunt Wilma.
Wilma is my mom’s baby sister, and despite her living on the opposite side of the country, we were always unusually close. Unlike many who are pushing 80, Wilma’s hearing was still perfect, her thoughts were still clear and her memory fine. For the most part, she would call me every day or two or I would call her, for most of my life. My phone is stacked with her short messages; generally starting with her laughing or sounding dramatically exasperated that I hadn’t answered.
I can’t imagine I’ll ever delete those messages now.
But it wasn’t just me that Wilma would call. She regularly talked to my cousins and a variety of other relatives and would report to them on what the others were doing. I fear she was the glue that held our small and widely scattered family together, and now that she’s gone, those who remain have lost the link that kept us connected.
Talking to Wilma was such a regular occurrence that, even though I knew she was going in for routine-ish medical tests, it never occurred to me she wouldn’t come bouncing right out again. We’d ended our final call making jokes about the grossness of the test she was about to endure, and she said she’d report back the next day, if she wasn’t too “wiped.”
It had been her final pun. She had a massive stroke shortly after her test. She lingered a couple weeks longer, and then left forever last week.
The realization that she’s gone keeps surprising me in sneaky ways. I’ll be watching TV and a character will have that same wild cackle laugh as her; I’ll look at a menu and see meatloaf and remember how good hers had tasted, cold and slathered with mayo on Hawaiian bread.
But mostly, it’s the phone. And how, each time that it rings now, I know it’s not her.