Over the course of four decades, I must have shared countless conversations with her, but the one I’ll remember best came on the night that first grandson was born, and it was entirely one-sided, an answering-machine message. “Cairn’s had her baby,” she said, since even in adulthood her old-fashioned Texas accent made her daughter’s name a challenge, too. And then she added, “I guess you know what she’s going to name him.”
I did not in fact know that Cairn planned to name her firstborn after me. Marna’s message was my only warning. I had a new godson and a new namesake. You could say that Marna changed my life the day she gave birth to Cairn, my oldest friend, but the extent of Marna’s power was never clearer than it was that night when Will was born.
She passed away last week, the first in a rapid succession of loss that caught up two other souls dear to me, Little John and His Excellency. A week later, I’m still absorbing the shock.
Marna’s power over me was remarkable, because when I was a kid, I seldom saw her. She was resolutely hands-off when it came to her daughter and her friends; Marna was anything but a helicopter parent. And of all my friends, Cairn was the readiest to live as a grownup, who earned her own keep long before she graduated high school. Independence was her nature, but it suited her mother, as well, and only my fear that my godsons will read this and try to copy us can prevent me from recounting here the sorts of scrapes and jams Cairn and I got into, while Marna was off in some quiet corner of the house, reading a book or watching Masterpiece Theatre.
Shy and retiring, she was a quiet soul, all right, but in the right company she could be a chatterbox, going on breathlessly about the subjects that captivated her: mystery novels, classical music, art, history, genealogy. Cairn and I loved these things, too, and it’s safe to say that, while we might have discovered them on our own, Marna’s interests fueled ours. She planted the seeds, as it were, but true to her nature, she left the cultivation to us.
Between Marna and me, especially in later years, there developed a complicity, and thus even when she was at her most voluble, we didn’t talk about personal matters. We didn’t need to. A topic might come up — Cairn’s ex-husband, for example — and Marna would simply say, in a fretful tone, “Well….” And that was all, and I’d know what she meant. And she’d know I felt the same way.
Thus there are things I never asked her, and because we weren’t warned of her passing, I’ll never have the chance now. Something the same is true of Little John, my cousin, who passed away just days after Marna did. I’m not sure anyone else ever called him Little John — but when I was a boy he seemed so right for the part that I couldn’t call him anything else. Older than I by several years, he was big and burly and, you could tell, absolutely capable of overthrowing the Sheriff of Nottingham.
His parents, my Uncle Johnnie and Aunt Loey, were very much a part of my childhood, and their other children and I were very close, too, at several points. Davy came to stay with us for extended periods, and Paulie was close enough in age that he always seemed my big brother. Ruthie lives in Rhode Island and kept an eye on me while I was in college. But I never saw as much of John: no matter where I lived, he lived far away: the Madison diaspora swept him up early.
Even from a distance, I could tell that he was honest and reliable. I knew he was funny and loving. I caught glimpses of his mind from the relics left around his parents’ house and the influence he exerted over his brothers: a particular band or a book or movie could be traced back to him, and might influence me, too, in turn.
But I never seized the opportunity to ask him about much of anything. It can be said that for 51 years I adored him without really knowing him. You always think there will be time to catch up — until the time runs out.
And so it happens that, of the three losses I’ve sustained in the past week, only one entailed a proper farewell. I think that both His Excellency and I knew when we said goodbye that it would be the last time we’d see each other. Even the way he greeted me seemed meaningful, the look in his eyes full of recognition if not quite reproach: “Well, there you are,” he seemed to say. “I was wondering when you’d show up.”
My sometime roommate ate out of my hand and did not object to my petting him, though I was anxious about it: he was frail and terribly thin, but his dignity could not be shaken. After a while, he retired to his favorite chair for another nap, waking only a little when I took my leave of him and giving a little nod before dropping his head again to drift to sleep once more. Bursting into tears would only have upset everybody, but I had to remind myself of that fact and to hope that His Excellency’s servant would attribute the huskiness in my voice to the onset of seasonal allergies.
I don’t know how many of his nine lives he’d used up in the various health scares he’d had in the course of his 16 years: I can count at least three or four off the top of my head. It’s possible then that he’s arrived in kitty heaven, or whatever you want to call it. For the first time, he will be surrounded by others of his own kind — and forced therefore to confront the realization that he may himself be a cat.
He will take this news with his customary dignity, I am sure. But I don’t say he’ll like it.
And for my part, I’ll miss him. I’ll miss them all.