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All content by Nicole Willson. Copyright 2000. No stealing.


Insomniaville -- All the Stuff that Keeps Me Up At Night

2/20 -- Changes.

Bill and I spent his 30th birthday week giving each other the Martian Death Cold. My poor husband celebrated the big three-O by downing a decadent Apple-Cinnamon Thera-Flu cocktail and trying to muster up enough strength to open my gifts. Just as he started to recover last Wednesday, I felt that familiar tickle in my throat that always means something very bad is on its way.

I willed myself to feel well enough to leave the apartment by Saturday. We'd been planning to go to my Uncle Phil's 90th birthday party for months, and I hated the thought of missing it. Uncle Phil and Aunt Anita have been the closest I've had to grandparents for a long time. (My grandfathers died before I was born, and my grandmothers both died while I was really young.) That's how they treat me. I haven't always been good about keeping in touch with them, out of my own laziness. Whenever I see her, Aunt Anita never fails to tell me that I'm one of her favorite people, and in the past couple of years I've tried harder to deserve that.

And somehow, by the end of last week I willed myself better. When Saturday came I still felt sniffly and stuffy, but not sick enough to stay home.

We drove up to West Chester, Pennsylvania. Uncle Phil and Aunt Anita recently moved to a retirement community there, joining my Uncle Syd and Aunt Ruth. It's a move they've really needed to make for a long time. Their old house was located on a remote road in a tiny neighborhood well outside of Pittsburgh. The rest of the family has worried for years over what would happen if one of them got critically ill during a snowstorm (and winters get really mean in their area). They've both had their problems in the last couple of years, although they're generally in good health. They finally came to the sad realization that they just couldn't handle the upkeep the house required anymore. Once Syd and his wife moved to the place in West Chester, I guessed it was only a matter of time until Anita and Phil followed.

The move was really a good choice. Their new apartment is pleasant and spacious, and the retirement community looks well-run, with a friendly staff and a reasonably nice atmosphere. They're closer to a lot of our family. They like being able to visit Syd and Ruth so easily. And they're in a safe environment -- if one of them gets ill suddenly, they'll have help right there, right away.

It's unquestionably the best thing for them now. And it breaks my heart. The fact that Phil's 90 and they're in a retirement home makes me think about dark and depressing stuff I don't want to consider right now. Or ever. They've outlived my father, who was considerably younger than them. Part of me really believes that they'll just keep going forever, that someday they'll be burying me. I've been doing my best to ignore the other part of me that knows better. That part can just shut her mouth and mind her own damn business, thanks.

And I'm going to miss their house. They lived in that house my entire life. They were the last relatives to live in a house I remember from childhood.

Our visits there always started off the same way: Every time Mom and I would pull up in their driveway, Phil and Anita came out on the dark green porch before we'd even stopped the car. Uncle Phil would come down and fuss at me if I tried to carry anything heavy. He's always been a tall, strong, strapping guy, a basketball coach in his days as a schoolteacher. But in the past few years as he became increasingly frail, I made a bigger point of carrying things myself and not letting him help. We had to carry everything up their steep concrete steps, and I didn't want him to fall. At the time I thought I was being a helpful niece, but now I think I probably acted like a condescending little twit who hurt his feelings.

I loved the swing in their backyard and the stone cat statue in their garden out front. I liked their apple tree. I liked the woods behind their house, even though I got lost there when I was nine. (That wasn't half as bad as it sounds -- I emerged by a house a block away, and the woman living there took me straight back to Anita and Phil's.) I really wanted to go there one more time before they moved away, but I didn't make it.

I feel like I'm penning obituaries here, and I should stop. We did enjoy ourselves. The family rented out the community clubhouse and hired a caterer. Uncle Phil looked as giddy as any child over his birthday party. His daughter, the cousin of mine who had the stroke back in September right around the time I got my MS diagnosis, came there from England. She's completely recovered from the stroke and looks fine. (We spent a few anxious moments in the kitchen reassuring each other that we're both okay.)

Bill and I studied the books in the library and giggled -- the selection was evenly divided between books I couldn't stand in high school ("A Farewell to Arms" -- feh) and sleazy crime novels.

And I got to spend time with my Uncle Syd. He has my father's big blue eyes and a laid-back, non-controlling demeanor that definitely didn't come from my side of the family. That's not to say he's all sweetness and light. God, but he loves to grumble. If you think I'm bad, you've never heard him.

My favorite Syd story happened several years ago during a visit to Anita and Phil's. It was Happy Hour time and Syd got drafted to carry the tray with everyone's drinks. The entire way from the kitchen to the porch, he complained about it. "If this isn't the most goddamn confusing thing I ever heard of. Why the hell can't everyone drink the same damn thing?" And then he caught my eye, grinned impishly for a second, and went back to bitching. That's Syd, in the proverbial nutshell. He grouses about everything and everyone, but he's got a sense of humor about it that makes it endearing instead of annoying.

My other favorite story happened at the joint 50th anniversary party for him, his wife, and Anita and Phil. I was just about to graduate from college and I fielded ceaseless "What are you going to do when you graduate?" questions. I conjured up something about trying to land an editorial job in DC, maybe at the Washington Post. (Funny girl. Maybe I should have gone into stand-up comedy.) But when Syd asked me the question, I looked into those blue eyes and told the truth. "You know what? I really, honestly don't know."

And he said "That's okay. You've got plenty of time to figure it out." That's a very un-Willson answer, but I'll always be grateful to him for it. Other relatives had lots of ideas for me, and lots of reasons why whatever I wanted to do would be a disastrous, life-wrecking choice.

I often refer to Syd as a fussy old cuss, but I mean it fondly. I really love him to pieces. He just cracks me up. And he knows he cracks me up, which makes it all the more fun. Whenever I talk to him I get the feeling that my dad's watching from wherever he is now and smiling.

And it all ended too soon. We left the clubhouse and went back to their apartment for a while, but I could see how tired they were and I still felt the lingering effects of my cold. We said lengthy goodbyes and ran the gauntlet of kisses and hugs. At any Nicole family gathering, you need to get up and start making "I'm leaving now" noises at least a half hour before you want to go, because nobody gets out without the hugs and kisses and parting words from everyone else.

This side of the family can be controlling and pushy and we have our occasional problems with each other and I've been known to bitch to high heaven when I think they're being too demanding on my mother, or on me. But I swear that I never leave them without feeling like a princess, all warm and loved and special inside. I'm lucky. I'm damned lucky.

The next entry.

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February 2000