Thursday, December 30, 2010
526: Robert Rayner, 1956-2010
Memory: I am five years old, in Chicago, an enormous city. At some point on this trip, I remember wearing my pajamas in the Hilton lobby, dazzled by all the gold thread and glass chandeliers. We attend my first musical, and I am entranced, leaning forward in my seat, black shoes kicking, watching men and women dance around a stage in cat costumes. At intermission, my uncle takes my hand, and we weave through the crowds; he wants to take me backstage to meet the actors, to see the magic. I am not sure if I am a token in his own curiosity, but at five, I cannot suspect ulterior motives. Only that I want to meet the king cat himself.
Memory: My bangs are shaggy, and I have to brush them from my eyes. It is the only time I have deviated, truly, from the same hairstyle I've had since preschool: long, straight, parted in the middle. In 4th grade, I had a home perm and bangs, and in 5th grade, I am growing it back out. It is Christmas, and we are in my grandmother's home in Massachusetts, a house I love for its wooden floors and painted wooden block houses, its country charm and potpourri smell. My present from my uncle is a purple fanny pack, and inside is a New York City subway token, an exotic coin of an adventurous place I'd never been before but could only imagine. He tells me it is his lucky token and not to lose it, which may have been an untruth, he may have fished it off his dresser before flying out to meet us, but I treasure it, am flattered and honored that he would pick me to have this something. This is also the year my father gets juggling balls--was it from my uncle too?--and my father stands in front of the door at the base of the stairs and teaches himself until he is flawless, though he is long teased in the process, and it's true--my father is awkward and clumsy. I've inherited that.
Memory: In sixth grade, my last year in Chattanooga, we drive out to Albuquerque, New Mexico with my aunt, my sister, my mother. This is where my uncle lives, in the midst of mountains and dry, flat land. We take skiing lessons, drink hot chocolate, see American Indian dancers, fall in love with beaded and feathered jewelry. I wear a locket my first boyfriend gave me, a thick heart that plays "Love Me Tender," which I lose on April 2nd of that coming year, the one-year anniversary with said boyfriend. But in the videos, I see it at my neck, swinging heavily, as my family wends its way in the markets.
Memory: Some time after we move to Green Bay, Wisconsin, where my father has gotten a professorship at the university, my mother has my sister and myself come into her bedroom, sits us on her bed and tells us she has something serious to share. My uncle is HIV-positive, has been for a dramatically long while. Because he works in the medical field and because he is meticulous, he has always kept abreast in medications and trials and keeps himself alive despite the diagnosis. But we can't know this yet; this is still when AIDS is a death sentence. My closest friend from pre-school on had lost both of her parents to AIDS; my mother took me to her mother's funeral. We sat in the back. When I turn fourteen or fifteen, I begin volunteering at the local AIDS clinic, on a dangerous patch in Green Bay. I put together what are called "condom six-packs" and my first job is to de-ice a freezer with two women schoolbus drivers, one small and perky and the other large and grumpy, like cartoon dogs. We use a crowbar. I also work on Fridays in the summer, answering phones, and sorting through client forms, anonymous surveys that give out sordid details of sexual pasts, drugs. When I first volunteered there, I had never been kissed; years later, after I've been trained as a youth educator, gone to a conference in Milwaukee, I end my time volunteering with a girlfriend of my own.
Memory: The summer between 10th and 11th grade, the summer before I'll have my own mother as an AP Language teacher and bring books from her book list with me, we go to San Francisco, where my uncle now lives. I don't know why, but he ignores me blatantly and showers my sister with compliments--she is the future movie star, the adorable one, and I am lazy because I have rolled a sleeping back with the tie inside. I am surly; I am a teenager, after all. We see some of the most beautiful things I've ever seen on this trip: we camp at Yosemite, we travel to the Hearst Castle, we go to the Muir Woods, we touch the trunks of redwoods, we read on the beach, we stay in gorgeous wood cabins in state parks, we drive along the coast of California, that famed Hwy 1, to LA, where my mother, sister, and I fly back to Wisconsin. I am hurt, in a selfish way, but love my sister.
Memory: It's my 20th birthday, and I'm living in Minneapolis, my first few months away from home, going to the university for an English degree (the first of three I will receive from this institution). My boyfriend is there; he gives me a heart pendant with twenty diamond chips in it. This is his first birthday he will spend with me; eleven years later, we are celebrating my thirty-first. My parents have come out, my sister with her leg in a cast from a frightening and deadly car crash, and my uncle happens to be there too, for a medical conference. He takes us out to a fancy restaurant in St Paul, lets me taste his olive tapenade. For breakfast on Sunday, we eat at the Hilton Hotel's lush restaurant, our fruit fresh and pricey. We don't speak much, and it's the last time I'll see him; we'll miss one another on family trips to Chattanooga, to North Carolina, Massachusetts. He still seems so strange to me, speaking when he deigns to speak to me, teasing and joking about family members in his way, his face squinched on one side from complications of his illness.
This morning, my mother called to let me know my Uncle Rob passed away some time before midnight, in hospice, of pancreatic cancer. It had nothing to do with his HIV; he had beaten that already. Some time near Halloween, my mother and uncle flew to Chattanooga to be with my aunt and grandmother one last time; my mother was teaching him to knit. Near Thanksgiving, he called to let them know, "This is it," and entered the hospital, not fulfilling his vow to take pills instead of ending his days in the halls where he once worked, ushering others to the place he was now headed. He never went home. The same aunt, grandmother, mother, were by his side much of this month, finalizing what needed to be finalized, meeting the man who was not his lover but dear, dear friend, and watched as the man they grew up with began to waste away. Pancreatic cancer is one of the cruelest, and, in fact, it wasn't the cancer that took him, but the chemotherapy that weakened him. In the end, he was disoriented and surly, confused and upset. His passing after this is truly a blessing, a bringing of peace. His body will be turned to ashes, sent to his mother in Tennessee, and eventually spread in the ocean, at one of their childhood beaches.
There's so much tied up in family--so much hurt when it comes to this kind of event. We always knew he would never end his estrangement from his father, an estrangement that has extended to other family members as well (I think of myself as having two grandparents--two grandmothers--remaining, and Walter, my step-grandfather), a brother of his who did not call but sent a strange painting. There are so many secret rules and wants when it comes to the disposing of the dead's things--the intensely small condo with seven packed boxes, the closet with arrow-straight clothes. Who calls whom, how the information is disseminated in the circle of distance.
I send my love to my mother, my aunt, my grandmother, whose bravery at facing good-bye is immense, whose tenderness in those last few days was so important. It's never easy, family, good-byes, and as I think about this little life inside of me, I think of all the cycles around me, all the people who are gone from this earth in this way, how we remember the good things, how I hope Sophie can hold that goodness in her heart as she ages, loves and becomes loved.