I recently came across Christine Lalanne's longform piece "Castles in the Sky," about the work she did restoring her 100-year-old house in San Francisco and tracking down the story of the man who built it and his star-crossed love, based on a diary (written almost exclusively in Dutch) that they found in the house. It's quite a story, very well told--do yourself a solid and read it, because I can't recommend it highly enough.
I could probably write a week's worth of blogs based on different elements or moments in that story, but I'll start with one. She writes:
I have a vivid memory, early one morning when my father was in the hospital, of my uncle making his way up the carpeted stairs to the bedrooms where my siblings and I slept. I was nine years old. I knew my uncle was bringing bad news. How is that possible, to just know? Maybe his steps were slower or heavier than normal. Or maybe you can feel someone you love slipping away from this world.
It made me think of a similar experience of knowing.
I was a freshman in high school, and one of my best friends had strong-armed me into trying out for the fall play. We both ended up cast in modest roles, and it was a good thing, too, because he lived close to me (way out in the country) and I needed help getting home from rehearsals.
It's kind of amazing that I was able to do the play at all, because my father was going downhill quickly with complications arising from a brain tumor, and my mom was caring for him at home while trying to give me as normal of a high school experience as she could. Looking back, I don't know how she managed it, but I was able to do marching band all through the fall, with all the after-school rehearsals and Friday nights that involved, and then the play too. But not only was it not easy for her, it also wasn't getting any easier.
As the summer before my freshman year went on, my father's cognitive abilities were declining pretty rapidly. More and more often he would have trouble recognizing us, confusing us with other people. As summer turned into fall, he had trouble with daily tasks until he became bedridden, needing help feeding himself, bathing himself, and eventually becoming more or less lost in his own mind. Or out of it, maybe. I don't know if we really have the words to conceptualize it.
It became increasingly clear to my mom that we couldn't take care of him at home anymore, so the day before opening night of the fall play, we moved my father into a nursing home.
That next evening found me in a classroom in the junior high school (that's where the good stage was), both a literal and figurative green room, getting ready to fight through the opening night jitters, ideally remembering all my lines and my blocking, maybe even having internalized some of the notes we'd gotten over the past several weeks to do my fairly minor part in the production of Lizzie Borden of Fall River.
And then the ambulance showed up.
We heard its siren, and looking out the window we could see that it had stopped outside the school. When someone came in, to single one of us out, I knew--I knew--it was going to be me. And it was.
This knowing, though, didn't give me any idea what to expect, so I was surprised when they took me out to the lobby, where a paramedic was examining my grandmother. My 92-year-old grandmother who still lived on her own, who was feisty and sweet and strong. They'd removed her wig, and beneath her wispy white hair, her scalp still bled. She had been dropped off to see the show, but as it happened the main doors, at the top of some impressive stairs, were locked. People were supposed to enter through the less conspicuous side doors, and I supposed they were supposed to just know that. She'd gone up, found them locked, and fallen as she was coming down. Always upbeat, however, she told me not to worry about her, that I should go on and do the show and she would see me afterward.
So I did, and she didn't.
The paramedics decided that she should go to the hospital for stitches and further observation, and on the way there she had a stroke. She was in a coma for a week before she died, never waking back to consciousness.
I dabbled a bit in guilt--after all, it was my play she was coming to see--but mostly I just felt blind-sided, like something impossible had happened. I was prepared--as much as one can be--for bad news about my dad. It seemed like it had been nothing but bad news for the past couple years. But my grandma had seemed, even in her 90s, so full of life, and beyond my parents she was my closest family. But losing my grandmother was just so shocking and hard.
We did come to latch onto a silver lining in what were certainly some dark clouds. My father was her baby, the youngest of four, and while I'm sure she loved all of her children, he held that special place that only your last baby can. I'm sure it was devastating to her to see his decline. Certainly, it was hard for her to accept it: long after it was clear to us that it was all downhill, when we were just hoping things wouldn't get too bad too quickly, she was still holding out hope that he would get better. Leaving the world so suddenly, grandma didn't have to see that hope dashed, didn't have to bury her baby. And by then my father didn't have any awareness that he'd lost his mother.
I know I"ve wandered a bit off my theme, which was this sense of knowing, this intuition that we sometimes have about events. I'm sure we've all had this experience, but as I thought about it, I realized there's a bit of a twist to my story. Because at the same time that I "knew" the ambulance had something to do with me, another of my cast-mates also "knew" that it had something to do with him. He was saying so right up until I got called out of the room instead of him.
That detail always stuck with me, because I think it's a common feeling we have, thinking that we know things that we can't explain. It happened that I was right and he was wrong, so it seemed significant to me... and was probably forgotten soon enough by him. That's human nature, I suppose, to remember the hits and ascribe importance to them while we quickly forget the misses.
My father had his first ambulance ride--at least the first one I remember--in the spring of my 6th grade year. He had a seizure, caused by a brain tumor. We spent a lot of time going to and from the hospital, first to discover what was wrong, then to try to treat it. He had surgery, he had more seizures, he had more surgery, things got worse, they got better, they got worse. Hospitals and ambulances became very familiar, and of course they became associated with a kind of constant, low-level (or not that low-level!) dread. So of course hearing an ambulance triggered something in me. Dealing with my father's cancer and treatment had primed me. And it just happened to be my grandmother. Maybe my cast-made had some similar experiences with ambulances or hospitals, I don't know, but maybe that's why he was similarly triggered to expect the worst.
But I always thought that was a kind of gift that he gave me, a reminder that I probably didn't have some kind of superhuman intuition, that while it's true that our minds sometimes pick up unconscious clues that can help us see something we might otherwise miss, intuition and feelings are not actually reliable guides for everything. Sometimes there's just coincidence.