The summer I was nine, my parents went to California for a week. Mike and I stayed at our cousins’ house — the Meltsners — which was the best possible outcome for “what to do with the kids” when my parents went out of town. Danny and Scott, who were 1.5 and 2.5 years older than me (still are), ran an insane ersatz amusement park household — insane even by 1978 standards. There was a pinball machine, a pool table, a swimming pool and a laundry chute. There was a long slippery marble entrance hall, perfect for sliding through in your socks, and they had the first big screen tv I had ever seen actually in someone’s house. And they had HBO. (I probably saw the movie “Stripes” about 15 times over at their house.)
Still, it was summer. So we spent most of our days at the swim club — the “J” which was short for JCC, which was short for Jewish Community Center. One morning, Aunt Brenda dropped us off at the J — Me, Mike, Danny, Scott and Adam (other cousin, different family, similar approach to life). We were pretty responsible kids, all things considered, so you can imagine we were being very safe while we ran around the Olympic pool pushing each other in (where the hell were the lifeguards that day? I’ve never been able to figure that one out). I was in the pool trying to get out when one of them came to push me back in. Rather than push my head outward and into the pool, he pushed it straight down, into the side of the pool. My chin collided with concrete, my bottom teeth slammed into my top teeth, and I saw red. On my own (the game was fast-paced and no-one noticed that I was momentarily felled), I made my way up to the swampy perma-damp bathroom to look in the mirror. My chin was bleeding and my top front tooth was broken in half. And did I mention that my parents were in California? And that I was nine years old? And that cell phone ubiquity was still twenty years off?
We found another grownup who knew us (Aunt Judy saves the day) and she managed to track down Aunt Brenda. Aunt Brenda took me to the family friend dentist, Dr. Perlin, who assured us that fixing it could wait until my parents came home at the end of the week. And the day resumed. Being surrounded by boys I wanted to emulate, I would have wanted to play it cool, but I’m sure I didn’t. Perhaps I was passably brave the rest of the day, if a little mellower, no doubt. And then it was bedtime.
I should mention here that I’ve never been much of a bedtime person. Even today, I’m not good at the transition that takes me from “Whatever I’m Doing” to “Bedtime,” regardless of how tired I am. And once in bed, I can’t just “fall asleep.” I need some sort of distraction to allow me to get sleepy enough to go to sleep. I’ve used books to this end for as long as I can remember. But given any sort of adverse conditions (like spending the night at someone’s house where the someone is a fast fall-asleep-er; or camping in a 4-person tent with 4 people and 2 of them snore and are also fast fall-asleep-ers; or your parents are out of town and you’re staying at someone’s house and you’ve injured yourself and might possibly without knowing it re-injure yourself in your sleep…) I’m going to be lying awake for hours past bedtime. And when you’re a 9-yr-old kid, those hours are so bad, you may as well have a vampire sitting at the foot of your bed telling you “Don’t vorry. Go to sleep. Everyting will be okay…”.
Needless to say, I couldn’t fall asleep. And I was at Danny and Scott’s house, so I didn’t want to be a crybaby, but I really felt like being a crybaby.
So I padded out of the room, around the corner, through the long marble entrance hall, through the kitchen to the tv room where Aunt Brenda and Uncle Chuck were.
“I can’t fall asleep,” I probably said, playing it close to the pajama vest, not wanting to reveal the full scope of the situation there in the den.
Aunt Brenda walked back to the bedroom with me and sat on the side of my bed, listening as my tale of dread spun into tearful panic that I might, in my sleep, bite down with the broken tooth and chip it some more and it will hurt and wake me up and then we’ll have to go to the hospital and mom and dad will have to come home from their trip and everyone will be mad at me and my tooth will really hurt.
She was a good listener and did her gentle best to quell my fears and help me get to sleep. That time and the other 3 or 4 times I went out to get her. Eventually I did fall asleep and then I woke up and a few days later my parents came home and a few years later I had my tooth fixed. End of story.
Three weeks ago, on January 5th, my Aunt Brenda died. Cancer.
In the weeks leading up to it I thought often of this story. For 27 years I’ve lived with this repaired chipped tooth in my mouth. It has ensured that the events of an otherwise uneventful day still dwell crystalline in my memory: I got hurt, my mother wasn’t there, Aunt Brenda stepped up and lovingly played the role. I talked about it with Bob; I told the story to friends; at the reception after the funeral, I told the story to Danny and Scott. It was on my mind.
The day of her funeral, after all the events of the day were over, we are eating dinner at my parents’ house. Vietnamese food. While I’m eating, I become aware that there’s something funny in my mouth, something rough. It feels like something is stuck to the front of my tooth. I get up to look in the mirror and I see that the tooth has chipped. A tiny little half-moon has flaked away from the front of the tooth, but to my tongue, it feels cavernous, like the whole front of the tooth has come away. Eating Vietnamese food.
This has never happened before.
Goodbye Aunt Brenda. I’ll miss you.