When we first heard the news of B's cancer, we all grabbed each other. Four of us, standing in a hallway at the hospital, holding on to one another for protection from the malevolent rain of truth, a more ambitious kind of shelter that we had been able to offer one another as children, when it may have rained, thundered and frightened us. Then, back on stormy summer nights in Wisconsin, the weather was mysterious but not a mortal intrusion into our reality. However, in a clean hospital hallway, with floor polishers humming and orderlies mopping and nurses fussing over electronic monitors, rain's deliberate rhythm was distant, indiscernible, and the only known truth was that death was threatening the very life of She who had brought us into the world.
I'd like to say that our aggregation--a spontaneous, warm, misshapen mass of holding one another for support at the news of "inoperable malignancy"--was oddly complete, except that it lacked its Mother and Father at that moment: the one, being rolled down the hallway by a kindly nurse, crushed by the news, and the other, long having exited the world, twenty-six years earlier, just a few miles down the road. "It's just us now," I thought, as my mind raced to all those whom I've comforted over the years, who said those very words, "It's just me, now, Rabbi. I'm all that's left," a pronouncement of finality that shocks at its first utterance, like the intake of breath one feels, involuntarily, standing at the edge of a high cliff or an abyss.
But at the presence of B, in her gurney, smiling with tears in her eyes, that determined triumphalism so unique to her, is like the warm, warm sun after a threatening summer storm. Like the broken branches of a battered tree, she bears the mark of one changed yet regenerative. She's not REALLY going anywhere anytime soon. Not if we, or the forces of Nature, have anything to say about THAT.
I rub her head, and feel the thickness of her hair, as she begins to muse about picking out wigs to cover up what the chemotherapy will do. "The Angel of Death is going to come and fuck with THIS head of hair?" I think, accusatorily. Instead, I just say, "Your hair is so thick! It'll grow back thicker!" Because that's what we do when we face loss: We say "More, more."
I think of the times she stroked my hair to comfort me as a boy, whether fevered and nauseous, fearful and distraught, pained and confused. Her presence was "everlasting." And through thick and thin throughout childhood, lulled to a blessed quiet and then sleep by her immovable, covenanted nature of it all, I was the lucky one.
A child can never repay a parent, I realize, stupidly, as if for the first time. And so only offer unconditional love, too late, and promise to do better for one's own children, now. She knows that, I think. A kind of beginning of wisdom for me. But still. If she weren't preoccupied with survival, I'd deserve an eye-roll. Feel free.
Later that evening, J and I sat at a bar, drinking a glass of wine, waiting for some take-out. We were re-hashing old stories, one in particular, trying to uncover hidden meanings. Our hearts softened by the deep, red intoxicating wine, we drifted into unchartered emotional waters and yet stayed there, talking, listening, trying to reconstruct events as we both remembered them and "chose" to remember them, a crucial distinction.
We were sitting in a bar, at a restaurant, that before was movie-supper club that once was just a plain old movie theater, where B had taken me as a kid. At four or five I left the theater in horror when a hunter killed a mother deer ("Bambi"); I laughed hysterically through "E.T." (Don't ask.) And now I sat in a reconfigured architectural space with J., beginning to make sense of it all, waiting for take-out on a Monday night in Milwaukee. I loved the solid poetry of the moment, its unpretentiousness, its sense of home.
One late summer night, while home from college in Madison, I rolled into home, and B was up late, reading the New Yorker. She knew I had made my domestic late night roll-call in a somewhat altered state so she invited me to sit on the edge of her bed and share what was on my mind. I talked and talked and talked: about friendship and politics and the state of the world and what the moon looked like against the trees at one in the morning on a warm Wisconsin night. With her magazine in her lap, her own face shone like the moon. There was no judgment, only amusement, and unconditional love.
Which is not a bad thing to strive for: amusement and unconditional love.