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Message on the Machine

Illustration by Terri Groat-Ellner

Laughter and remembrance and the dying of Big Rick

By Richard Camp

'THAT'S HOW WE MET. We were both laughing when we met." Her voice--a strong voice, bright and sure--is one that I cannot help but overhear, to eavesdrop upon. She is at the next table over. Her hair is short. Very short. Just growing back. She talks about an illness, now in the past.

Her friend tells her that she looks good, that her eyebrows have finally grown back. In truth, she is beautiful, her face so alive and electric. She seems full of strength, of hope, of confidence, like a summer day, without any trace of bitterness or fear. She is well.

News from the telephone has made me discombobulated. At home earlier, I put down the receiver and stared at the door for a long time. A noise out front--footsteps? car door? muffled voices?--causes me to shoot a glance at the curtains and then back to the door, a reflex to see that the chain is fastened and the deadbolt set. It is a bright and sunny Sunday morning. The TV is on, but I'm not listening. I'm just looking at the pictures like flipping through a magazine. There is only a very little wind outside.

My uncle is in the hospital in Los Angeles because the doctors have found a tumor swelling in the tissues of his brain. His speech is slurred, and the left side of his face is numb--his fingers tremble and dance uncontrollably. He tries to stop them, but they seem to have a mind of their own. His thoughts for no reason suddenly fly away like startled birds.

The news has caused us to explode into chaotic motion. My grandmother and my uncle Greg are leaving Santa Cruz by car tomorrow morning. My uncle David and his wife are already speeding down the highway from San Jose. My mother is flying out of Denver this afternoon. My uncle Jerry and aunt Nancy will arrive from Portland in a different plane half an hour later.

My mother will wait for them, and Greg will meet them, and they all will drive to the hospital together.

We are all waiting for the biopsy, for results we hope will bring good news. The doctors admittedly are far from optimistic, but the fact of the matter is that we really won't know anything until the tests come back. Now, we can only wait. And it's hard waiting, long and uncomfortable.

Eyes Squeezed Tight

THERE IS A MESSAGE still on my answering machine. My grandmother hates the telephone. The family joke is that she only calls when someone in the family has died. My grandmother left the message on my machine. The message was this: "Hi, this is Grammy. No one is dead, but someone is very, very sick. Call me."

I am named after my Uncle Rick. He is a machinist, like my father--they both learned the craft in my grandfather's shop when they were young men. They are, Rick and my father, almost exactly the same age. Because my parents are long divorced, I know that it is up to me to phone my dad and tell him, to call him and tell him that Big Rick is dying.

This morning I went through all the drawers and the boxes in the garage looking for a picture of him. I realized that I don't really know very much about him.

For a long time, Rick lived in the Philippines. I have a Filipina aunt named Delia. I remember when he first brought her home to Santa Monica, to the family. I was very young, but I clearly recall the sing-song language they spoke to each other, how he translated for her. I remember how timid she was, how shy. How she tucked herself up close to him, under his arm, for comfort. I remember that her hair was cut like one of the Supremes (remember Diana Ross and the Supremes?).

When they are all together--Big Rick, my grandmother, my mother and her other brothers--I am amazed at how much they look alike.

For years my uncles all wore beards, which hid much of the resemblance. You would have to look closely at the eyes--blue and pale like the sky on a clear morning. They all have the same eyes.

Today, my uncles are all clean-shaven, and the resemblance is stronger, especially when they laugh. Tomorrow, or the day after, when they are all sitting at Rick's bedside in the hospital in L.A., someone will bring up my grandmother's message on the answering machine (she left the same message for everyone), and they will all laugh and you will see it, that resemblance, in the pinch of the nose and furrows around the eyes and the same deep lines bracketing the mouth, which is wide open and smiling, the laughter loud and raucous, eyes squeezed tight and wet with tears.

Here at The Bagelry, the girl--the girl who used to be sick--she gets up and smiles, talking to her friend. They leave.

I wonder how sick she was--was she as sick as my uncle?

Will my uncle ever be well again, like she is?

By the time you read this, we will know.

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From the July 10-16, 1997 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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