Spring walked in, whistling so I told her how lovely I found her She stopped me, cold, insisting loveliness was the least of it Leaning in to confide, with a darkening eye that what she liked best was the thunder and the lightning and the rivets of rain, all pressing and pounding and humming, to work
All day long, there's been a weight on my heart, because someone I never met has died. Lisa Bonchek Adams had metastatic breast cancer. She blogged here. She tweeted here. I was one of her readers, but we never exchanged words. I wasn't a friend. She had plenty of friends already, and they hurt a lot worse than I do today. So do her husband and three children, and her parents, who have lost their beloved daughter. She was only 45. Lisa tweeted this message regularly, usually first thing in the morning: Find a bit of beauty in the world today. Share it. If you can't find it, create it. Some days this may be hard to do. Persevere. She persevered. In fact, a week before she died, she shared a cache of garden photos taken over the summer. It was apparent that things were serious, but she wasn't a complainer. Nor was she a martyr. That was how she set herself apart in my mind. She hated her disease, hated it with everything she had, was not going to conceal its awfulness for a second. But she made it a point to love her life just as fiercely. She lived honestly, guided by a clarity of vision, always educating others about her setbacks and treatments, not because she relished the attention but because in sharing and educating, she found a way to control a fraction of her fate. She was famous on Twitter for her #mondaypleads, in which she begged her followers to make a healthcare appointment they'd been putting off. And people listened. Through her educating and "nagging," she likely saved countless lives. In her case, that's not hyperbole. Lisa didn't exaggerate. I wouldn't dare do so on her behalf. When I was walking the dog yesterday, I noticed the beauty of the snow. Yes, it was beautiful, in spite of my winter-sourness at this time of year. The sun was fierce, but there was still snow lining the branches of the woods by our house. The sky was a tonic of blue. Birds were darting over my head, robins were singing their little hearts out. I could feel springtime in the air, even as my feet slid out from under me. But the beauty hurt, because Lisa wasn't there to see it. I thought about her children, the youngest of whom is nine. I don't care what kind of preparation they had: one minute their mother was there, the next minute she was not. You can't prepare for that. Even Lisa, queen of memory boxes and advanced directives, couldn't prepare them for that. And so they're suffering today. And so, even when spring finally comes, they'll keep a sliver of winter in their hearts. Not just this year, but always. I was just a stranger. But I wanted Lisa to live until the spring, or summer. Even when it seemed apparent that she wasn't going to make it. I wanted her to see her garden again. I didn't want her to die in the cold. Of course, she didn't. She died, at home, surrounded by her family. And she died having planted thousands of seeds in the hearts of those who knew her, or felt like they did. Over the years, her garden will grow, and cast seeds of its own. Who knows how far the wind will carry them? None of us can know the impact of a single life lived so fully in the sun. So Lisa will persevere. Her children will continue to be the heart of her garden. And through them, her life and love will flourish. While I'm thankful today to have been brushed by her beauty, even a little. --- If you'd like to donate to Lisa Bonchek Adams' metastatic breast cancer research fund at Memorial Sloan Kettering, please go here. Less than 5% of breast cancer funds go toward metastatic breast cancer research, in spite of the fact that 20-30% of breast cancer patients will eventually have a metastases. Every bit helps. And please, make a healthcare appointment if you've been putting one off.
We had bells in our mouths back then we did and every word was a clang to the ribs and every conversation with you a wedding Where the brides wore laughter and the grooms were clappers and every guest inside a mile smiled Because bells are contagious and so were we
She was in a neglected corner of the university's library, her knees knocking against its most neglected shelf, pulling out books one at a time to see when they'd last been borrowed, thinking she’d become one of those people who believed, in their hearts, that books had souls--making every volume she held the more pitiable to her--when he strode down the aisle, took her by the arm and lifted her up, before kissing her hard. She dropped her book. Dust blew off the pages like pollen. And as he pushed her--gently--against the stacks, and as her fingers groped at the worn, thready bindings there, trying to find a grounding, she remembered that she also had a soul. And that lips were the crack where the light fell through. So that she returned to him, harder, reaching her hand around his neck, and pulling him closer than that. Letting the books be books, and only books.
Sometimes, it seemed her sadness was a weather system, moving in and hanging around: a low-pressure throb, right under the skin.
Sometimes, it was a night flower--the most precious, poisoned, unspoiled part of her--her very own neglected child.
And sometimes--most often--it wasn't there at all, not even a whisperful.
But even then, in the cut-and-dry sunshine, she was capable of missing it a little. Which was its own kind of sadness, though of a sort she could still make fun of.
Because she knew that it was indulgent to see sadness that way--as some cloying root one might suck some life from, just for the sake of getting the bitters. There was little in the way of sustenance about it.
When for so many around her, sadness was a luxury. A place to stick one's weary feet. The damp fire against the tiresome storm jawing at their scrawny shutters. Better than fear, because it was a lamentation of loss, instead of the anticipating. A hole you could slide into, a falling. Better than not caring, too, because nothing was worse than that frictionless drifting. At least with sadness, there was that bulging blackness at the bottom. That catch in one's throat to grab onto. As if you'd meant to say something in defense against it, but thought better of it, in the end. Sleep was so much easier. Still. She loved the word wound.
She loved the smoke that curled close to its flame, before being borne away. Paper blackened at the edges. The condensate formed on two 80-proof lips, dripping dripping dripping. Wound was a word, then. But wasn't a word, itself, enough?
So that if it was her own hand circling round her heart, squeezing to the point of soreness, maybe all that was just to remind herself, You're alive, stupid. Love it. Love the whole damn thing.
She sat beside him, and he sat by her. And somehow, that was momentous. Like there was, in fact, a choosing involved. A comfort, then, beneath the nerves.
She could speak to him today. She spoke. She thought he felt like she did, that he didn’t want to leave just yet.
The second bell sounded. They were late.
And the sun was so bright, as she rushed inside, that in that darting from brightness to not, she saw his hand gesturing as he spoke, and then, when he listened to her, pull at the back of his neck.
So that she felt, rather than thought in words, how the universe was both very big and full of wonders, and very exact, like the numbers she spun around on her locker, and how glad she was to be a girl who knew a boy like that.
“Let us pray,” the minister says, and the heads all bow.
I watch them, in all their gray-haired, frail beauty. I am glad we are sitting toward the back of the funeral parlor. It has always struck me that there is something very touching, very tender-making, about the back of old people’s necks. The flesh is leaner there. I remember my granddad’s neck, the valleys worn deep between tendons, two-fingers’ width, or so I see him in my memory. Everything winnowing away with the years. As if every funeral, every loss, takes another piece from them, makes it harder to bear the weight of their heads.
They are all beautiful. I can’t tell you how touched I am by their beauty, how it has carried them here, in their old, beaten bodies, how it has bowed their heads just now, as one.
I am here, and separate, too. My husband takes my hand. We are separate, together. We don’t pray, though a part of me would like that comfort, to be part of the swell of tears. Well. I am part of that, anyway. I squeeze Paul’s hand. The minister speaks of another Paul. And Lazarus. And David. And too many names, really. We all want to wrap Death in stories. He is not such an alien to us then.
Her name was Mary.
And she was my godmother. I still don’t know what that word means. What it entails, exactly. We were nothing alike, for one. But I loved her. That’s how family is supposed to work, I guess. Share a room with someone, be invited into their home often enough, and those commonplaces become a house that holds you, long beyond the shortcomings of who you are today. You can’t escape family, even when you try. That house is a burden, but it’s your burden. It’s your own scripture, kept in your back pocket, filled with names and begets and trespasses and forgivenesses. Stuffed with guilt and regret, and mystery, too. Feel the weight of it in your hands. It’s a load, an anchor. It can’t be left. The absence of it would be a ghost that sits on your chest at night, waking you from dreams.
There is a song playing now. An awful, saccharine hymn. I cry, anyway.
Mary played the organ for her church. She played effortlessly. She must have played this song many, many times. She did everything she tried well. She was a champion of knowing what was incumbent of her. I look briefly into the minister’s face as he takes my hand in his. We smile, tightly. It is awkward, and human. We don’t know each other at all, but here we are, stuck in protocol’s receiving line. Then I am free.
The old people file out, slowly. I assume, because Paul and I are already gone. Waiting, in the car, for the ride out to the cemetery. His hand is still in mine.
I’d rather remember them all right there, anyway, with their heads born down, in unison, as if a load had been lifted from them. As if Grace were always that simple.
They were old friends. Or, to be precise, they were old acquaintances who became old friends after all their older, better friends had up and died. Now it was just the two of them, Max and Jerry, 80-something inmates of The Laurels assisted-living home, staving off death with a little friendly competition. These were their stats, heading into 2015: Max was the older by eighteen months, but Jerry was the lifelong smoker with COPD. Max drank for twenty-six years, before jumping on the AA wagon, but Jerry had never married, and it was a well established fact that single men tended to go faster. Though Max's wife, Bev, had been dead for three-odd years, which might have evened out the playing field a bit . . . Max really couldn't say. And, if he was being fair, Jerry had the more optimistic disposition, which was likely the cause of his making mincemeat of his lungs for so long. Giving up liquor might have made Max a less indifferent Christian, but it had done nothing to change his overall outlook on life, which was skeptical, at best. But not here. Here he was going the distance. They even had a wager on it. If Max outlived Jerry, he got Jerry's pocket watch. If Jerry won, he got the baseball signed by Mickey Mantle. "How's your blood pressure this morning?" Max asked his friend, biting into a piece of dry toast. "140 over 95." "Hmm." "You?" Jerry said, stabbing his sausage with his fork and stuffing the whole link in his mouth. "Same as always.130 over 75." "Yeah? Well, you look like shit." He smiled at Max with his greasy sausage mouth. Max looked away. It wasn't that he wanted Jerry to die. The man was a serviceable bridge partner, and they had shared some memories over the years. Jerry's contracting firm had built the addition on his house back in the 60s (granted, he'd tacked 5% onto the initial estimate, a figure Max would take to his grave). Bev had tried to set up Jerry with a number of her single friends back then, but he'd resisted her "handling" him. He liked living on his own. Didn't see a need to make life complicated, though Max recalled a roommate somewhere along the line. The two men didn't bring it up anymore, but it was Jerry's place Max had slunk off to, back in '83, when Bev had finally tossed him to the curb. All his other friends were married. And then, Jerry wasn't the judging sort. He'd dried up at Jerry's, gotten himself back on the straight and narrow, thanks to some spiritual grunt work and Jerry's knack for keeping a range of salty snacks around. The two men didn't discuss their problems with one another--they weren't the discussing sort--but Max had become a fan of the prime-time soaps Jerry watched, a fact which delighted Bev, once he'd been taken back into the fold. She loved her Falcon Crest. So did he, and more than he let on. When Bev died of lymphoma, Jerry had come to the funeral, though it had been years since they'd seen one another. Max took note of that. There were plenty of others who hadn't shown. Max took note of that, too. Still, Jerry could be difficult. He hollered at the nurses. He swore like someone who'd only been around a rough group of men all his life. But the thing Max just couldn't get past was that Jerry was an avid, and vocal, Steelers fan. The man was born in Dayton. It didn't make any sense. "You done with that mealy toast yet?" Jerry said, blowing his nose on his handkerchief. "Studies have shown that chewing twenty times before swallowing aids in digestion." Jerry rolled his eyes and reached for his walker. "Your plan is to kill me with boredom, isn't it?" "Wait, Jerry. Let me see it again." Sighing, Jerry pulled the watch from his breast pocket and handed it to him. God, but it was a beauty. "Aw, go ahead and open it," Jerry said. Max sprung the hinge, opening the silver cover. Holding the timepiece up to his ear, he smiled. "Runs nice," he said. "Yep." "Better than your ticker." "Yep." Max turned the watch over and squinted through his eyeglasses. "What's this on the back? Your initials?" Jerry shook his head. Max peered at Jerry over the rims of his glasses. "A.C. Who was that? A relative?" "Nope." He was starting to get dyspeptic. "Why the big mystery? Just tell me who it is, goddammit." Jerry held out his hand. Max relinquished the treasure. Jerry tucked the watch back in his pocket and reached for his walker again. "A.C. is Arthur Cooper," he said, gripping his handles and beginning to wheeze. Somewhere in the dark of Max's brain, the name rang a bell. Now if he could only-- "Christ, Max. You knew him. He lived there the summer you stayed with me. Slender guy, with a beard?" Max's brow cleared. "Of course! Artie. Big Bengals fan, if I recall?" Jerry grunted. "Yeah, well. Nobody's perfect." "He gave you his watch?" "No," Jerry said, grimacing as he got to his feet. "I gave it to him on our fifth anniversary. And I took it back before burying him." Max squinted at the remains of his friend's breakfast, before looking up at Jerry for clarification. "You numskull. Bev was the one who introduced us." It would come. He knew it. There were just these moments, nowadays, where he seemed to be traveling a beat behind the rest of the world. But it would come to him. He just had to wait for it. Jerry suddenly looked tired. "Never mind. I'm going back to bed. Finish your toast, Max." He watched Jerry shuffle off, suddenly recalling an old conversation he'd had with Bev, after their "second honeymoon" in that born-again autumn of '83. We should do something for Jerry. He was all right to me, you know. Yes, we should. How about setting him up with Patty? She's a hoot. She hadn't responded so much as given him a look. There was something incredulous in that look. If cautious, too. Max's mouth pursed over his last sip of orange juice. It was funny what stuck with you. How long a simple thing could take to digest. And then, suddenly: blam-o. Like getting sacked behind the line of scrimmage. He swallowed the juice and wiped his mouth, beginning to reach for his walker when another thought stopped him. It was nice that life could still surprise. There was that, he supposed . . . Leaning across the table, Max stabbed the last link of sausage from Jerry's plate, swiping it through the heavy syrup, before stuffing the whole thing in his mouth and closing his eyes, in relish. ---- I started my tradition of writing a "New" story back in 2008. In spite of missing last year (I know, Aniket, I KNOW), I'm glad to be back on track in 2015. Happy New Year, everyone!