By Loretta Susan Carr —
“Hello, Susan? It’s Carmen. Call me back.”
That message is saved on my answering machine, and when I can bear to hear her voice again, I will push “play” and get ready to cry.
Carmen was my dear aunt, my shopping buddy, my going-out-to-lunch companion. We traveled together on the Amtrak Coast Starlight to Washington where she flirted with Leonard, the handsome attendant. Did I mention that she was in her 80’s when we made that journey?
We went on road trips together to Lake Tahoe, Bakersfield, crossing the Mojave Desert on the way to Victorville, talking and laughing all the way. She came up to Sonoma a number of times. We became teary-eyed listening to Johnny Mathis sing “Chances Are” at Luther Burbank Center. Why, we even danced to “Soul Sacrifice” on Spain Street at the City Party.
We won’t get to do those things anymore because she died from Covid in December.
Carmen’s given name was actually Carmel, after her paternal grandmother in Mexico. She often said she was Carmel by the Sea. One of eight sisters and six brothers, she was the only one who did not have any children of her own, but I’m sure that a survey of her nieces and nephews would reveal how much she mothered many of us. When her sister, my mother, died in 1992, the magnet of loss and love drew Carmen and me together.
The extended family didn’t want her 80th birthday to pass unacknowledged, so 100 of us took over Rodolfo’s restaurant in Selma, complete with open bar and a cumbia band. Looking back, I’m so grateful we shared that celebration with her.
Carmen was always fashionable; her pouty lips and petite figure never failed to attract male attention, even at the Fresno assisted living facility where she resided for the last few years of her life. My cousins and I used to joke that Aunt Carmen was probably getting more action than we were, but that’s what happens when you’re Maaa-rilyn Mon-roooe. That’s what Tio Cleto used to call her because she reminded him of that beautiful movie star.
The last time I was able to see her was in February 2020 before the stay-at-home restrictions went into effect. I drove to Fresno, picked her up from the healthcare center, and we hit Rodolfo’s for a taco and glass of rosé for old times sake. Then we went shopping at JC Penney’s before stopping by to visit one of her boyfriends.
At that time, she seemed in pretty good shape, both mentally and physically, but I worried all year about the virulent infection that was spreading throughout convalescent facilities in California. Once the shut-down was in place, residents were not allowed to leave the facility or have any visitors. During the most critical months of October, November, and December, residents were confined to their rooms.
We spoke on the phone a couple of times a week, and I could hear the growing frustration and anger in her voice. Sometimes her calls stressed me out because I was dealing with my own anxiety about fires, the virus, and political discord. Other family members and I tried to assure her that we weren’t staying away because we didn’t care, but because of the mandated precautions.
The best I could do was mail her candy, socks, underwear, magazines, strawberry Ensure. The last request she made was for cough drops. That was the alarm.
Within two weeks, she was gone. She had been transported to the hospital, but after her positive diagnosis, she indicated that she did not want to be put on a ventilator if it came to that. She was returned to the facility to await hospice care but passed away before a hospice caregiver ever came to see her.
She had made her funeral arrangements years ago, and true to form, the lavender and silver coffin she selected was fit for a queen. I only saw photos as the number of attendees was limited due to health restrictions, so I did not go down to the Valley. I thank my cousins who organized and attended Aunt Carmen’s farewell in the manner she deserved.
I already miss her phone calls.