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When I was 10, my mother needed a babysitter for me since she was still at work when I got home from school. The only person available was an old woman named Nancy, whom I was terrified of. She was grumpy and hated everyone. None of the neighborhood kids could get too close to her yard or she’d come out screaming. We couldn’t play ball near her house because if the ball happened to land in her yard, we knew it was gone forever. I tried to avoid this woman at all costs.
When my mother broke the news that Nancy would be my new babysitter, I cried. I thought I had done something wrong. I didn’t want to leave school that first day. The bus dropped me off at the end of the street, and I walked as slowly as I could to her door. Before I got there, she was standing in the doorway. She opened her screen door and let me in, saying, “Take off your shoes and leave them right there. Let me take your jacket. I’m going to put it on the back of the sofa.” And that was it. She sat down at her kitchen table, put her oxygen on, and lit a cigarette.
Whenever I passed Nancy’s house, I had always seen her sitting at that kitchen table with a cigarette in her hand and her oxygen tank next to her. The table was right in front of the sliding glass doors so she could look outside. Her living-room TV was also positioned so she could see it. I figured this was her way of watching her afternoon soap operas while patrolling her yard to make sure no sneaky kids came around.
That first day at Nancy’s was scary. She made me sit at the kitchen table with her and do my homework right away. She set down the rules and demanded that I obey them. Homework came first every day; I couldn’t swear, or interrupt her while her soaps were on, and couldn’t complain about the smell of her cooking.
This went on every day. I arrived there from school to the smell of her dinner simmering on the stove. She took my coat while I took my shoes off, and I did my homework as soon as I sat down. I abided by her rules and was polite.
One day, I arrived crying. A boy in my class was moving away and I was devastated because I thought I was in love with him. As usual Nancy was at the door, waiting to take my coat. She asked me what was wrong and led me into the kitchen to our usual seats.
I was crying too much to talk, so I couldn’t explain why I was sad. She gave me a hug, holding me and rubbing my back. She assured me all things happen for a reason and when my pain passed, I’d be a stronger person.
After that, Nancy and I would talk once I finished my homework. I told her everything, and she described things the way they really were. She spoke her mind honestly and sometimes even cussed like a sailor, but I respected that. Nancy taught me the meaning of honesty. She also started to let me taste the food she cooked.
I began to stay at Nancy’s house even after my mother came home. I liked her. She was fun to talk to and her house always smelled good, so most days I stayed there instead of going home.
Then one day, I saw something on the kitchen table that was not normally there. In addition to her crossword book, pen, and ashtray, there was a small stack of papers. When I asked her what it was, she said it was her will. She explained that a will was a bunch of papers that said where her stuff would go when she died.
I got worried and asked her if she was dying. She laughed and said, “No, not yet, but I can’t wait for the day. If it ever comes, don’t try to save me.” Then I asked her about the oxygen tank. Nancy told me she had a condition called emphysema, a lung disease that made it difficult to breathe.
Hearing this, I was confused and upset. I asked her why she smoked. Nancy said, “Honey, when I die, I want to die happy. Cigarettes and soap operas make me happy. I’d like to die right here with everything I love: my chair, my soaps, and a cigarette in my hand.”
That was one small conversation among many we had in the next few months. Nancy became my best friend. She taught me to do what makes me happy and not to take anyone’s guff. She told my mother, “I can put a thousand dollars in front of your daughter and walk away and she wouldn’t touch it. I trust her with anything.” She was right. I wouldn’t have touched it, and I was glad someone appreciated me.
One day, I noticed a change in Nancy’s house. She greeted me as usual, took my coat, and helped me get my homework out. But I didn’t smell anything cooking. She had always eaten the strangest foods, and it excited me to imagine what I’d smell that day. But today, there was nothing cooking. I didn’t ask her but just figured maybe she was ordering in for once.
When we sat down, Nancy lit her cigarette and turned to watch her soaps, but when a commercial came on, she put her cigarette in the ashtray and put her head on the table. Usually when she did this, she asked for a shoulder massage, so I got ready and said, “Nancy?” She didn’t say anything. When I said her name again, she fell to the floor. Her face was pale and her eyes open.
I screamed and ran to the neighbor’s house and pounded on the door. A girl I hung out with, Alysha, answered. I was in a panic and she couldn’t understand me. When I said “Nancy” she understood. We called an ambulance and then our parents.
Suddenly the entire neighborhood was outside to see what was happening. When they noticed me hysterically crying and the ambulance crew entering Nancy’s house, looks of horror struck their faces. My mother hadn’t known why I had called her because I was so difficult to understand, but she knew when she found me outside in Alysha’s arms.
Nancy died that day. Sometimes I wish I had called the ambulance at her house, rather than at Alysha’s, so they could have told me how to resuscitate her. But then I remembered what she had said about not wanting to be saved and wanting to die with everything she loved. She was watching her soap operas and smoking a cigarette while sitting in that favorite chair of hers. I was there too. And now I realize that I was a part of that group, the group of things she loved. Nancy loved her chair, her soaps, her cigarettes, and she loved me.