For Paige, With All My Love

It was a fucking nightmare getting to Massachusetts General Hospital. My GPS would tell me to make a U-Turn at some indiscriminate gap between the dividers in the road, all the while car horns were screaming and it appeared almost as if anyone who ever had an acute interest in crossing a road decided to try it out at the same time—all the while I’m trying to backtrack to what I guess was the correct route all along.

I was at school when I got the message from Evan that his mother had taken a turn for the worse and was back at the hospital after suffering a serious stroke. Bad enough that apparently when she first woke up after surgery she had trouble using language, and sometimes even forgot the names of her own sons, Evan and Ryan.

So when Evan messaged me and my friend Kelsey and asked us if we wanted to visit his mom, I wasn’t sure. Maybe a part of it was because I was terrified of seeing her in such an awful state. But mostly it was because I was really busy with school that weekend. I had a thousand things to do, and I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to swing it to Boston along with everything else. And then I remembered who was in that hospital, and I felt a little ashamed of myself for even second- guessing it. Of course I was going to see her. I had to.

I waited in the lobby of Mass Gen while Evan, Ryan, and Kelsey came down to meet me. They were going to get something to eat in the cafeteria to let her rest for a while before we went back up.

The Mass Gen lobby looks like the best and worst parts of every grand library and cathedral you’ve ever been in. There’s a present chaos that doesn’t feel too in your face, and there’s an overwhelming feeling of seriousness. But not in any offensive way. A better word to describe it might be that it has a lot of grace. For some reason I remember hearing a stream of water. I don’t know if the lobby has a water fountain or not, but I remember hearing the trickling of water. It was at the beginning of the pandemic, when there were maybe just 100 cases in the country or so. I don’t even think they were calling it a pandemic yet. Regardless, I remember sitting in that lobby thinking, “Perhaps this isn’t the best place for any of us to be right now.”

I eventually met up with the Sinclair brothers and Kelsey, and we made our way to the cafeteria. We sat in a booth in a room filled with hospital workers and loved ones of the sick. Yogurt cups. Bags of potato chips. Chicken salad sandwiches. Hospital cafeterias are nothing special by any means. But in a place filled with the amount of reverence and tragedy that a hospital has to offer, you find comfort in the strangest of places.

The four of us sat there, chatting like how we normally did. We don’t get to see each other as often as we used to, so we’ll take any moment we can to catch up on how we’re all doing. We talked about the usual stuff, movies we’d seen recently, maybe an album recommendation or two in the mix. Oh, you’ve been watching that thing? I’ve been meaning to check it out, I’ve just been so busy.

I had to ask though, and I felt myself prepare to take on the seriousness of the situation in how I spoke.

“So how is she?”

I don’t remember what Evan or Ryan said. I remember it wasn’t terrible news, but it wasn’t anything miraculous either. Their mother was really sick. She had metastasized cancer and the new – and highly selective – experimental treatment she was on may have been a little too late. The stroke was a huge setback; it seemed like the beginning of the end. But at the moment, she was awake. She was aware. What she could parse together though was still very limited. So when the yogurt cups were empty and all that was left of our lunch was vegetable oil and mayonnaise on the wrappers they came in, it was time to see her.

We entered the intensive care unit she was in, and I felt my chest get heavier as we approached her room. As we walked in, I heard Evan go, “Hey mom, look who we brought.” She sat up in the bed, hooked up to a thousand wires. A thin gown covered her, and her beautiful, curly black hair was replaced with short, greying coils. There were scars on her head. She looked very, very tired.

Art by Hayley Barnhard

Paige was maybe the first woman I’d ever met who really felt like the matriarch of her family. I use that word because it brings to mind images of warriors and soldiers, scholars and great leaders. Someone who when they walk into the room is able to send a vibration out that everyone feels. She had an intensity in her eyes that when she looked directly at you, you felt like she knew everything about you there was to know. Her voice had a music to it, its own lyrical style. It commanded your attention while never peaking above too high a frequency. It was controlled and intentional, and its tone was always diplomatic. Every word she said and move she made was a conscious choice with purpose behind it.

I met her sons my freshman year of high school when Evan was a senior and Ryan was a sophomore. It took a few months for us get to know each other, but once it clicked, it snapped into place. Evan and Ryan Sinclair, the Sinclair brothers, welcomed me into their group of friends despite my young age and the lack of emotionalintelligence that came with it. Over time, they made me a fixture at all their gatherings, whether it included trips to the movie theatre, driving through town, or late-night conversations in their basement. Their friends became my friends. My friends became theirs. And for the first time since I could remember, I felt like part of a community; a family.

Paige was an unavoidable and integral part of this community. Because the center of our world was Evan and Ryan’s house, there was rarely ever a time where there weren’t at least three teenage boys over who didn’t live there. And because of this, Paige was our host, mentor, and unspoken den mother. She challenged our boorish behavior and gave us a dose of humility whenever we acted as if our young adolescent minds had the answers to every debated and disputed discussion in history. She never did any of this to humiliate us; she only ever did it to educate us. The fact alone that she had the patience to listen to the amount of bullshit she did is a testament to who she was. She was a mother, and she genuinely loved us. Not just her sons, but their friends, including me. She didn’t have to, but she took time out of her day and busy life to love me, something she had no obligation to do, and honestly no rational reason for. Because that’s who Paige was.

“Hello Evan Ringle,” is what she used whenever I went over their house. I never had to knock, I could just come in. First name and last name each time. I think it’s because her oldest and I share a first name. Becoming friends with the Sinclair brothers marked the era of when my first name retired from peoples’ mouths. Being the younger Evan simply meant that I wasn’t Evan, I was Ringle. It’s stuck ever since. But Paige would often use my full name to address me. Either that or sweetie, or some other name a parent would typically reserve for only their children. But Paige didn’t care. She could tell how much her sons cared about me, despite my impulsive and unthoughtful behavior that I was guilty enough for as a teenager. She saw through my youth and was able to see the things in me that would transcend my adolescence. She never said anything of the sort like that to me, but I know she thought it. She was an incredibly observant person.

I’d help do the dishes at their home. I’d help her sons with their chores and I’d get groceries for her on my way home from work. Being in her home as often as I was meant that it was expected I’d contribute in some way. At the time I thought it was bullshit. But how could I think that now? How can I look back at those years that Ispent so much time in her home without realizing how comfortable she must have been with me that she expected me to help her sons with their chores? Communities work together and people do their part to maintain peace and order. I was a part of her family. Now I look back on the years I spent going to Paige’s house and wish I had done more.

She was an amazing mother. She loved Evan and Ryan more than I think anyone could love their children. But this love didn’t just show itself in hugs and gifts. It revealed itself in her support of their art and music. Ryan’s drum lessons and Evan’s passion for film. It was clear in her ability to listen to them, and joke with them. Often, it showed itself the most when she was angry or upset with them. Because she cared about them so much. Honest to God, I don’t think it would be possible for Jack Kerouac, let alone me, to articulate well enough how much Paige loved her children. I wish I could do it justice, but she had a love for her sons capable of radiating a room. She was so grateful to be their mother.

Paige’s cancer came back in 2015, and the news wasn’t great. Her doctors told her she didn’t have much time left, and she’d be gone in a year or two. The summer her sons were leaving for college, Paige put their house up for sale and moved in with her partner, Steve. I helped them move Evan and Ryan’s things out of their house and into their apartment at school. I went with Paige to get some spare boxes from the store. We drove there in Steve’s pickup truck, a strange car for a frail woman shorter than me to be behind the wheel of.

“How’ve you been, Evan Ringle?” she said on our way to the store.

“I’ve been good, I can’t really complain, you?” Acting as if I hadn’t heard the news.

“It’s been a strange couple of weeks,” she said. “I’ve been doing a lot of things I never expected myself to do. Writing letters to people, filming myself cooking recipes for my boys; it’s been something.”

I don’t remember what I said back to her, but I remember not knowing what to say. I remember not having any clue of how she must have felt, so much to the point that I wondered if she was being dramatic. That’s how much of an idiot I was when I was 17. That’s how afraid I was of the kind of openness and vulnerability Paige was capable of. But Paige was old enough where she realized there was no use in holding anything back. Why lie to me – and more importantly – to herself? There are a lot of things I wish I had done differently when I was younger. One of them is I wish I had taken her hand when she told me that, and told her how wonderful of a mother she was and how thankful I was for her hospitality over the years I’d known her sons. But I didn’t. I probably just mumbled something and stared out the fucking window.

There were ups and downs in the years following. She’d get good news every few months, then back to the sobriety of her condition. It didn’t stop her from having fun though. I was lucky enough to attend her wedding in 2017, a maritime event on Boston Harbor. You wouldn’t look at her and think she had cancer. She refused to let it alter her. She looked and acted like the Paige I had known for years now. Dancing with someone she loved, thankful to be alive and beautiful.

It was only around this time that I realized how lucky I was to have had Paige during high school, and howfortunate I was to know her at all. When you stop seeing people as often as you used to, that’s when you start to know whether they really are special to you or not. Paige’s sons were in school and I was lucky to see her maybe two to three times a year now. But being at that wedding, being around these friends I’d known for years now, it solidified to me how much I loved them. How important they were to me. And how thankful I was for them.

Even the strongest of people can’t go on forever. Paige got sicker. Treatments lost their effectiveness. And it often seemed like within months she’d be gone. I’d hear this from her sons, not her. I didn’t see her much anymore. In 2019, she got really sick. She started a new experimental drug treatment that only 60 women were participating in. But it couldn’t be helped by that point, and she got thinner. She celebrated the new decade and suffered a stroke in February. And more than ever, it felt like she was leaving soon.

She made a faint cheer of celebration when she saw us come in. I hugged her, trying my best to be as gentle as I could while still being affectionate. I showed her the Samoas I had gotten for her. I didn’t know whether she liked them or not, but I figured someone with her taste would like coconut. I was right; we opened the box up and we all ate girl scout cookies and just talked.

It was hard for her to complete sentences. Sometimes she’d forget what she was saying halfway through. Sometimes she’d forget the word she needed to complete a thought. She was also hallucinating. Her sons helped her with her words, and supportively cheered her on when she got something right. They were truly their mother’s sons.

We talked about how great of a job her husband had done with getting her to the hospital on time. We talked about music, and the things she needed to do once she got out of the hospital. A nurse would occasionally come in to check on her, but Paige had been an anesthesiologist and I could tell that even though she was obviously having trouble, she knew what she needed and what the nurse had to do by the time she came back again.

The wall to the room was a giant window that overlooked the skyline of Boston. I remember looking out of it thankful for the view, something to look at when it might have been too much to look at her.

We sat there, just talking for an hour or so, when Paige said something I will never forget.

“Y’know...maybe this is...a gift.” There was a pause.

“What do you mean? What’s a gift?”

“Just this...being here...with all of you. This is what really matters.”

And when she said that, I knew Paige was still there. Only Paige could survive a nearly fatal stroke, lose her ability to think clearly, and still be as thoughtful as she ever was. And I said to her what I wish I had said in that car with her years ago.

“We all love you so much, Paige.”

I can’t remember what I said exactly after that sentence, but I told her how much she meant to me, and howpresent she was in my life even though I didn’t see her as much anymore. I was able to say that to her.

She started to respond to me, but midway through she said, “I see a flower growing out of your head rightnow.”

I know it didn’t mean anything, but I was so thankful that when she spoke to me, of all the hallucinations her mind could have projected, it was one of a flower growing out of my head.

Before I left, I hugged her and she told me she loved me. I said it back to her. I walked down the hallway toward the exit wondering if that was the last time I’d ever see her. I wanted to cry so badly but couldn’t. There was just too much to feel.

When she left the hospital, she knew she didn’t have much time left. It was around the same time as when the lockdowns began, and I never saw her in person again. But I was able to talk with her one last time over a video chat to say goodbye.

I was so afraid of what to say and what I might forget to say. I wanted to tell her how much I loved her and howthankful I was for her, but I was so scared of seeing her one more time. But just like all of the hardest moments in our lives, there’s really no way to prepare yourself for what will happen.

She showed up on the screen, wearing a hat that tampered down a long, black wig. She looked sick. But when she saw me she smiled, and said hi in the excited and celebratory way she always did. Her mind was back, recovered from her stroke. The Paige who said “Hello Evan Ringle” to me whenever I opened the door to her home; who tasked me with vacuuming the carpet and shoveling her driveway. That Paige was back.

Like most memories, it’s tough to try to remember everything that was said verbatim. But I remember her telling me how smart she thought I was, how gifted she thought I was, and how proud she was of me. Ithanked her for everything she’d done for me, for making me feel like part of her family. And she told me I was special. And just like in typical Paige fashion, she was able to look right through me, and tell me what I needed to hear. “And honey, don’t be afraid to cry.” And with that, I said goodbye and took her advice.

She died a few days after that. I went to her funeral, there for my friends who feel more like brothers at thispoint. I said my goodbyes and helped them say theirs. There’s only so much you can do for someone who’s lost their mother, especially a mother like Paige. All you can do is stand there with them and allow them togrieve for however long they need. And it will never be enough.

We had the reception at Paige’s apartment that she shared with Steve. And the moment we were there, there were barely any tears. Evan put together a slideshow of photos of his mother, and we all shared stories about her. Her giant fish tank that she adored still glowed with blue water in their living room, and I remembered how excited she was when she first got it. And all through the celebration, I kept getting the feeling I used to get when she was still around. Her humor and her love still lingered in the apartment, even after she was gone. And for a few hours, I thought she was there with us.

I don’t believe in life after death, or that we’re infinite beings only having a temporary human experience. But I think the closest way we can get to any kind of immortality is by having the best parts of ourselves pour into the behavior of those around us. I see Paige’s love and fascination for people clearly in the faces of her sons. I see her in the smile on her husband’s face when he thinks of her, and I can hear her in the laughter of her friends when they tell stories about her. My children won’t be able to know Paige, but I hope that they’ll be able to see her in how I love and care for them. In how I celebrate them. And if that happens, then I’ll know that some part of Paige is still alive.