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May 21, 2010


Her hand rested on the coffin.

She was leaning forward, her thin frame balancing on the edge of the wooden seat. Listening carefully as the man spoke. Absorbing the words as thirsty stone absorbs the impact of rain: unblemished and steady, motionless and infinitely patient. His words were kind, and careful, and heavy with the weight of a deep and terrible sorrow, and we - all of us, the many, gathered in this cathedral, beneath the soft gaze of saints and soft light bent by colored glass - sat quietly, side by side, row by row. Wishing ourselves roots, grounding and nourishing with love, sympathy, a sense of shared loss.

Knowing even as we tried: wishes are pretty things, and they change nothing.

She sat at the left, on the edge of the pew. Her husband to her side, his lean features twisting and contorting with agonies we dared not imagine. His lungs in a vice, his heart swelled with broken glass. Feeling each breath a betrayal. He seemed so small, sitting there, in his black suit. So much smaller than we'd ever seen him before. Without bravado, or the capacity for joy. All those years of words and plans and furious energy, spinning in circles great and small, carving his place and his mark on the world... only to find himself here, on this day, cut loose from the frayed tether that had once held him so very, very closely. I watched him break, over and over again. Helpless, bleeding out, flooding the cathedral with agony.

Their son sat to his side. My friend. I had known him - his family - since we were five. He was carved marble made flesh, impenetrable in this moment: his brow creased, his lips pressed tight, his eyes slit thin. His fists, clenching, tighter and ever tighter, on his lap. Fighting something he could not defeat. Incapable of releasing the impossible pressures that had built within him over the previous week as we had sat there, together, in the hospital. Waiting. Praying. Hoping.

We had propped them up. Held their hands. Offering our kindness and compassion and willingness to make stupid jokes. Hours upon hours, days upon days. Sitting there, in that windowless waiting room, giving them all that we could give. Doing our best to keep them intact, to keep them believing or capable of believing that this would pass, that some specialist would find some answer, some unseen and unknowable insight, and that her eyes would open, and that this would serve as the wake-up call that would finally...

A wake-up call.

I felt the words rattle across my cage of ribs, a coin striking the sides of a wishing well as it falls from warm fingers, blue skies, to the dark and cool waters below.

All those years. They had treated me almost as an extended member of the family — bringing me with them to their ski house up north at all times of year... painting the house and grilling up burgers and kicking back and forth across that leaf-wreathed pond during the sweltering days of an endless childhood summer... firing up the wood stove and letting the room and our aching red skins grow slowly warm after a bitter and brutal subzero day of flying down the frozen mountainside, the four of them gracefully arcing from side to side, cutting sharp edges in the snow even as I followed slowly behind, a tumbling avalanche of sarcasm and poor motor skills.

All those long evenings, the three of us, sitting in the back seat, cruising through the White Mountains while the two of them sat in front – effortlessly cool and funny and shimmering with energy and vitality and a sense of adventure that I treasured, even in small samples.

All those long years that followed. My friend and I made our way to college, and after a fashion made our ways through, while she... she left her troubled teen-aged years with the promise of a new life far away, but found that promise quickly compromised by a baffling and relentless parade of poor choices and disinterest, fatigue and pain, symptoms that defied analysis and diagnoses that defied easy treatment. Her life on hold. And despite it all: that easy smile and cascading, giggling laugh and sharp mind that promised something more. That one day this would all be worth it.

Her mother her best friend. Her dearest supporter. The one who had left friends and family behind to seek treatment with her, 3000 miles and a million years from home, to search out and find whatever strange guidance that might touch her heart, heal her body and mind, bring her back into safer orbits and allow her to become the woman she was meant to be. 

She never gave up. Even after all of us - all of us - had grown weary of waiting, had grown frustrated and bitter with false starts and broken promises, she never gave up. This was the weightiest gift and burden of parenthood: love without end.

As the man spoke, he shared the memories that had been shared with him. Of a generous and curious spirit. Of a warm and giving friend. Of a gift for music, and an artist's eye, and a deeper thirst for knowledge than she ever had the chance to sate. Kind things. Such kind things. And as he said them, her hand stroked the coffin lid as one might stroke the hair of a child. He's talking about you. All those wonderful things... he's talking about you. 

Letting her know, after all this, she was still loved. Letting her know, even now, she would not be alone.

Her hand stroking the lid, saying: "I am here for you. I am here for you. I will always be here for you."

It was October. Outside, the blistering heat of a languid, brilliant summer was slowly giving way to the cool relief of greens bleeding to red, to gold, to dust. A time of aching beauty. 

Such a long and terrible fall.


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