Hey, it’s You.

I appreciate You letting these words into your eyes so your brain can turn them into my voice. Wild how that works. I hope it’s synthesizing a silky baritone for me, soothing and soft-spoken but… still rugged. God, did I just really write that?

Remember how I promised You stories? I’ve got a handful of nice ones ready now. This here is the one I wanted to start things off with:

Moments That Make You Believe

I got the call at 5am. Thankfully I was already awake. I’m up at dawn most days to write. On the line was a nurse in my Nana’s memory care facility in Phoenix.

And at 5am, you know what the call is. It was that call: the one you dread because there’s just… nothing you or anyone can do anymore to stop it. Nana’s time had been coming for a while and now it was here. The last time I saw her, she was so frail, her skin so thin it bruised at the slightest bump. But the timing of this call is somehow still always a surprise.

The nurse didn’t toy with me. She told me up front: Miss Lenore wasn’t gone, yet. But she had started going. It’s a longer process than most folks realize. If I hurry, I might be able to get there in time.

At the time I was living in Los Angeles, and was Nana’s only relative on the west coast. I was thankful for that, that it came down to me. I tiptoed past my sleeping lady, grabbed a granola bar and my water bottle, and peeled off into the twilight.

I drove in silence between rows of thin palm tree silhouettes against that LA early morning gradient. Every radio station made my brain itch so I turned it off. With the windows down, it was silent. Just wind on my face, one thought on my mind.

Within the hour, I was outside L.A. county. Within two I was crossing the Sonoran desert.

Somewhere out there in the emptiness, my cellphone lost its signal. Still no music, windows still down, granola bar long since eaten. All I could do was go. All I wanted to do was reach her in time. Hold her hand, my skin against hers, so she didn’t go alone.

I made the straight shot across the I-10 in a little under five hours. Racing against death will do that to you. There was a parking space right out front of the care home that I squealed my tires into. I jumped out of the car without locking the doors.

When I got to the end of Nana’s hallway, a nurse was coming out of her room. She was looked up, surprised to see me: “Are you here for… to see Miss Lenore?” Her eyes, they said it all. “You— I’m so sorry— you just missed her.” My hand started to reach out for the nurse’s arm on its own — a thank-you pat or I don’t know what — but I stopped it mid-way . The nurse told me she sat with Nana until she passed. At least someone was there with her. I’d miss her by less then ten minutes.

She was kind enough to let me sit with Nana for a while. Nana’s eyes were closed but her mouth was still open, frozen in her last breath. I wondered if she’d said anything at the end. I had never been alone with a dead person before, let alone a grandparent. I apologized to her for being too late. She would’ve smirked and waved my apology away. She was always cool like that. As I got up to leave, I kissed her forehead. It was still warm.

+++

Nana’s husband Irving had passed suddenly the year before, following an operation. When it happened, they were already living separately — in the home but in different wards, since she from cohabiting to memory care — but Irving would visit her every day. Until suddenly he was gone.

Nana was confused. She waited for him to come, every day. Learned about and re-processed the news of his death, every day, sometimes more than once. It was heart-wrenching, every visit.

Until the last time I saw Nana alive. That visit, she wasn’t asking about him. She sat across from me in the cafeteria, watching me suspiciously. I was making her nervous. I’d brought a binder of old photos, glamorous monochrome pics from the 1940s of her life. Those moments sparked happy memories in her — big smiles too — but the big binder that held them made her think I was just another employee at the home. She didn’t know who I was anymore.

I wrote on a legal pad — she was completely deaf too, I didn’t mention that — “I’m your grandson Dan”. She read it and smiled. Yes, she did have a grandson named Dan. She beamed about him to me with pride.

I’d gone into that visit secretly worrying this would be my final visit with her. As I left I realized I’d already had our last time together, the last time I came to see her.

+++

After she passed, Nana was cremated. And her cremains — so unnecessary, that specific of a noun — were sent to my mother, who sent them to her estranged older sister, who sent them back return to sender.

They sniped at each over that box for over an entire year, like children: not over who got to keep her, but over who would be the one to deal with IT. Meanwhile, for those of us who believe laying a person to rest — not religiously, but out of respect for a life completed and that person’s beliefs — my Nana could not.

Near the end, Nana’s memory was full of giant holes. Around those holes, she was herself, but anytime our conversation edged up on one, it fell into a roaring void that sucked up all context and she’d just look at me sadly, slowly shake her head, letting me know she was lost in between again. During next-to-last visit — when she still knew who I was — she repeatedly got confused and afraid, repeating “she was late to meet Irving”.

Now that Irving was two years buried and Nana was one year in a shoebox, that memory hit different for me. I had to go to war with her daughters to at least be human and allow me to bring them together again.

Thirteen months after her death, the screen door of my apartment squealed open and banged shut. UPS had left me a scuffed-up cardboard box — with giant “Cremated Remains” stickers on all sides — half-hidden on my porch like an extra phone charger from Amazon.

Twenty minutes later, I’d bought myself a round-trip flight to Phoenix.

+++

On the ground in Phoenix, I link up with L. — my first-cousin-once-removed (I had to look up the correct term for our relation). She’s a successful artist in her seventies who lives in Scottsdale and offered to come with me to the “goodbye place” for support. It was Arizona hot outside, that fiery heat that feels like you’re face is too close to an open barbecue grill you can’t turn away from.

Climbing into my rental, L. notes the box of cremains (ugh) in my lap.

L.: I just want you to know, I’m proud of you for doing this. You’re the only mensch in the family and this… it would’ve meant everything to her. I promise, drinks are on me when it’s finished. I know a great spot that has—

Me (touching my roasting nose): Aloe vera?

L. (snorts): Do you know where we’re going?

Me: I do not, but my phone does.

L.: It doesn’t matter. I’ve been there before, when Irving passed.

The designated “goodbye place” is a U.S. Army Veterans Cemetery near the Phoenix city limits. Irving was buried there because — though he died broke — the U.S. government made good on their promise of a proper serviceman’s burial.

My Nana had no such guarantee, hence the cardboard box in my lap.

Everything in Phoenix is exactly thirty minutes highway drive from everyone else. We pull off the highway afterwards and enter the Veterans Cemetery. There are a hundred American flags hanging limp and heat-exhausted, no breeze to flap in.

We roll up to the security booth but the gate is up. A leathery old man with a white crew cut waves us through without smiling. We lock eyes as I pass: his dead-eyed serviceman stare makes me wonder if he knows I’m hiding a box of cremains behind my knees.

Me: This is illegal, isn’t it? What we’re doing?

L. (mid-sucking on a vape, clouds billow out as she laughs): Oh yes. Big time illegal. Don’t worry, I’m here for cover. This isn’t my first espionage mission. I’ll distract the guards with my feminine wiles.

Me: Well, please wile them away from me. I don’t ever want to see the inside of a Maricopa County jail.

My first-cousin-once-removed snorted again and pointed me towards a parking spot next to a dry wooden thing that was once a small tree. It gave no shade in death either. I hadn’t even killed the engine and L. was already opening the door:

L: Come on. Irving’s down this row.

Shielding my eyes from the sun, I scan the cemetery for guards. There is no color, just white tombstones, bleached concrete, dead grass, hazy mountains disappearing against the sky. Nor other people beyond the salty old fart in the booth.

I take a deep breath and follow L., Nana’s cremains behind my back, under my shirt. Just in case. We follow the lane she pointed down: all its rows arc slowly around a central platform, just an empty concrete square really.

Me: “Was there a monument or something here that somebody stole?”

L.: “This? No, this is where the band plays during the military funerals. With the twenty-one gun salutes? I’ve never—”

She stops, looking down at her feet at Irving’s headstone.

I look around one last time. Another car’s pulling up to the gate. I look back to L.

L.: “It’s time. Do it.”

I pull Nana’s box out from under my shirt, hold it in both hands so they can see each other.

Me: “Nana, Irving… Hi. I’m doing what you asked. I think I am, at least. I know you’d have wanted to be together” — okay fuck this is starting to get harder — “I know neither of you even expected things to end the way they have, but--”

L. (cutting in): “Who does?” She is not being helpful.

My fingernails nervously pick at the tape seal until I find its edges, then I pull, all the way around, until the box opens. Inside is a clear plastic bag. A bag containing my Nana’s cremains. It bears a label with her full legal name, social security, DOB, etc.

I try to say the words “Now you’ll both be together again” but it comes out a hoarse whisper. Then I pull open the plastic bag with both hands and sink my fingers into her cremains.

The ash, it’s so fine what’s left behind. It immediately reminds me of the protein powder I put in my smoothies. That plus the little chips of bone. The bones of my grandmother.

Looking back over my shoulder, I see L. is still keeping watch. There’s an older woman visiting a site by herself a few rows over. She’s done all pretty, wearing a hat with a bow on it that matches her pantsuit.

Kneeling down, I empty the bag onto the ground, shaking it fully so Nana’s ashes cover where I imagine Irving’s body to be. So much build-up to this over so many years, and the act is over in seconds.

I look down at the grave and for a second, I swear I hear whispering.

Suddenly the air changes around us. The sun disappears behind a cloud that wasn’t there a second before, a small one hanging just above the cemetery. And I smell that electric rain-scent of ozone.

Two raindrops fall from above us, one smacking my forehead, the other L’s.

L. (looking up): “What the fuck? It never rains in Phoenix—”

But it was raining. Drops started to come down hard until we were soaked, hair and clothes. It lasted about a minute and then it was over.

When I looked down at the grave again, Nana’s ashes were gone, carried down by the rain into the earth be with Irving, forever. The clouds vanished just as quickly as they’d come and the sun began to bear down on us again with a vengeance.

But we didn’t care. We grinned like kids as our shoe soles squeaked and farted out rainwater. It was an amazing thing we’d just done. Without knowing or really having a plan, we’d asked the Universe to bring Nana and Irving together again, and the Universe delivered, instantly.

Advance Warning

I recently recovered boxes from storage that are full of old sketchbooks and club flyers and paintings and bookstore doodles from my younger days.

I’ll be posting some real gems here soon.

How are You though…?

Let me (and everybody) know by commenting. Maybe it’ll even start a thread, which is Internet for a kibbitz.

Talk to You again soon,