Top Ten Family Deaths—Real, Near, Imagined

Midge nursing Ralph after he broke his back, thrown from the cavalry horse he was exercising.

10. 1959. Thirty years into his career as a notoriously reckless jockey, my grandpa, Ralph Neves, survives a severe brain injury, his life saved by surgery and a metal plate where a portion of his skull used to be. This is his third near-death experience.

9. 1922. Nanny—Midge to her friends—was born Jessie Magdalena MacDonnell, in Nova Scotia, the youngest of thirteen kids. Three days after her birth, her sister Alice died after a candle caught some sheets on fire. Bridgett, Nanny’s mother, saved her sister Florence but couldn’t reach Alice in time. Daniel, her father, was a fisherman, was at sea, just returning home. He and the crew saw a tunnel of glittering light shining from the vicinity of the house up through the heavens.

8. Ca. 1940. Ralph was riding in the cavalry, preparing for war, somewhere near Stockton. He fell off his horse and suffered a spinal injury, nearly dying for the second time. Nanny, who’d refused to marry him before this, spent months nursing him back to riding shape and followed him to the altar.

7. 1968. My mom and her friend thought it would be fun to try gypsum weed. You could pick it right from people’s yards. She ended up in her closet, hiding from the FBI agents she was sure had climbed to the roof, ready to storm in and kill her.

6. 2003. Summer died with heroin and meth in her blood. We don’t know much more than that. She’d been our neighbor as kids and moved in with my family during high school. We shared a room and a bed.

5. 2011. They found my father’s body in a drugstore parking lot. After decades of surviving as a junky, the toxicology report found no heroin in his blood. They found a lot of alcohol and other drugs. He was looking for heroin, but nobody would give it to hm.

4. 1982. Nanny and I find my mom after my aunt (and maybe some others) have bandaged her wrists. The blood seeps through the bandages and the misery through her tears.

3. 1977. Our Black Lab Mona “went to live on a farm” after she dug up 100 hits of acid buried on our property, became psychotic, killed some angora rabbits, attacked some cops, and terrified my grandmother with her furious fangs.

2. 1968. Nanny and her boyfriend Doug drove my mom to Tijuana for the abortion. At the last minute, she refused. So I didn’t die, but I can’t help imagining what would have become of my fetus if my mom had gone along with it—which would have been a rational thing to do.

1. 1936. Ralph, a nineteen-year-old wunderkind, behaves badly on the track, eager to win $500 and Bing Crosby’s gold watch. He’s thrown, rushed to the hospital, and pronounced dead. The mood is solemn at the track after the announcement—until Ralph shows up, in his hospital gown, running around the infield, bloody and battered. A doctor friend had decided to try a shot of adrenaline, for the hell of it.