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Death and Dessert

As most of you probably know, I’m the quiet one in the family.

Before I get going, I laugh when I’m nervous and I ugly cry like the Cowardly Lion in the Wizard of Oz. Two things I inherited from my Mom. I’m going to do my darndest to keep it together, however, I cry easily.

We often joked that Sandy smiled like a professional wrestler.

It was all encompassing. Her smile splashed across her face at the slightest hint of joy. She brought a real Hell Yeah, brother energy and Macho Man Randy Savage spark to everything she did.

It was a Christmas morning smile. Filled with warmth and delight. Everyone had Sandy’s smile sprinkled upon them. Whether it was an exchange of jokes during a routine grocery store run in, in-between calls on the patient line or over strip-mall Cosmos and southwestern eggrolls at the local Chili’s.

As eugologies (Zoolander voice) go, I’m not exactly sure where to start.

Perhaps, it’s best to mention that things weren’t always easy for my Mom and, as parables go, Sandy Hannan’s is one of perseverance.

In 1990 my folks moved to Denver, Colorado from Tucson, Arizona. The four of us made the drive, my Mom pregnant with my sister Kelly, singing along to a cassette of Paul Simon’s Graceland in full voice, losing love is like a window in your heart, everybody sees your blown apart, everybody sees the wind blow, as we headed North to a new city.

My sister Kelly was born in November and changed the trajectory of all of our lives. In the summer of 1991, my sister Kelly got sick and my parents were accused of shaken baby syndrome. Kelly was taken away from my folks and placed in foster care. Sandy smiled through the tears and her steely resolve saved our family. She turned to research and refined her approach whilst being judged by doctors and medical professionals for a crime she wasn’t ever capable of committing. She worked with doctors to diagnose Kelly with Glutaric Aciduria, a rare genetic disorder and Kelly was returned home for feathery fudge cake and her first birthday.

An accusation of child abuse, the news of a physically disabled child and the terminal nature of Kelly’s condition aren’t exactly the call letters one wants in life’s game of BINGO. But, Sandy smiled. She never uttered “fuck this”, instead, she said, “fuck it, let’s dance”. She’d curl Kelly in her arms and dance in circles as the B-52’s Love Shack played at high volumes in our house on Zenobia. Everybody’s moving, everybody’s grooving, baby.

In those Chef Boyardee days in the early 90s, Sandy longed for community. So she built one from scratch. An appreciator of the arts, she gathered up the neighborhood kids and decided to create her own theater company. The first production would be her adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The snozberries taste like snozberries. A harsh, but fair, director, she refused to cast either of her children in a lead role. A fact that still bristles Caitie Hannan to this day. I was cast as the petulant and annoying Mike TV. She knew me too well.

Each play practice would end with a round of musical chairs. Usually set to Us3’s Cantaloop. Her laughter would fill the room, full body in motion, trying to make sure she snagged a seat before the music stopped. Feel the vibe from here to Asia, dip trip, flip fantasia.

In creating community, Sandy also created her own rules of engagement. In an effort to be close to me, she decided she would come to school on a regular basis and read to my class. Which, in theory, is a lovely thing for a mother to do. However, she wouldn’t compromise her belief in what she deemed worthy subject matter. In 1992, she read Ray Bradbury’s dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451 to an entire class of bright-eyed and bushy tailed third graders. Mrs. Rockette looked on in awe. She upped the ante in 1994, electing Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis for Mrs. Sweeney’s 6th grade class. I came home from middle school one day to find my Mom and Mrs. Sweeny enjoying a glass of wine. Sandy made friends with everyone.

In a cruel twist of fate, my sister Kelly died the day after my Mom’s birthday in 2004. I’m not sure anything was really the same for Sandy after that. Months, May and November, carried new heft, and a part of my Mom skipped town when Kelly did.

My Mom never complained about the cards she was dealt. She spent every moment of Kelly’s 13 years laughing, dancing and dedicated to the understanding that everything in life is finite, but the love we have for one another doesn’t have to be.

Sometimes, she didn’t like the way it looked out her window, so she built her own. Placing colored glass in window panes so to improve her perspective.

One would think that after all those years of selflessness and giving that you’d run out of steam. That your capacity for compassion would run low like a glass of merlot with a few ice cubes during a long dinner. But she was always able to give more.

She gave herself to her friends and her family. When she lacked confidence and self-assurance, she would avail herself to those around her. She would lend money, laughter, advice and irreverence to everyone regardless of who they may be.

Speaking of irreverent advice, in 2008, I moved to New York City, a place I’d never even been to before. My parents decided to support me while I moved on a lark for a chance to work in soccer. Upon arriving in the city, I can still clearly remember one of my first calls from my Mom. “Glad you got there safely, perhaps you can look into staying at the local YMCA or go to church and find an old couple that may need a live-in handyman?” As it turns out, it was 2008 and I wasn’t Dustin Hoffman in the Graduate.

Sandy was never reluctant to offer her support. When Caitie started doing stand-up comedy, Sandy would stay up past her bedtime to watch Caitie’s sets in dimly lit bars throughout Denver.

Her authentic laughter would fill the room. She would call me after an LA Galaxy match, looking to break down the finer points of the counter-attack and just how dang cute Ema Boatang was. Why was Robbie Keane, yelling at you, she’d ask.

Some many years after my sister Kelly died, my Mom said to me that she was put on this earth to be our Mom. A reflection that will likely lay waste to any sentences spoken henceforth.

Last night, my sister asked me if I thought our family was cursed. Our fraction has been reduced by one and by my bad math we are down to 3/5s of a whole. Sandy was our guiding light and her laughter formed and filled us.

I don’t believe we are cursed.

I believe we’ve been taught a few hard lessons. What we’ve learned is that love and laughter are always the best medicine.

My Mom loved dessert. Boy did the woman love dessert.

After every meal, shucks, sometimes before the entrée came, a sly grin would creep across her face and she’d say, “we should have a little sweet”. So after we sip this odd, stiff drink and swallow the innate permanence of death’s dinner, let’s have a little sweet. In how we treat each other, in how we love ourselves, those close to us and even strangers.

Let’s not leave here with tear-stained eyes. Let’s all leave here and have a little sweet.