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The fusion of lemon Lysol and urine made my stomach churn. As I moved down the stark white hallway, the odor grew stronger. With each step I heard what sounded like a cry coming from my foot as the rubber sole of my UGG boot scuffed against the laminated surface of the floor. My shoes did what I knew I could not do: I had to be stronger; I had to use every muscle to prevent a whimper from leaving my lips. I knew I was close to her room when I heard the faint sound of Tchaikovsky.

I have always found nursing homes fake: an uncomfortable union of cheer and despair. The piercing fluorescent lights try to mask the lugubrious faces that walk down the hallways. The cosmetic, beaming white smiles of the doctors imitate happiness; each bleached tooth cloaks the misery that their eyes reveal. The tastefully calm paintings in the waiting rooms attempt to soothe mourning friends and families. As I took a deep breath, I was reminded that no amount of the Lysol could cover the insidious odor. The smell of death.

As I stepped into her room, a sea of darkness flooded my vision. When my eyes adjusted, I saw her. Her emaciated body lay in a faded floral nightgown and her eyes were shut. The slight light that crept through from under the drawn curtain illuminated the wisps of her tarnished gray hair. Her delicate ribcage gently expanded with every breath to the beat of Tchaikovsky. I softly touched her petite hand, her skin felt leathery-like it had touched coconuts in Argentina and felt bison in Antarctica. I could feel the blue veins protruding next to her fragile bones. Her violet eyelids calmly opened. Although her appearance was delicate, to me La Mama had always embodied strength. As I looked into her khaki eyes, blended shades of emerald and coffee, I could see her life of adventure, peril, and defiance.


She asked us to call her La Mama. She cringed at "grandmother" or "grandma" because she refused to accept aging. Instead, the title La Mama, from an avant-garde theatre she was part of during her 30's, made her feel young and alive. My dad had told me countless stories about La Mama's adventures: train rides to California to pursue her acting career, traveling to North Africa to write with Paul Bowles, refusing to do anything that fell under the category of "normal." La Mama often muttered famous lines from poetry under her breath. Usually these lines made little apparent sense but were somehow relevant. I know that now.

Every night before I go to sleep, my dad comes into my room and declares, "Claire, you can be anyone and anything you want to be." My dad does not particularly believe in rules, and straight lines bore him. He encourages rebellion-believing that my brother and I should stand up for things and take the uncommon path. In spite of this saying, my dad very firmly states that I should not pattern my life after La Mama's. His objection to her as a role model always seemed puzzling to me: why I would not want to live a life filled with risk and excitement like my grandmother? This objection just made my desire to lead a life like hers even stronger. Just the thought of defying my parents’ orders excited me; I could feel butterflies fluttering in my stomach. I look at her antique bedside table that she had bought at a thrift shop years earlier. On it lays a half empty pack of Marlboros, a framed copy of the Junkman's Obligato by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and a photo. The photo edges are torn and it looks as if it was once folded and stuffed into a pocket. In the picture, a cigarette rests gently between La Mama’s fingers painted with ruby red nail polish; her lustrous hair is tightly tied into a ballerina bun on the top of her head. She is bent over in her blue jean dress as if she is laughing, with smoke escaping from her pearly teeth. Her friend is turned towards her grinning, her hair in the same compact bun: she wears stilettos and a turquoise dress that cinches around her waist. In the background, there is a distant sign that reads "no smoking." This photo has always been the epitome of the joy in life for me. As I stared at the old photograph, I let myself give into my fantasy that I was the joyous girl wearing stilettos next to La Mama, and that I accompanied her on all of her adventures.

My dream took us to a tiny bathroom; my sweaty palms press against the fake tiles. When we are sure that the conductor has passed, we hesitantly creep out of the stall and nonchalantly sit down on the tom leather seats. She grabs my hands and recites the first line of the poem that sits on her bedside table, "Let's go. Come on. Let's go. Empty our pockets. And disappear." I watch as we whiz by the countryside, it looks like an artist’s palate of smeared colors. I can taste the frigid air coming through from the cracks in the window. This is freedom. We have no money, no place to stay, but we are not scared. We have a naïve confidence. We believe that we are unique, that we will be those special ones who make it. When the train screeches to a stop I see the 'land where hopes and dreams come true Hollywood. La Mama peers into my eyes, and says in her deep, elegant voice "Baby, are you ready?" I long to experience that rush of adventure. I do not know what I am doing, but I know that I am ready.

We find a cheap motel on Hollywood Boulevard for aspiring actors and actresses where we spend the night. As we turn on the lights we see the cockroaches flee to their cracks in the walls. I pity the cockroaches, they lack the courage that we do; they don't have the backbone to stand up and face their fears. The mattress is lumpy and the sheets stained with a yellowish brown liquid. I hope it is coffee. The room smells faintly of Swedish meatballs and enchiladas, I imagine all of the diverse, brave people who once lay in this bed. I feel as if somehow we are all connected, as if their confidence is being transferred into my body through the oatmeal colored sheets. Countless possibilities race through my head-I feel like a zoo-born tiger recently released into the wild. La Mama taps my shoulder from her side of the uneven bed, "Darling," she booms, "It's time." I watch her as she swiftly paints on her lipstick, her flawless tan skin and the bright ruby red lips contrast each other perfectly.

We strut down Hollywood Boulevard with conviction, and La Mama leads me into a distressed theatre with three grungy men sitting in the front row. The man in the middle leisurely sips his coffee, and I watch as a bead of coffee slowly drips from his chin down his crinkled white shirt. La Mama marches on stage, cocks her head, and recites her self-composed poem that she has written on the back of a napkin. The poem consists of scatting, singing and recitation. The man on the left pulls his long grey disheveled hair back into a loose ponytail and simply says "no." La Mama does not flinch. She stands perfectly still and replies, "Into the valley of death rode the six hundred," and strides off the stage. She does not seem upset or shaken by this experience. Instead, we sit on step outside the theatre near a sign that says "no smoking" as La Mama lights a cigarette. I glance at the sign and she says, "My sweetheart, rules are for the weak." Our ruby lips part with laughter - the freeing rush of rebellion, the power of possibility. I see a bright flash.

Now as I gaze into La Mama's eyes, I recapture the feeling of adventure and assurance but something makes me look deeper: for the first time I look into her pupils. Through those big black globes I can see her loneliness, her sadness and her fear. Touching her hand this time I did not feel the adventure but I felt the process of death that had taken over her body. The woman who once seemed strong and confident now appeared frail and debilitated. The lustrous hair pulled in a tight bun was now thin and gray, her pearly teeth had mostly fallen out, and her flawless skin now filled with age spots and wrinkles. She was, in the end, truly alone. I now understand why my father had given me that order-he was the son of a woman who lived a life filled with adventure without structure, independence ignorant of consequence, and knew better than anyone the effect of living that type of life. Although the thought of rebellion excited me, at that moment I knew that I would never lead a life like La Mama's. Tchaikovsky stopped, and with a deep rasp she whispered, "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix." I watched as La Mama, a woman who lived by her own set of rules, dying of emphysema, lit her Marlboro.





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