So, I saw my nephew. I took him to the hospital cafeteria to look for cupcakes when it looked like Janine and Claire wanted to have a fight.
“Where’s Ziggy?” he wanted to know, while we walked down the hall away from Claire’s room.
“He’s in Los Angeles,” I said.
“But where is he?” Landon demanded, and I realized he wasn’t asking literally where he was, but why he wasn’t with us.
“He’ll be here in a few days, okay?”
He seemed satisfied with that. “Okay. What’s that word?” As we came to the main hallway he pointed to a sign on the wall that listed what departments were in which direction.
“Which one? There are a lot of words there, Landon.”
He got closer and pointed more emphatically. “The big one that starts with a P.”
“Palliative?” I went full Sesame Street on him then. “If you split the big word up into small words can you read it?” I covered over the back half of the word with my hands. “P—”
“Pall. At. Ivy.” He wrinkled his nose skeptically.
“Okay, but what does it mean?”
What did it mean? I had to think about it for a second. “Palliative means they try to make you feel better.”
I could see his skepticism deepen. Like, isn’t that what all departments of a hospital are supposed to do?
He was quiet until we got to the cafeteria, where there were no cupcakes, but they did have four kinds of pudding.
“I have never had butterscotch pudding,” he declared. “How do I know if I would like it?”
“I’ve never had it either, but I am pretty sure it doesn’t taste like butter or like scotch. Why don’t we get all four and we can taste test them?”
“Are we allowed to do that?”
“Yes, because I said so.”
He had a glint in his eye that I can only assume meant that he liked my logic. “Okay, then.”
I carried the tray with four cups of pudding—chocolate, vanilla, butterscotch, and rice pudding—to a table. There were a few other people in and out but it wasn’t that busy, really, so most of our attention was on the pudding itself. In the end my favorite was mixing the chocolate and vanilla together and Landon declared his new favorite to be butterscotch.
“You’re right,” he said seriously, waving his spoon in one small fist. “It doesn’t taste like butter or like scotch.”
“Have you ever had scotch?”
“No. What’s scotch?”
I tried not to laugh, really I did. “It’s a drink that grownups like Uncle Remo like.”
“Oh.” He licked out the bowl and kept glancing at me to see if it was okay. I licked out my own bowl and that made him giggle.
He was noticeably larger than he had been at Christmas. I tried to think of subjects suitable to discuss with a child. “So, how’s school?”
“It’s okay,” he said.
“Do you have a favorite subject?” When he gave me a blank look, I tried again: “What’s your favorite thing to do in school?”
“It’s either art or gym. Do I have to pick one?”
“Those are both great. There doesn’t have to be one right answer. Do you have music, too?”
“Next year we get to learn the recorder. I want to learn piano, though. When can we go back to that place with the piano?”
That place. He meant the care facility where Claire had been before, but it wasn’t likely she would be going back there. The lights in the cafeteria seemed to me almost like they changed color at that moment, the purple in the fluorescents coming to the fore. “That was a place where they were taking care of your grandmother. Now they’re taking care of her here.”
“Making her feel better,” he said with a nod. “Does dying hurt?”
Jeez, kid, ask me all the hard questions. “I think sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn’t. And the palliative care doctors are trying to make sure it doesn’t.”
“Can they make my mom feel better, too?”
“Does your mom feel bad?”
“She’s very upset,” he said knowingly. “My dad says we have to cut her some slack. That means be extra good because she’s upset.”
“Your dad is wise,” I said, holding in a smile. “What else does he say?”
“He says it’s not every day you lose someone in the family.” Landon’s eyes seemed very large as he looked directly at me. “Why aren’t you upset? Aren’t you my mother’s brother? So that means my grandmother is your mother, right?”
“I am upset. I just keep it inside more than your mother does.”
“Because that’s just how I am.”
Landon looked around like he suddenly realized he hadn’t seen his own mother in a while. “I was upset when Grandma Claire moved away.”
“Were you?” Just a few months ago, when Janine had thrown her out. I couldn’t imagine how Landon was processing that his mom, who had exiled his grandmother from the house, was now upset that she was going to die. People are complicated, kid.
“She used to play with me every day and tell me stories and make me toast,” he said.
“What kind of stories?”
“Well, they weren’t always very good stories but they were better than nothing,” he said, sounding very much like his own mother in that moment.
“Are you happy your dad lives with you now, though?”
“Yes. But he works a lot.” He was continuing to look around at the other people in the cafeteria with rising worry on his face.
“Should we go back and look for your mom now?” I asked.
“Yes, please,” he said, already out of his chair and reaching for my hand. He held my hand all the way back to the room.