for Georgann Turner
March 1, 1951–August 17, 2021
The day you died, I came across a naked man on my evening walk.
This is not the punchline to a bad joke, but it is something that would have made you laugh.
Balled up in the first hours of grief—despite the fact that I’d been wishing for your swift passage since I came to visit you seven weeks earlier—I drove to the house of the man I love and told The Duck, “I need to walk.” And so we did, the human Duck and I, to the Woodside duck pond where we sat for a while near the snoozing mallards, two occupying a rock each, all of us considering the universe. As you do when someone you love dies.
He’s The Duck because, long ago, his young nephew and niece mistakenly called him that instead of Uncle Dick. You loved that and called him The Duck ever after. I became Auntie Jan to your three youngest kids, and he was Uncle Duck.
But I digress. As I do. As you and I did in every anecdote we’d try to relay to one another.
So after sitting at the duck pond, we walked back to Dick’s condo where I left him and continued my walk through the former walnut orchard that is his condo complex. I didn’t get very far, and it was getting dark, when I passed three people walking toward me. One of the men said, after I offered a hello, “There’s a naked man walking over there.”
I chuckled, thinking, “Of course there is.”
And the clothed man walking with the two other clothed people said, “No, really,” gesturing behind him. “We’ve called security.”
I took about 10 more steps and saw the unmistakable profile of a tall, toned, naked man in the not-too-distant distance. I blinked to try to bring him into focus, but he remained blurry in the distance, which was probably just as well. He waved at me, I waved back, and he took off in another direction.
I meant to keep walking in my intended direction toward the naked man, but something inside made me take a hard right through a parking area and across a wide swath of lawn to head back to Dick. I thought, Georgann would love this, me encountering a naked man on a walk. “As one does,” you would say, tossing out one of your favorite phrases that means quite the opposite.
You picked that up in Wales, as you did many other British expressions, some of them just sounds that served as comments. Your “mmmmm” could convey a lot. That year or so in Swansea at university where you finished your bachelor’s degree in politics, where you wrote every paper by hand—because not even typewriters were allowed in the late 1980s—changed you profoundly, you said. It certainly gave you a new best friend in me.
That happened because my childhood best friend, Sue Lester, and I traveled through England, Scotland and Wales by train in the fall of 1988 shortly after you arrived in Swansea with your then 13-year-old daughter Jena. You and I had met when I was teaching journalism at Sac State, where you were working toward a bachelor’s degree. The day Sue and I visited you in your Swansea flat where you had to put coins in a machine so it would dispense heat (which was needed in September), Jena had just finished her first day of school. She came swanning in (another phrase I learned from your Welsh experience) in her cute uniform and announced, “Nigel fancies me.” We grinned like fools, trying not to guffaw at the ease with which Jena had already adopted some of the local lingo.
That visit was when you said, “If you write to me, I’ll be your new best friend.” Not that I needed one, I thought but wisely didn’t say. And so began our exchange of letters on thinnest of light blue Aerograms that folded themselves into something resembling an envelope, an inexpensive way to communicate with people across the pond. I still have the ones you sent me. And, true to your word, we did become best friends over that year or so, partly, you liked to say, because I was able to decipher your handwriting.
That was about eight years before you decided to become a foster mom and phoned me in Hawaii to ask if your oldest, college-aged son Andy could come live with me because you had a 2-year-old redheaded foster kid coming to live with you. I said yes, surprised, though I would have agreed to just about anything you asked. You liked to tell people that I, the teetotaler, was drunk on mai tais at the time. It was a better story. You were—though you denied this—always a very good writer who composed, then paid for, my personalized license plate that said GUD WRTR.
“I can’t drive around with that,” I said. “People will think I’m bragging.”
“Not spelled like that,” you said.
It went on my Honda Civic, and you deemed yourself a published writer, which you later were, too.
Bringing Max home was the beginning of what became your second family—three foster kids, all born to drug-addicted mothers, who you, a single woman, adopted within a few years. I was deeply relieved when you met and later, on Sept. 26, 1996, married Ron Turner, who had a bigger house and a huge heart, ready to take on the role of dad to your little tribe. (His grown son Matt also became part of your blended family.) Ron saw you through your initial diagnosis of colon cancer and the devastating surgery that was the beginning of your cancer journey a dozen years ago. He has never left your side and supported your family through everything up, down and in between.
I realize that this is just the beginning of writing about you in the after, now that you’ve transformed into my newest companion spirit. You saw me through the death of my husband in 2001 and a book of poems I produced called “Companion Spirit.” I’ve long known that you would become one of mine.
In late June I flew to Seattle to stay next door to you for a week. Ron picked me up and drove me to the house you shared on Oyster Bay in Bremerton where you dozed on the sofa, one of your magic suckers for pain control in the corner of your mouth. Years earlier you’d taken liquid opium, which you hated, declaring that it tasted like cat butt and chasing every dose with chocolate. You were, I once remarked, on enough opioids to make Michael Jackson look like a teetotaler. You had been for years, and still, they barely took the edge off your considerable pain.
I couldn’t do much for you, especially since you slept 20ish hours of every day, either in bed or on the sofa. You could barely walk. You’d fallen more than once. You looked skeletal to me, and, in fact, we learned, you’d lost 15 pounds in a month. But you were so glad to see me. Had a couple of gifts for me that you’d ordered online—kitty socks and a striped top with a big cat on it.
When you were awake and wanted to see me, we talked about all kinds of things, as we did. And I asked how you felt about approaching your end. “No one has asked me that,” you said, and as I began to apologize, you stopped me. “I don’t want it to end. I want to live forever.”
I didn’t say, “Even like this? With all the suffering?” I knew you wanted as much time as you could get, but I also could see that your life was literally ebbing away.
The “little kids,” as you once called them—Max, Emma and Maggie—are now grownups who also live in Washington. In fact, Maggie and her two girls also live in the house on Oyster Bay. But for some time you hadn’t seen your big kids, Andy and Jena, who live in Northern California. Stunned at your deterioration, I contacted them and strongly suggested they come see you as soon as possible. They soon did and brought their kids with them and, in turn, contacted your sister and brother. You had a lot of family descend upon you over the next few weeks. You loved it and rallied for them, awake quite a bit, eager and grateful to be with them.
While I was with you, when the breakthrough pain seared through you, I’d give you my hand and tell you to squeeze as hard as you needed. You hand weakly grasped mine as you wept. Twice you told me, “I’m ready for this to be over now.” Which is why, when we were alone, I broached the subject of hospice and even the end of life option your state offers. But you never took those options.
You did not want to leave the party. Ever. You had small grandchildren and bigger ones. You wanted to see how they and everyone else turned out. You, ardent reader—who launched me into more than a few of your favorite mystery series—wanted to read all the way to the end of the story.
The last day you and I spent together began as Ron and I somehow got your barely-able-to-walk self into the car for the ferry journey to the cancer center in Seattle. On the way to the ferry you perked up just like old times in Sacramento when the little kids were little and you and I headed to dinner and a bookstore on a friend date.
On our last day together you, who would typically sleep, chatted through the hourlong ferry ride. You directed me through the labyrinth of Seattle till we reached Aloha Street and the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, which had cared for you for a decade. You chatted up the woman who took your blood and the nurses on the seventh floor overlooking Lake Union. You reclined in a comfy chair as fluids and minerals and your oncology P.A.’s “magic anti-nausea cocktail” rolled into you through the port in your chest.
You were having a good day, an up day after so many down ones.
You were hungry, so I went in search of food after discovering that the cafeteria kitchen had shut down for the day. You said you wanted a burger, so I found a snazzy restaurant on the lake and ordered a burger for you and fish and chips for me. I texted you that info, and you said you wanted fish and chips. After trudging back up the hill to the cancer center, I ate the burger and you downed every bit of the fish and most of the chips. And, even before the anti-nausea cocktail, you kept it all down.
This was, to put it mildly, unusual.
You wanted to stop at an Asian market on the way home to buy a whole dead duck for your Asian neighbor Margaret, who would love one, you insisted. While I kept my questions about that to myself, I said, “I can’t imagine how I’d get you in and out of a grocery store. We don’t have a wheelchair.”
“I can walk fine,” you insisted, though I knew that wasn’t true. But you thought you could, just as you thought you could direct me back to the ferry, which involved another series of “turn here—no, wait—OK, next block maybe…” directions. We eventually got there, but not too many years ago you had the route down cold. Still, you spent the whole ferry ride home on your phone, “window shopping” for clothes. At one point, after having talked about hospice and your end that seemed to me to be coming soon, you said, “I guess I shouldn’t be shopping.”
“Why not?” I said, looking over your bony arm to the phone showing a selection of inexpensive tops. “You should be comfy even lying in bed or on the sofa.”
You liked that. You didn’t buy anything online, but neither did you sleep that whole trip. By the time we got home, I was ready to collapse. You slept well and didn’t throw up that night. But by morning, as Ron was ready to drive me to the airport to go home, you were on the sofa retching and in pain.
To you, who lived on Hawaii as a teenager, I bid aloha—until we meet again—and told you I loved you. You responded, as you had more than once, “You’re the bestest of best friends. I love you.”
Somehow I didn’t cry until I was strapped into my seat on the plane as it soared into the sky.
But wait. I digress. Again.
You became the Mystery Voman a couple of decades ago when I had arranged a rendezvous with my new beau Dick in a downtown hotel. I set up a scavenger hunt of sorts, with notes in different places telling him where to go next. You two had never met, but you were waiting for him at a café with a note from me that held the next clue. You introduced yourself to him as the Mystery Voman, and we have for years quoted your line after Dick read the note: “You must go now.”
After I came home from our final visit, I talked to you in the air many times each day. “Let go into the mystery,” I’d say, using a concept familiar to you. “Become my newest companion spirit. Your job is done. You don’t need to be in that pain-filled body, your systems shutting down.” By then you were in the hospital, a tube draining fluid from your abdomen. But you stayed.
“Why are you hanging on?” I wailed to the universe, as if it was up to me—especially after I’d talk to Ron on the phone, visiting you daily in the hospital. “You must go now, Mystery Voman!”
I got no answer from you, not even in dreams, but a wise friend who worked for years as a cancer nurse, reminded me, “She’s not done yet.”
Oh, yeah, huh? That was another of your favorite responses to an obvious truth. For years you had rallied—up and cooking, shopping, engaging with family and friends for a day or two, maybe three, before you crashed again, down for days or eventually a week or more. But you often said that you had a grateful heart, you who told us all that you loved us to the moon and stars… because to the moon and back wasn’t far enough.
In the early hours of a new morning, for reasons none of us will know, you did let go, in hospice for your final few days, at long last done with your incredible journey of a lifetime. And at dusk the universe presented me, at a distance, with a fuzzy vision of a naked man walking casually through a long-ago-walnut-orchard-turned-condo-complex.
I have no idea where he went or what that was about, just as I don’t know how to think about life on the planet without you here. I just know that you’d love the story. So I’m telling it to you, dear companion spirit.
As one does, you’d say.
As I imagine telling you stories until we meet again—please God—in the mystery.