I remember the first time I saw Frances. Diane brought me to their summer house on Long Island for a weekend at the beach in 2002. Diane and I had been seeing each other for a few months, and it was now time to meet the parents. The whole parent meeting thing is always a little overwhelming, but I had heard about Frances and her emphysema and didn’t know what to expect. My fears of offending her mother, or Diane, were heavy on my mind, and we boarded the Long Island Rail Road.
Richard met us at the train station in their burgundy Dodge Dynasty. It’s the kind of car you know you’re going to yell at on the highway because it’s going to go too slow. Diane introduced me to her father, shook my hand, and told me we would be fully aquatinted at home. Her dad was a real dad in a very 1950s sense, treating his only daughter as his little princess.
Which she is.
The house was a small bungalow on a street of small bungalows. The evening had already fallen as we pulled up, and the light from the porch spilled onto the driveway. I remember, although, in summer, it was a cold night, and the stars twinkled wildly overhead. Dragging our bags from the trunk of the car, we made our way up the driveway and up the rough concrete stairs to the white storm door of their little house. Richard held the door open, and there, just to the right, standing in the kitchen, was Frances. She stood by the stove facing us, dressed in the clothes she reserved for meeting people. For all my fears, none were realized at that moment. Frances was not any different from you or me. She was a small woman with dark brown hair (which she never dyed) and a smile that could light a room. She looked at me, trying to dissect me and my intention with her baby girl. Her parents were at first a little wary of me because I was six years younger than their daughter. They, at first, didn’t know what to make me, much like a zebra might look at a platypus.
Frances welcomed me in and asked if we were hungry, which she continued to do every time I visited them. She would often greet our arrival by going through the menu.
“Are you kids hungry? We have stuffed peppers, pasta salad, cucumber salad, fresh tomatoes, eggplant parmesan, or we could heat up the seafood-sauce I made yesterday. What do you guys feel like? Ben, what would you like?”
Frances was seemingly unhindered by much of her illness, but much of it was just for show, for us, the people who loved her. Although she never used a walker, she leaned on surfaces for support catching her breaths from corner to corner. She sat most of the time in her seat, padded with pillows at the dining room table. She looked out from her perch, listening to everything that was said and watching everything that wasn’t. I would spend evenings talking to her about my life, her daughter, the future, or the weather. We would talk late into the evening, her hands always busy cutting coupons or reading newspaper comics. She used to love Dennis the Menace and would often call us over to read aloud a passage, “I love that Dennis,” She would say, “what a kick.”
Frances went to the hospital about a month ago, complaining of discomfort in her chest and difficulty breathing. She called Diane to tell her she was going in for some tests and that she had nothing to worry about. She was moved three times from hospital to hospital, and I visited her along the way. She was much changed. We talked some, but often she was so tired that she just closed her eyes and listened.
“Some hotel you booked yourself into.” I told her the first time I saw her at Stoney Brook.
“You’re telling me.” She whispered back.
“It’s nice place,” I said looking around and seeing the bipap mask she had to wear to give her oxygen blowing loudly and added “but a little windy.”
She looked at me with her big gray eyes and with a look saying don’t be such a smart-ass and smiled. As her hotel rooms changed, so did her health. A terrifying down punctuated each up. Diane spent most nights worrying about her mother and grappling with the real fear that Frances may not get better. Diane had a conversation with her mother in the hospital about a week ago in which Frances said that she was exhausted and that when this was all over, she wanted to go on vacation.
On Sunday morning, Diane woke me up in Brooklyn with a telephone call, saying that Frances wasn’t doing too well and our friend Nicole was coming to visit Frances and asked if I wanted to join her. Nicole picked me up on the way to the hospital, and along the way, we caught up on our lives and talked about Diane, Frances, and Richard. As we got off at the exit to the Hospital, Nicole’s car started to smoke, and we pulled off into a gas station. It seemed that the transmission fluid had been overfilled and squirted out of an overfill valve, which started to burn the engine. Three gas stations later, we decided that this problem would have to take a ticket in line, and we made our way back onto the road. Twenty minutes later, we were at the hospital and entering the hospital, we readied ourselves to see Frances… but unfortunately, Frances never saw either of us again.
Frances left on March 21st, 2004, at 11:24 AM, and although she went like a whisper, she will be remembered like the thunderclap she was.
So, if you’ll excuse me, I must plan a vacation.