She wasn’t one of my closest friends, and I wasn’t one of hers. We floated in the same circles, had friends in common, graduated from the same college. We attended each others’ celebrations, showers, and, eventually, our children’s birthday parties. She was in my orbit, but she was not part of my daily life.
Two days before she collapsed at work I went to her son’s second birthday party.
It had been some time since we’d seen her, and she’d recently announced her second pregnancy. By my math, she was going to have her baby girl almost two and a half years after she’d had her son, the same amount of time that had passed between the births of my son and daughter. I hugged her. Gestured to her growing belly. Congratulated her. Asked how she was feeling, and she gave an accentuated “Eh!”, rolled her eyes, smiled, and gave me a quick look that I took to mean, “I’m tired, but I’m hanging in there.” I nodded, with a silent, “I know what you mean.”
I suddenly remembered how exhausted I was for most of my second pregnancy, chasing after a toddler, a couple years older myself. The days are long but the years are short, they tell you. Some of those days were very, very long.
A wave of affection for her washed over me, one that almost took me by surprise. I listened to her wrangle her son for candles and cake, and felt her love for him somewhere in me (only registering it later, as her voice calling to him echoed through my skull). I changed my daughter’s diaper on her son’s changing table that day and admired the pristine nature of all of the objects in the room, down to the little contraption I tapped to borrow a wipe. Even the wipe dispenser is classy.
For whatever reason, I hugged her a half second longer than usual as we left, onto another birthday party in the parental whirlwind of a Saturday in June. Just an extra squeeze to say, “This is hard, but you’re doing great.”
There is no earthly reason why I (or any of us) could know that two days later she’d be rushed to the hospital from her office. Or that a few days after that her family would be told she wouldn’t wake up. Or that her baby girl wouldn’t leave the womb, and would instead exit the world with her mother, before really entering it. There is no earthly reason for any of it. There are only words. And even for someone who turns to words for comfort, words seem stunningly insufficient.
Music, maybe. And the echo of her voice calling her son’s name.
I was on eighth avenue when my husband told me the news. She didn’t make it. I cried out, stumbled a bit, going in circles, not able to figure out if I needed to sit down, get on a train, or just keep walking. Phone still to my ear, but not able to form real words. More than one stranger asked if I was all right.
She wasn’t one of my closest friends, but after hearing the news that she was gone (But I just saw her), I moved through the following days in a fog, zeroing in on objects surrounding me and focusing keenly on moments that normally rush by, aware somehow every second that I was still breathing. And she was not.
I noticed Richard Scarry’s Best Word Book Ever on my son’s shelf. She’d given it to him at my baby shower because, she said, it was her favorite book when she was little. He wanted to read it every night for months, so much so that I had to hide it for a time.
While washing dishes, my eyes paused on our hand soap. It was Yes to Carrots, a brand she’d introduced me to when it was her job to promote it. She did her job well; I still buy the brand. I was tickled to see they now make hand soap. In grapefruit.
My son’s art box was open and inside were the crayons she’d given him for his second birthday, sturdy big ones with little animal heads. I loved those crayons, even after he snapped off half the heads.
I stared at a garlic head in our kitchen, remembering the evening at her apartment in Little Italy when she roasted an entire head of garlic for us to spread on bread. I’d never seen anyone do that, before or since.
My husband and I took a slow walk in the Botanic Garden near our house. The first time we’d ever been there was to meet her. She introduced us to it, at the cherry blossom festival that year. It was so crowded that day. We go all the time now.
A few nights ago, I scrolled down the invitation list to our daughter’s first birthday, and stopped at her name and email address. I nearly panicked when I couldn’t figure out how to delete it from the list (please, Paperless Post, don’t send an email to my dead friend asking for an RSVP). I figured it out, and breathed. In the time since I’d invited her and her family to our party, she had died. She had. Died.
She was all around me, her fingerprints all over my life. And her voice in my head.
A couple nights later, my son’s eyelids drooped while I stroked his back and sang him his night-night song. Once he finally drifted off, I let the tears roll down my face with the thoughts that I couldn’t stave off. She is never going to do this with her son again. And he is never again going to have his mother put him to bed. Stroke his back. Sing him to sleep.
I peeked in on my daughter asleep in her crib, with the tears still coming, my head aching, letting myself think the other unthinkable thoughts. She is never going meet her daughter. Her daughter will never be asleep in a crib in that room with the pristine objects.
We were mothers together, exchanging silent nods and knowing sighs but rarely talking much about it. That above all was what was breaking me.
A mother’s love feels too big for just one life to hold. Words are as insufficient at containing the love of a mother for her children as they are in encapsulating grief.
Even as the rest of us slowly grow accustomed to her absence, and the grief gives way to new daily routines, and her family is able to smile again without pain behind it…that all-encompassing love will remain here among them. The care she took to cut his food into tiny pieces will be with him as he enters kindergarten. The nights she laid her hand on his back as he slept just to make sure it was still rising and falling will surround him as he loses his first tooth. The extra layer she dressed him in on the coldest of days will enshroud him like a cloak as he walks with his class. Has his first job interview. Meets his own first love. Her voice left a trail for him to follow; he will hear it even if he doesn’t remember it. Her reflection will shine back at him from the eyes of those she loved who are still here, caring for him like a village. None of this is enough, of course. But it is something.
The Best Word Book Ever. It’s a long book, with a lot of animal families and words for everything on every page. The last page shows Mother Elephant reading Baby Elephant a bedtime story. I used to skip pages sometimes without telling my son, just so we could get to the end a little faster. I don’t think I’ll do that anymore.
TO THE WORDS
When it happens you are not there
O you beyond numbers
passed on from breath to breath
from day to day from age
charged with knowledge
indispensable and sleepless
keepers of our names
before ever we came
to be called by them
you that were
formed to begin with
you that were cried out
you that were spoken
to begin with
to say what could not be said
and helpless ones
—Written on September 17, 2001
Dedicated to the memory of Catherine Lai, or Kit, as we knew her.