A few days ago, Richard asked me how I wanted to celebrate my birthday this year. I snapped back that I didn’t want to have it at all, that I just wanted the day to pass by like any other day. My response was both indulgent and self-pitying, but he didn’t press the issue. He understood that I hadn’t said this out of any egotistical denial of aging, but rather an avoidance of the losses that this time of year represents. We buried my father after his long battle with cancer on this day over twelve years ago. In the days immediately following his death, I had been brought along on the strangely swift current of people coming and going, of the preparations that took place, the heating up of casseroles, of the details of his funeral, of the need to assure others that I was OK. And then there was the nature of our relationship to try to make sense of–it had been complicated, difficult at times. I had talked endlessly on the phone with my closest friends, hashing out once again the details of his illness and final few days. It wasn’t sudden, I reminded them. I was OK.
Until I no longer was. It wasn’t until the limousine pulled away from the grave site, until it was all “over”, until I looked back to see the coffin being mechanically lowered into the ground, that the loss of my father finally hit me. It occurred to me in that instant that he wouldn’t be able to breathe underground. There was no air. It would be dark. The weight of the earth. The depth. How would he breathe? We couldn’t just leave him there! Stop! He had no way to breathe. I don’t know if I said any of this aloud or not. I also don’t remember who (apart from Janet and my mother) or how many people were in the limousine with me. What I do remember is the feeling of suffocating and then being strangely ashamed that I had cried out, as though I had lost control of some intimate bodily function. We needed to go back. Can we please go back?
Because my father in the end was on heavy doses of morphine, he alternated between belligerence and extreme vulnerability (both uncharacteristic). He had been moved to the Gunnum Suites at the University of Richmond hospital, luxury quarters for terminally ill patients, which he mistook for a hotel (befittingly, given his career in the hotel industry) and had difficulty understanding why we were allowed to leave “the grounds” while he was confined to his hotel room. He complained often of the quality of the room service (with good reason) and balked at all visitors outside of the family, proclaiming the concierge highly incompetent. His management skills appeared intact, overriding all other derangements, real or imagined. On a visit to the hospital the week before he died, New Year’s Eve, he asked my mother and I if we would stay the night. He was afraid to be alone, he said, perhaps intuiting the approach of the end. Despite the circumstances, there had been champagne and hors d’oeuvres that we brought from home, candles and Glenn Miller. We rang in the New Year, the three of us, and it began to get late. My mother, who avoided driving at night, needed to be taken home. The nurse said they couldn’t accommodate both of us, but I could stay on the sofa if I liked. In the end, I went home with my mother. I often wonder what we would have done, my father and I, had I stayed. Would we have watched TV, talked about previously taboo subjects, like his impending death or our relationship? Would I have helped him into his pajamas, plumped his pillow, rubbed his feet, watched him sleep? I will never know. Can we please go back?
Today also marks the one year anniversary of the death of one of my closest friends, Leah. I learned of her passing on my birthday last year, two days after her death. My friend Hester had tried in vain to contact me several times in Senegal over those two days, having bravely taken on the task of informing many of Leah’s friends. I’ll never forget her words: “El, I’m sorry, but I’m not calling to wish you a happy birthday. Leah died.” In that moment, I lost all sense of the way the world was supposed to function, of the natural order of things. Friends didn’t die. Friends went along the parallel time line with you, sometimes moving ahead, sometimes lingering behind, but ultimately arriving at the same points in time when we could look back together and take stock of both our shared experiences and our separate worlds. This had always been my assumption and I had counted on it fiercely, had envisioned it clearly, had lived it several times: a New Year’s Eve in New York (I don’t remember the year), a Duke reunion, several weddings including my own, a girls’ weekend in Savannah, a walk for Breast Cancer (a shared success and one of the best and sadly last memories I have of Leah.) Leah, if she had the time and the financial means, was always up for taking a plane to wherever she needed to be for these gatherings. I realized after she died that I had made few such efforts in her direction. Although I think she would say I was a good friend to her, I had been very much on the receiving end of our friendship. For this reason and for the more selfish one of needing to see her one last time, I flew from Senegal to Michigan for her funeral. I thought of how my mother used to insist, in my adolescent days when friends came by the dozen, that I would be lucky to count my closest friends on one hand when I reached adulthood. She was right and I had just lost one of my rare and treasured five. Can we please go back?
My memories of Leah sometimes get jumbled up. I have no sense of direction and a continuum sense of time, which makes it impossible to give exact dates, only general periods to my memories. The details are crystal clear, but the time is vague. When I think of her, it reminds me of the six-week tour of Europe I took with my friend Janet before college–a new city or countryside, art museum or monument every few days. All those privileges–I remember them all, I just can’t tell you where they took place. I am saturated with years of memories of Leah, which leaves me with a strong sense of her, an essence really, that I carry with me. This essence of Leah can be distilled even further into a constant but gentle reminder to be more like her, to be kinder and more patient, to push myself, to push obstacles out of my way, to move forward, at my own pace, but certainly to move forward. Take our house here in Senegal, for instance. “Keur Leah”, as it was named long before it was begun, though it was nearly ruined, is going back up, one brick, one mud frame, one day at a time. It has reinvented itself. How closely it resembles Leah’s persistence, how apt it’s name. Still, when I first saw the devastation upon our return, it felt so final, like we had failed. What if we had stayed through the rainy season? What if we had taken more precautions, protected it’s walls, anticipated more accurately? Can we please go back?
My illogical thinking, in wanting to avoid my birthday, was this: if my birthday wasn’t approaching, then I wouldn’t have to think of my father. If I didn’t celebrate my birthday, then Leah didn’t die a year ago, Hester didn’t call to tell me, I didn’t fall to pieces and board a plane to say goodbye. I could just let the anniversary pass and the day after, well, it would be the day after. Can we please skip forward? Because today I can’t breathe. The answer is no. Neither can we go back. I feel this acutely as I think of Leah today. I feel her absence, mourn her loss, as I will every year, and not just on this day. But there is that essence of her again, calming me, getting me past and through the pain. Were she here with me, she would say something along the lines of, “remember but don’t dwell.” She would also say, about milestones and even ordinary days, “celebrate me, celebrate you.”