Ruth Nielsen was my babysitter from when I was 6 months old until I was 10. My mom had started working when I was 6 months old, so she needed someone to look after us kids during the day. Ruth was an older lady with big, red hair and a matching purse for every outfit. She drove an old blue diesel Mercedes, which she used to take us to countless violin lessons, doctor’s appointments, and anywhere else we needed to go. When she found out that Chinese kids often call their parents’ friends “Aunt” and “Uncle”, she had us call her Aunt Ruth.
She was probably the most good-hearted and unpretentious person I have ever known. She never went to college, used the word “ain’t” liberally, and called handicapped parking spaces by the un-PC term “retarded spaces.” But she instilled in us important rules: don’t drink anything until you’ve finished your meal because otherwise you’ll be full; no sleeping in the car; eat the crust of the bread because that’s where all the vitamins are; when kids get out of a car, they always have to wait by the fender until the driver gets out; if you’re bad, you’ll have to sit on the davenport — with no talking. Beyond that, she always made sure that we tried our hardest in school, and were good to each other and our parents. Even after she stopped looking after us regularly, she still came to our violin recitals and important events, and even came out to New York City for my brother’s wedding. She had two kids of her own, but I think that she thought of me, my brother, and sister almost as her own children too, and she bragged about us as if we were. And the truth is, growing up, she was as much a parent to me as my actual parents were.
A couple of weeks ago, we received an e-mail from her husband Martin saying that Aunt Ruth had been diagnosed with lung cancer, and that it had spread to her brain. She was still in good spirits, though, and started radiation treatments. But things never got better. Last Wednesday night while I was having dinner with friends in Las Vegas, I got a call from my mom saying that Aunt Ruth wasn’t doing well, and that she, my sister, and brother were planning on flying back to Albuquerque to see her that weekend. My mom knew that I was on spring break, so she wasn’t sure if I wanted to come. But without hesitation, I said I would come. We all flew out to Albuquerque Saturday morning, but Aunt Ruth died while we were in the air. The hospice kept her there until we got there. It was such a change to see her so quiet and without her makeup that she put on even when she had surgery. We said our goodbyes and shed lots of tears, but even now it feels strange, because she was one of those people who you just knew was going to live forever. She was there when I was a baby, and she was supposed to be there when I was old. But she died with her husband and children at her side, after living 85 very full years, and with the knowledge that we were coming to see her. And I’m sure that wherever she is, she’s still looking out for us.
I miss her.