In the grand scheme of things, it was a minor trespass. I didn’t kill anyone, or reveal a precious trade secret. And, I keep reminding myself, I was a child.
June and Bill Hecker were like affectionate grandparents to me. A bonus, since I also had two other complete sets of grandparents close at hand, both loving, attentive, and physically and mentally whole. However, the Heckers took an interest in me without obligation or inherent love borne from genetics. Which, to me, meant I was special.
June, especially, made me feel precious. Perhaps she didn’t have any other grandchildren nearby, and used me as a surrogate. Or maybe that’s the way she made all children feel.
My mother and I visited the Heckers every few weeks in the late afternoon. The visits began as a church fellowship assignment and continued long after that duty was fulfilled. I reveled in the visits, being the only one of seven children still too young for school, receiving one-on-one attention from my mom and these two faux-grandparents who loved only me. (Or so I assumed.)
I sat on June’s lap, which was somehow pillowy soft even though the thighs beneath me were stick-thin, in the way old people’s laps inexplicably are. She read stacks of books to me, until her voice grew hoarse or my bottom grew sore, and then, we would end with Rapunzel.
After her death, her daughter asked if I wanted any of June’s belongings to remember her by. I asked for Rapunzel, but no one ever found a copy of it in the house.
When it was time for the grown-ups to talk of their boring adult subjects, June would let me climb the spiral staircase and reach through the balusters to choose a doll or two from the ledge which displayed her large collection. I was never allowed to play with the porcelain ones, of course, but I could occasionally take down the life-sized Raggedy Ann, the very old-fashioned babies, and a balding and grubby Cabbage Patch doll. Sometimes I just climbed the stairs and sat down to look at them, each arranged in perfect windows so that they could all be seen. There must have been at least thirty, to my recollection.
As I got older, my visits to the Hecker home became less frequent, but no less cherished. Each time I came, June insisted I read books to her: Go, Dog, Go! then Rapunzel, then a chapter or two of whatever I had in my backpack.
Once, around age eight, I got to spend an entire day. I rearranged the doll shelf. I ate gingersnap cookies dipped in milk, sitting at the bar on a high stool, jabbering non-stop about how I loved my second-grade teacher and how I was the worst in the class at soccer. June listened as she puttered about it in the kitchen, a half smile permanently on her face.
I “helped” Bill clean out the garage and brought home a motion-activated rubber fish mounted on a phony plastic plaque. When you walked by, the fish turned to face you and began singing Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” It was so unbelievably obnoxious that my siblings took turns hiding it. I would find it, annoy everyone thoroughly again, and then a brother or sister would snatch it away and the cycle repeated itself. Someone must have hidden it very well one day, or else smuggled it into a trash can, because I don’t have that memento anymore, either.
The next year, June had a stroke, and that’s where my shame begins. My parents took me to visit her in the hospital, but neglected to tell me first what a stroke could do to a person. As far as I was concerned, I was going to the hospital to bring some flowers and have a nice visit with my friend. Maybe I’d read her some Harry Potter.
Unfortunately, when we arrived, I found my warm confidant had become a distant stranger. The image is seared into my brain: her head turned to face me, white hair like stretched out cotton batting over her skull, her mouth contorted as she attempted to vocalize. Bill repeated, “This is Rachel, this is Rachel come to visit you, sweetheart.” June could only respond with a gush of vowel sounds, flooding into the room without the necessary dam of consonants to organize them into anything intelligible.
June had transformed from my mentor and friend to a horrifying specter of old age, overnight. I am ashamed that I couldn’t see in her the sweet, generous spirit, only the mottled skin where the IV stuck, the veins popping out, the staring eyes somewhat vacant and confused. This was not the June I knew and loved. This was a creepy old person, like the ones at the nursing home where I played piano, who gripped my hands too tightly afterward and moaned, or admonished me fervently to pray "every day, EVERY DAY, wherefore, lest the devil take thy soul in the night!" Those old people smelled of Pepto Bismol and rotting teeth. Somehow my June, my kind, intelligent, nurturing June, had slipped into that category in my mind. After that, I never could restore her.
I betrayed her, turning away to chat idly with Bill until, mercifully, it was time to leave. My parents, seeing their error, tried to explain to me that victims of stroke lose their ability to verbalize, to walk, to remember things, and that they were sorry I was scared, and that they should have warned me. I cried quietly the whole drive home.
I think June learned to speak, a little, after that, but irreversible damage was done. June and Bill moved into a nursing home. My visits, which had already slowed to a trickle since I was busy with school and extra-curricular activities, dried up entirely.
June died when I was ten.
It was August, and that meant I spent most of the time at the State Fair, tending for my auction and petting zoo animals there. One day, a group of seniors paraded into the barn, flanked by their attendants. My mom spotted them and put her arm around my shoulders, pointing.
“Look, Rachel, there’s June! Go and say hi!”
Obediently, I walked toward the group, and found Bill leaning on a walker at the back. He shook my hand and smiled, asking me about how I was performing in school and at the fair. After a few minutes I said goodbye and looked for June. She was in the front of the group, sitting in a wheelchair with a buffalo plaid blanket spread across her lap. June pointed toward the cows and said something garbled to the aid crouched on her right side.
I didn’t want to talk to her. I knew it would be awkward, since I never did learn to understand what she was saying while her eyes searched my face with growing desperation. So, I made a choice, the memory of which still brings tears to my eyes, even now, nearly a quarter-century later. I just walked away.
“Did you talk to June?” my mom asked.
“Yeah,” I responded.
“Oh good. It’s so neat that you got to see her here.”
June died three days later. That's the real truth. I never had the chance to see her again. I never read her Harry Potter. I never held her hand one more time, or said thank you, or goodbye.
“At least you got to see her one last time, just a few days ago,” Mom said. She didn’t know she was grinding gravel into my wound.
I attended her funeral and sobbed for an hour, not only because I missed her, and missed who she used to be, but because I felt like a fraud. This funeral was full of people who’d really, truly loved June, and I was an imposter. I hadn’t been her friend, not when the going got tough. I’d been cowardly, and stupid, and selfish. My actions had revealed the truth: deep down, I wasn’t someone special. I was someone nasty. Horrible. Cruel.
Hers was the first corpse I ever saw, and to this day I loathe viewings. From my vantage point, on my tiptoes, the thing I could see most vividly was her gaping nostrils, ink black against ghostly gray skin. She looked gaunt; her wrinkled skin stretched tight over her cheekbones, her unruly curls unnaturally tamed and arranged like a Christmas wreath around her horrifying face. I had hoped to whisper my secret shame to her here, to beg forgiveness for being the worst kind of fair-weather friend, and gain peace of mind, but I could not. Wherever souls go, June’s had long since departed.
If this was a story about my own eight-year-old daughter, Rosy, I would understand. Who could blame a little girl, who still climbs into her mother’s bed after an earthquake, who gives each of her siblings a hug and a kiss before leaving for school, but who also can't help screaming insults at them when she loses her temper, who can’t yet put her own hair in a ponytail…who could blame her for having age-appropriate fears and limitations? I know that June, too, would understand and forgive ten-year-old Rachel, readily.
I can’t apply that same adult charity to myself, though I’ve tried many times. I wish I could go back and change my actions, change myself, from an awkward girl shying away from a frustrating encounter to the universally kind, caring, and compassionate person I’ve tried to become. It’s hard though, to feel forgiven for an apology I can no longer offer.
I don’t think I’ll ever feel complete peace, not really. Not until I can see her again, face to face, and really, truly apologize. Then perhaps I can, finally, extend forgiveness to myself.