Friday, March 9, 2012

On the Fragility of Life

Dear Mackenzie,

Sometimes you roll your eyes at me when I suggest that you spend more time with your sisters, or that you skype with your aunt and uncle, or that you call your grandpa.  At your age collecting family memories to cherish later in life doesn’t feel as important as say, playing with your friend Bellah or downloading a new app.  But it will.

On the afternoon of October 1, 2003, I left work early and headed to the City of Hope in Duarte, California to donate platelets.  All I knew about platelets is that they are cell fragments that circulate in the blood, that they have something to do with the blood’s ability to clot, and that you need them to live.

I was queasy about the process, and since your Aunt Viv is a nurse I had asked her how donating platelets worked. She said the whole thing took about an hour and a half and (at least in those days) you could see the blood get pumped out of your arm, go through a machine, and then return to your body. I really didn’t want to go through with it, but a friend’s father was battling bone marrow cancer and donating platelets felt like a tangible way that I could help.

My cell phone rang as I pulled into the parking lot. Viv’s number came up on the caller ID, but I was apprehensive enough without hearing another medical explanation so I let the call go to voice mail. I figured I would call her back on the drive home, once the worst part of my day was over.

When I got back in the car a couple of hours later, I saw that Viv had called five or six more times. When I called her back, she was very distraught and told me that your grandma Sonia had been in a terrible car accident and that no one could locate her. My mind reeled. What did that even mean? For starters, if she had been in a car accident, wouldn’t she be at the site of the crash?

Viv explained that your grandma belonged to a cultural group called the International Women Associates.  Your grandma and twenty or so other women from that group had taken a day trip to a Japanese floral exhibit in Rockford, Illinois. On the way back to Chicago, a tractor-trailer had barreled into their tour bus on interstate 90. A number of the women had died on impact, and more than a dozen others had been taken to various area hospitals.  Viv said that from the little she had been able to garner it appeared that your grandma was one of those.

She promised to keep calling around and said she would get back to me the moment she knew something.  Your mom had already spoken to Viv by the time I reached her, and Laura was calling Chicago area hospitals as well.

The drive back from the City of Hope took forever, and the radio silence from Viv made it even worse. Your grandma and grandpa had been divorced for many years by that time, but your grandpa had been a well-known physician in Chicago when he had lived there and he too was working the phones. No one seemed to know anything.

I didn’t know what I could do but I didn’t feel comfortable doing nothing, so I decided to take a red-eye to Chicago. You and Laura took me to the airport and with my heart in my throat I got on the plane. I hoped that by the time I landed I would be greeted with some good news.

Mackenzie, your grandma came from very humble beginnings. Your great-grandfather was an unsuccessful traveling salesman in Montevideo, Uruguay. They were dirt poor, and as I understand it your grandma had to drop out of high school to help support the family.  She married your grandpa when she was twenty-three, and after Viv and I were born our family immigrated to the United States in 1964.

Although your grandma had dropped out of high school she never lost her thirst for knowledge. She spoke five languages fluently, and once your aunt Viv and I went off to college your grandma went back to school too.  She somehow finagled a high school diploma, and in her forties went to college and got both a B.A. and a master’s degree. In her late fifties, your grandma earned her P.H.D.  That was one of the proudest achievements of her life.

We had seen your grandma just a few weeks before.  She had flown to Los Angeles to help celebrate your second birthday, and you spent much of the trip in her arms.  She had stayed at the Sofitel on Beverly Boulevard, which was her favorite hotel in Los Angeles. Your grandma loved the elegant rooms and the impeccable service, and most of all she savored the opportunity to speak French with the hotel staff.  

The morning she was scheduled to fly home, I drove to the Sofitel to take her to the airport.  I was waiting in the lobby when the elevator door opened and out stepped your grandma. She was wearing a bright red jacket and was pulling a small rolling suitcase behind her. She didn’t immediately notice me and she walked to the front desk to check out.

As I watched her from the doorway I remember being taken with how regally she carried herself.  She was so poised and confident, so comfortable in her own skin.  That was no accident. Over the previous two decades she had traveled all over the world as the Executive Director of the Alliance Francaise in Chicago.  She had dined with kings and prime ministers. Her friends included diplomats, Nobel laureates, and many of the distinguished literati of Chicago. The palatial lobby of the Sofitel suited her, and I beamed with pride at how far her journey in life had taken her from ultra-humble beginnings to that moment.

As I flew to Chicago, I did the things I suspect most people do in these situations.  I had imaginary conversations with your grandma. I made deals with God.  I wondered how something so bad could happen literally as I was helping someone else in need. 

Unfortunately, my sweet daughter, when I landed the next morning your Aunt Viv delivered the news that your grandma Sonia had not survived. Her journey, at least in this life, was over.

You don’t remember her since you were so young when she died, but over time we hope to tell you lots of great stories about her.  What you should know is that your grandma loved you with all her heart. She was so happy to have you in the world and in her life.  And as she looks down from heaven, she must be bursting with joy and pride at the wonderful young person you’ve become.  

Now go call someone you care about and tell them you love them.

All my everlasting love,


  1. Beautifully written and described. I feel like I know your daughter's grandmother. Thank you for introducing her to me. I wonder if you'd like to write me a letter:

    Would love to get to know you and your daughter.