clarins #700 redEnsemble

Clarins #700 Red

e drove directly from the airport to Marin Acute Care Hospital. It was a sunny-hazy day, the hills green and pretty. My Aunt Nancy was in room 2129, at the end of a hall, and I walked in to find her in the middle of a single room, displayed, if you will: head back, eyes closed. She looked lifetimes worse than when I saw her at Christmas, and I burst into tears. “What’s wrong?” she said. “Do I look that bad?”

She and I went way back. We had been young auntie and niece back in the jiffy-pop days, when she dressed me up like nurses and brides. Now when she talked, it was like gasping, because she couldn’t breathe on her own. My grandmother and grandfather arrived, followed shortly by “the girls,” and Nancy was soon overwhelmed. It was wonderful to see everyone, but felt strange making small talk when Nancy was laying there, awake but too winded to speak. It turned out she felt that way, too. We spent most of the remaining time out in the hall, after Nancy threw us out of the room.

The next day, I attended my niece’s christening. I wore a tailored skirt and black boots, style borrowed from a photo of my own christening in 1971, in which my mom wears a purple minidress with perfectly piled hair. In the church’s morning light, I held my niece Emmy while the priest trickled water over her head. She was squirmy and sweet, and her sister Sofia looked as stylish as ever, with three necklaces piled on top of a white t-shirt and skirt. I was a proud godmother.

After the ceremony, I borrowed my dad’s truck and returned to the hospital to meet my mom. Through a mix of sun and fog, I listened to French pop and drove my old roads past the cherry juice stand near the eucalyptus grove, neither of which are still standing.

There is a nomadic quality to illness—Nancy had been moved to a room across the hall. My mom looked tired, and Nance was agitated, demanding cold towels. “Nancy has always had a higher vision,” Mom said in the hospital room. “You always had horns,” Nancy said to her. I used to listen to them chirping in the kitchen for hours while I colored and read my books. She called Mom her “biggest fan,” and they shared these intimacies even while arguing, as an overheated Nancy was determined to strip off her dressing gown. Later, we found the nurses had misplaced a heating pad somewhere in her bed. They had been inadvertently steaming her broken body—“decrepit,” she had described it the day before, with a cheekboney smile.

After lunch at a surf-themed café, Mom and I drove to the hospice care center where Nancy was being transferred. We chatted softly as her ambulance pulled into the driveway. I saw Nancy smile when the sun hit her face, and as she was being wheeled inside I waved and said hello. “Oh, hi, Rach!” she responded in her own chipper tone, a balance of compassion, cheer, and sympathy. I remembered she had always been the perfect nurse.

We found her room, and then: a surprise. Fate had brought her a handsome RN. “Put some makeup on me,” she gasped quietly to my mom. After a slight hesitation, Mom pulled her favorite lipstick from her purse: the Clarins #700 red we’d bought at Christmas in San Francisco. It was Mom’s color, but it turned out Nancy could wear it, too. The nurse asked what to add to his list of Nancy’s belongings. “Lipstick!” we said. “From France!” When we left her, we were all laughing, Nancy in good color. I blew her a kiss, and she smiled, looking regal again with her aquiline nose and ruby lips. —Rachel Greben

In the winter issue, Rachel Greben reviewed Pam Houston's Contents May Have Shifted.