Shortly after I turn 38, we fly to San Diego. We arrive at 2 am east coast time. When we emerge, bleary-eyed, from baggage claim into the warm night, Lettie points to the median in front of us and says, “Is that the jungle?”
“No, baby,” I say. “Those are palm trees.”
She turns to Tim and says, “Daddy, there are palm trees here,” and her eyes shine like she’s in on a secret.
The next day we gather at my brother’s house to celebrate my dad’s upcoming marriage, because it’s never too late to find new love or old love or any kind of love. This is one thing I know: there is always more love.
I put on red lipstick and take pictures with my brothers and sisters. A mariachi band plays in the background. Lettie trades shoes with her cousin and together they set about the very important work of filling pails with landscaping rocks. Later, I will wash her dress and find tiny rocks in her pockets. Everywhere I go, I hear the sound of my sister’s distinctive laughter, a sound I have not heard in three years. Listening to it makes me feel two and ten and thirty-eight all at once. It is a reminder that wherever she is, wherever they all are, is home.
A couple of days later, I lounge sleepily by the pool with my twenty-two-year-old niece. We pass cans of chips back and forth. She takes pictures on Snapchat. I don’t even fully know what Snapchat is, but it doesn’t matter. We are two halves of kooky whole, her and I, always have been.
There is not one speck of white in the entire sky. The sun is hot, but the air is breezy. It is, quite possibly, the most perfect day in all the days.
“California is the worst,” I say.
“It really is,” she says.
One of my brothers, who has been busy in the kitchen, walks outside and heads to the lemon tree at the edge of the yard.
He pulls two lemons off the branch. “Can you believe it?” he says. “If you need lemons here, you just go pick lemons from a tree!”
I completely understand his excitement. It’s freshness and light, right at our fingertips. To me, it feels like this: in this magical place where tiny suns grow on trees, it’s almost like we are invincible.
On the ride to LA to visit Tim’s sister, fresh off a stop at In-N-Out burger, we get the news. Our close friend is losing his battle with brain cancer. It won’t be much longer now. Weeks, at most. I start crying in the backseat, where I am sitting next to Lettie. Tim keeps his eyes on the road, stoic as ever. Dry, cracked hills whiz by the window.
Lettie says, “What’s wrong, mama?”
So I tell her about cancer and dying and losing someone you love – all the things you wish you’d never have to explain to your child.
She looks at me with serious eyes, and then says, “Am I allowed to get cancer?”
I want to tell her, “No, you are not allowed to get cancer, not ever.” I want to be the Great Allower, the one who has control over All Things Terrible, so that I can keep her from them, so that I can keep everyone in the world from them, but I’m not. Not even close. So instead I tell her that it’s mostly older people who get cancer, and most people die when they’re old.
Then she says, “But I don’t want you to be old. I don’t want you to die. I don’t want you to leave me.”
I can’t tell her that this is the stuff of my nightmares — something happening to me, leaving her without a mom. Or something happening to her, leaving me with a moon-sized crater in my heart.
I can’t say any of that, so I say, “I promise you I will do everything in my power to stay with you for a long, long time.”
She points at me with her chubby, stubby finger and says, “Me too. I will do everything in my power to stay with you for a long, long time.” She stumbles over her words a little bit, but I hear her loud and clear.
There are seven stickers on her leg. An In-N-Out hat sits crooked on her head and she has ketchup on her fingers. Looking at her like that, I’ve never been more grateful that in this life where there is always more love, but never more time, she is mine for as long as the Great Allower allows it to be.
At the Santa Monica beach, the water is just chilly enough to feel refreshing. I hold Lettie’s hand as the waves wrap themselves around our ankles. Whenever one hits, she yells, “Heeee-YA,” and squeals with delight.
After a while, I pass her off to Tim and walk deeper into the ocean – something I haven’t done in years. I loved swimming in the sea as a child, but as I grew I got nervous about rip tides and creatures lurking in the depths. Today, though, I do it for our friend, who will never swim again. I dive beneath the surf, into the salty cold, feeling wholly alive in a way that I haven’t in a long time. I come back up for air and the sun is putting on a show, reflecting off the waves. It’s as if everything, everywhere is sparkling.