Most people assume that the A stands for Ann (or the more sophisticated Anne). It does not. It stands for Annette, my father’s older sister, who was 22 when I was born and 63 when she died of emphysema. I was 40.
There are a lot of things that make me think about Tooster (the family name given her by my toddler father who couldn’t say “Sister”). The way my family uses her name as a verb in describing someone who has reached her saturation point with foolishness and succumbs to the urge to say exactly what she thinks. Summer’s first hydrangea. Prednisone.
I don’t know exactly when Tooster’s youthful habit of smoking first began manifesting itself in respiratory difficulties. I don’t know if those difficulties or, maybe, a comment from her beloved son, Billy, for whom the phrase “would do anything” is not the slightest exaggeration was the impetus to her quitting. I don’t know when the difficulties became full-fledged emphysema, but I know she fought that disease as hard as I’ve ever watched anyone fight anything.
If you’ve ever observed someone laugh while dragging around an oxygen tank, you understand a little about how she approached the disease. In fact, that is pretty much how she approached life. There was absolutely nothing about which Tooster couldn’t laugh.
I was in my 50s when the chronic allergy attacks with which I had suffered since my freshman year in college upon leaving the friendly pollen of Bulloch County for the not-so-friendly pollen of Macon (It’s amazing what a 30-foot difference in sea level can do to your breathing) were joined by asthma and, as a result, introduced me to the world of steroids. By this time, Tooster had been gone for over 10 years, but that first prescription label reading “prednisone” and the breathlessness that made it necessary prompted in me an appreciation I had before then been capable of having.
My entire life I’d heard stories about Grandma Nancy, Daddy’s grandmother, who died of asthma. For most of my life I’d known about Tooster’s struggles to breath. And now the third generation (Apparently, such things skip the men in our family) of a clan that is generally incredibly healthy, was learning what it feels like to hear the wheeze and feel the weight of the struggle.
Last week, my menace showed its face again and again I ended up with a prescription for the corticosteroid (not the illegal anabolic kind) that, according to the Cleveland Clinic, decreases inflammation and reduces the immune system’s response. I always have two responses — I immediately feel better and I immediately start thinking about Tooster.
Well, actually, I don’t just think about her; I talk to her. I tell her I’m sorry I didn’t know how hard it was for her to keep working, to keep mothering, to keep laughing. I tell her that I, as one does with age, appreciate the example she was for me without even knowing it. I tell her, because I stupidly never told her when she was alive, that I am grateful for my middle name.
We use the word honor somewhat flippantly these days. We say we are honored to accept an invitation. We say we are honored to do a favor. We say we are honored to write a letter of recommendation, to be chosen for a team, to accept a job. I’ve done all those things, but none of them compares to the honor I’ve received in having the parents of two tiny little babies give those babies my name.
I think of those babies — now a handsome and articulate 11-year-old whose mama used to work for me and a beautiful and creative 27-year-old whose parents I introduced to each other on the first day of law school — and I think of Tooster, all at the same time. I think of them and I see how we make and live out legacies. I think of them and I understand how time is always flowing in two different directions. I think of them and I take a single easy breath.