I am the Nearest Living Relative.
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A nasal toned woman on the other end of the phone informs me of this. My uncle George, whom I never knew because he had the good sense to die before I was born, left behind a wife I can’t remember. Why the hell did I break my rule about not answering the phone once my vacation starts?
This woman tells me that my “Aunt” Gladys was found by neighbors parading down her driveway buck naked and singing the Battle Hymn of the Republic at 4 in the morning. When approached, she mooned them, a vision given that she is 70 years old.
Social Services has conducted a full investigation, whatever that means, and I have been found. At 35 years old, an unmarried, childless, professional, I have only recently found myself.
“When,” she demand, “will you get here?”
I try to diminish my involvement in this situation though nothing works. My parents and their parents are dead. Neither I, nor they, have any siblings of which I am aware. My only other relation, my uncle Sal, is in a Wisconsin (or is it Idaho?) nursing home sustained by his own excellent financial preplanning. I haven’t seen him since my dad’s funeral ten years ago. He was in a wheelchair then.
I search my parents’ solitary photo album. In it, on the last page, I find three black and white pictures of Gladys glued to a musty page. Each shows her svelte and smiling. Her blond hair is piled on the top of her head, a bouffant of cotton candy. Every picture shows her with a cigarette hanging from the corner of her mouth and a hand on her hip. The last one is Gladys, wearing a short dress, dancing in my parents’ kitchen.
Suddenly I remember that this picture was taken one Memorial Day visit when I was about ten. Gladys came late, dressed in a short white dress emblazoned with sunflowers. She called me “kid” instead of Lisa. I guess calling me that was easier than remembering my name. “Hey Kid! What grade are you in?”or “Hey Kid! Like hamburgers?” Nothing else shakes loose from my mind. This is the sum of all I know about Gladys. And three photographs taken years ago probably won’t help me recognize her today.
I know that however reluctantly, I must now don the mantle of the Nearest Living Relative, cancel my singles cruise and drive the almost 350 miles south to Virginia.
I walk down the linoleum floors of a hospital instead of down a beach in Jamaica. An elderly security guard has told me to follow the yellow stripe on the floor leading me to the sunroom where the Alzheimer’s patients, including Gladys, spend the day.
I open the door and immediately hear a raspy, “Hey Kid!” coming from a small lady in a wheelchair. Her hair, now white, looks like it was styled by Albert Einstein. Beyond that she is composed. She is looking at me when she again says, “Hey Kid!” I can’t believe it. Could it be that Gladys remembers me? I go and sit by her, taking one of her liver spotted in mine. Her fingernails are painted a stunning red.
She looks me in the eye and she smiles, her yellow teeth forming a perfect grin. I think that since she is looking me in the eye-surely she knows me. She is the woman in the pictures, still thin. Though has a lot of wrinkles now and the right side of her face is slack-maybe from a stroke, but it’s her.
I don’t know why but my thoughts pour out as if from an overturned pitcher of water. I imagine that, since it’s clear that she remembers me, we might have a chance here. I project us to my small house for our own celebrations. Scenarios abound of us sitting on my front porch sipping tea or something stronger and going for walks. I’m lost in this sort of revisionist future when the door opens and a nurse enters the room.
And that’s when Gladys yells, “Hey kid!” and I see that she is no longer even looking at me but is totally and absolutely focused on the nurse.
To every single person who enters (including her Nearest Living Relative a few moments before) she calls out the salutation that has carried her this far, this seventy years or so: “Hey Kid!”
I watch each recipient smile at the greeting, knowing what they think, and knowing what I know.