I obviously had it done long before tattoos became trendy – and pretty – for girls. It is also probably obvious that it was done by a guy named Bud whose shop was across the street from the liquor store in downtown Rio Dell.
My Aunt Lucy loved my tattoo. She used to look at it when I was running around the house in my underwear trying to get dressed for work and would laugh, “There’s a froggy on your back. I want one of those froggies.” I would try to tell her how much getting a frog on your back hurt, but she didn’t care.
Lucy was born with strawberry blonde hair and a developmental disability. The “experts” thought her mental capacity was about the same as a four-year-old. Although she could recognize letters, she was not able to read. Although she could dress herself, her pants were often on backward and her shoes on the wrong feet.
When, as a very young child, I noticed that Aunt Lucy was different than the other grown-ups I knew, my mom tried to explain it to me. “Your Aunt Lucy is mentally retarded,” my mom said very matter-of-factly. “It means her brain is different and she has a harder time learning than some people. But it doesn’t mean she’s dumb, and it doesn’t matter because she’s our family and we love her. And we treat her just like anyone else in the family.”
My brother Ron and I grew up with Aunt Lucy a constant part of our lives. She lived with my grandma but spent a good part of her time with us, and she was much more like a sister than an aunt. We never thought about it much because it just happened to be the way it was. And Lucy was a lot of fun.
She liked parties and cake with big icing roses just as much as we did. She played card games with us like slapjack, where at the sight of a jack she would hit the backs of our hands so hard they would sting for the rest of the day. She would sing along to the radio even though she didn’t get most of the words right and would dance for hours, her bright blue eyes gleaming while her extra large hips moved in a way that no white girl’s hips usually can.
Lucy was never afraid to tell us how she felt about us. “Nobody loves you,” she’d often tell Ron and me. “Poor you. Nobody loves you.” “What’s wrong Kristabel, nobody loves you? Poor Kristabel.” As soon as the words were out of her mouth she would burst into a fit of laughter. “Lucy loves you!” she’d shout as she encircled us with her arms.
Most of our friends grew to know and love Aunt Lucy, but kids in other places were a different story. They would laugh. Stare. Ask us what was wrong with her. At times Ron and I were her staunch defenders. Once in McDonald’s we gave some nasty giggling kids a death glare so long and so powerful that we thought surely their french fries would burst into flames right in front of them making them regret their hurtful remarks.
At other times, we were not her staunch defenders, but were, instead, horrified as any pre-teens could be when, in the midst of watching Grease surrounded by kids from our school, Aunt Lucy stood up and started loudly singing and dancing in the aisle of the Fortuna movie theater. We slunk down in our seats and put our hands over our faces hoping that no one would recognize us.
As I grew older and moved out of my parents’ house, Lucy was still a big part of my life and we continued to spend time together. I would sometimes pick her up from her day program, and she would spend the night with me in whatever dumpy little place I happened to be living in.
We always had a good time, and we had a lot of things in common. We both loved art, music and, much to my grandmother’s dismay, admiring construction workers. We both also loved the lowly dandelion, rocks, good food and most of all frogs. We each collected frog things, although Lucy’s collection was much more extensive than mine. We talked about frogs a lot…wondering what the frogs in the woods were having for dinner and trying to count how many we could hear in the distance. Lucy always told me that every time they croaked, they were really saying “More rain.”
One night, while trying to maintain a second job as a pastry chef, I had to decorate a birthday cake for a kid’s party while Lucy was spending the night. She sat unusually silent and watched as I carefully placed pink polka dots made from sugar dough all over the cake followed by a sprinkling of edible glitter. She looked at me earnestly and asked, “Can Lucy go to the party?” My heart immediately snapped in two. I tried to explain to her that it wasn’t a party I was giving – that it was for someone we didn’t know. My explanations didn’t matter. To Lucy, there was a fancy cake on the table which meant there was a party somewhere that she should be going to. And it was my fault she wasn’t. She refused to visit me for weeks.
Several years ago Lucy began to have problems moving one of her arms. A few months after that she began to have trouble walking and moving most of the rest of her body. She eventually wasn’t able to attend her programs anymore and had to spend the majority of her time with my mom, bravely going from one doctor to another and from one test to another to try to find a diagnosis. Finally one day in late summer I was decorating yet another fancy cake when I got the call I’d never expected. “Lucy has ALS – Lou Gehrig’s disease,” my mom said, her voice shaking with emotion. “We don’t know how long she has.”
What? What was she saying? It’s terminal? She can’t be cured? She’s not going to get better?
I am a Capricorn, and we don’t like it when things are changed without our full approval. Part of my adult life had been spent thinking about, talking about and planning for the day when my grandma was not able to care for Lucy any longer. My mom and I had ideas…things we knew that Lucy had always wanted to do but hadn’t been able to yet. We were going to make sure those things happened. Lucy would live with my mom and dad, and if for some reason they weren’t able to take care of her, I would. Now what would happen? I couldn’t imagine a life without Lucy in it. THIS WAS NOT PART OF THE PLAN, GOD DAMN IT!
Within months, Lucy was completely bedridden. My mom moved in with my grandma and tirelessly took care of Lucy night and day, barely taking time for herself to eat and sleep. I continued to work and visited as often as I could, although it never seemed like enough.
None of us were prepared for the pain we would feel as we watched Lucy struggle with a disease that progressed quicker than we could have imagined. We maintained manic smiles around her, bringing whatever we thought might give her small amounts of happiness, all the while trying to avoid the blame and the guilt and the anger at God or whoever was letting this happen that lay in the cobwebbed corners of the room. My grandma talked to Lucy about “getting better.” In the back of her mind, she was always hoping for a call from the doctor saying that there had been a misdiagnosis and her precious daughter would be healed. That call never came.
One day I had a message on the answering machine from my mom asking if I would be down to visit that day. “Lucy wants to see you. She said that she has something to tell you.”
My mind spun. What could Lucy possibly need to say to me? Had she been overcome by end-of-life wisdom that she wanted to impart? Was there something about the afterlife that she had seen in a vision? And why me? Was she still mad about missing that birthday party?
I hurried down to Gram’s house after work. By then it was late November. It was cold and dark outside, but inside the house a fire was burning and a string of Christmas lights were glowing near Lucy’s bed. I sat down, and we talked for awhile and sang a couple of carols. Then I asked her about what my mom had said. “I hear that you want to talk to me about something Lucy.” She looked at me seriously. “It’s a secret,” she said quietly. I leaned down so that my body was practically lying next to hers on the bed and my face was only about an inch away from her lips. “Okay, ” I said carefully. “Now you can whisper it to me.”
Lucy looked around to make sure that no one else was in the room. She grabbed my hand, closed her eyes, opened her mouth and said loudly….
I looked at her with shock. This is what she wanted to tell me? This was the end-of-life wisdom that I had been expecting? She closed her eyes again and said even louder, “Rrrribbit!”
I looked in her eyes. The corners were crinkled with laughter, and there was a sparkle that had been absent for weeks. I began to giggle.
“Ribbit!” I croaked back at her. “Rrrribbit! Ribitribitribit. Ribbit!”
We talked frog for the next twenty minutes. By the time we were finished I was holding my sides with laughter while the tears ran down my face in a combined stream of overwhelming joy and grief.
Three days later she was gone.
Bear River Valley is a great place for frogs. Sometimes I lie at night listening to the cacophony in the backyard and think about how much Aunt Lucy would have loved this place. It has been three years since she left this world. I hope that the bereavement professionals are correct when they talk about the three year mark being a turning point so that my family is finally able to heal.
To this day her spirit remains infused in almost everything I do, and I try to live the way that she did. I wish on dandelions and pick up pretty rocks. I love people with reckless abandon and embarrass my family often. I sing when I feel like singing and hold grudges when people make me mad.
And eventually, when my life comes to a close, I can only hope that I’ve lived it so fully and completely that at the very end I can turn to those who love me in the place that makes me the happiest and say the only thing left to say.