Monday, January 03, 2011

the long goodbye.

A friend was diagnosed with cancer this past fall. I remember getting the email while at another friend's house on Halloween night. We had just eaten a magnificent supper of cornbread and beef stew and caramel-frosted prune cake. We were laughing at Eddie Izzard when I checked my phone and read the news. It is typical of this friend that her main concern was for her three children, all younger than I, the youngest still in college. She wanted to make sure they had a support system. I got into my car to drive home and I cried.

She is a firecracker, this friend of mine, the kind of woman who seems to be moving even when standing still. Like a hummingbird, or that Boccioni sculpture, you know the one I mean. I have seen her talk herself hoarse and keep going in a whisper. I know from experience her hugs are tight and warm, and time slows down when her arms are wrapped around you. I know she loves books more than almost anyone else I know, more than me, even. I know she loves her children with a fierceness that is like a wild thing, and the weight in my heart I feel must be magnified a hundred thousand times for them. Or more. This kind of sadness is incalculable.

Then, suddenly, more sadness was around us. Two friends of friends - people I'd met, but didn't know well - lost their fathers in different traffic accidents, just days after Christmas. I thought of my father's brother, who died of a heart attack when he was barely fifty and my cousin was away at college. There were no good-byes, no warnings. No time. I thought of an interview by Justine Picardie with the luminous English actress Natascha McElhone, whose husband had died unexpectedly while she was pregnant with their third child and working halfway across the world. "I told him I loved him every day, all the time," she said. "Nothing was left unsaid." How many of us are that lucky?

As an only child I don't know what my greatest fear is, coping with aging parents on my own, or losing them, as I know I someday will. I remember sitting in the waiting room of the Delhi airport, reading Julia Reed's beautiful The House on First Street: My New Orleans Story. I wept when I came across this passage: I realized that my biggest fear was of an inevitability far greater than any hurricane: the fact that they too would be gone. I hug my parents a little tighter when I say goodbye to them at the airport now.

How do you say goodbye when you know you have a year to do it?

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