The Extra Layer

photo credit: favim.com

photo credit: favim.com

A mother I know lost her son this week, her oldest child. He was sixteen. First he was missing. Then he was found by a search team alongside the road where he had apparently been hit by a car in the early morning darkness. The details are still unclear. But do they really matter? He is gone. Somehow I imagine that knowing must be better than missing because missing means uncertainty. And in the face of uncertainty, we imagine the worst. And hope for the best. But in knowing, we reach the truth, the depth of death and loss that we all experience differently. And although we may sink into that pain like fresh mud, at least we are not floating away. And when we are ready, there is the pulling grace of goodbye, the loveliness of memories. The detail of the lips moving, the voice like honey, thick and soothing, buzzing still.

My husband’s cousin, a painter, did a series of works in which he illustrates that we each carry with us all the disappointments, cruelties and losses of our lives as bricks. The proverbial baggage. Some of these bricks fall away as we get older–the self-doubts, the useless criticisms, the rejections that no longer serve us. But I believe certain losses never leave us. We don’t “get over” them, we simply learn to lift ourselves up with them, walk with them, adapt to their weight and presence, perhaps occasionally forget they are there. Shift them about. Maybe even soar with them in a moment of laughter. But never, never put them down. I have always hated the saying “time heals all wounds,” which implies that we are responsible to open our eyes on some undetermined bright morning and find the wound scarred over, run our fingers over a place that was once raw and bottomless to find a bumpy ridge of dullness. The forgetting. I have not lost a child. But I have lost my father and a dear friend and I prefer to think of them as always with me, not as a burden of grief, but an extra layer.

This woman who lost her son is a friend of a friend. Someone you love by extension, because your friend does. I met and spent three days with her several years ago. We walked 49.5 miles together with several other friends to raise money for breast cancer. We crossed Chicago together. I guess when you walk that many miles with someone, the “getting to know you” process is accelerated. Sweat and blisters cut through the veil of appearances and you have no choice but to be yourself. I have a vivid image of Deborah, long legs and girlish braids, a glamorous Pippy Longstocking who I had trouble keeping up with. And although I haven’t kept in touch with her regularly or ever met her family, I know about them. Which is enough. It’s enough to know.

During our walk, we women shared the details of our lives, some mundane–what sports our kids played and how our husbands made us crazy, which recipes we’d tried lately, the music we liked, what we were like in college. And some more poignant–a birth story, relationship worries, a battle with cancer. The miles and the time passed until we reached the next rest point where we could stop and eat, drink water, stretch, rest. Getting up again was always the hardest part, exhaustion anchoring us to the ground, the grass, the dirt, the ants. Deborah was always the first to say, “Ok, time’s up, let’s get going.” And up she got, the rest of us struggling to our feet to catch up. Keep going.

The following year, another good friend who walked with us died unexpectedly of coronary thrombosis. I flew from Africa to her funeral in Michigan with the numbness of grief and no warm clothes. It was early January, deep drifts of snow covered the ground. Deborah sent me a sweater in the suitcase of our mutual friend — a long, soft, gray blanket of a sweater. A new sweater, an expensive sweater, which she pulled off the shelf of her clothing store–because she thought of me–which is an extraordinary gesture for many reasons and one I’ll never forget. I wore that sweater during the funeral, I slept in that sweater, wrapped it around my shoulders, my waist. It became both a shield and an embrace. I slipped it over my head on the airplane going back to Africa, not because I was cold, but because I needed to feel the familiar drape. It had become a different sort of extra layer, threads of comfort woven into the fibers. The comfort that comes from being with good friends who loved the person you miss, the talk, the smells, the touches and tears. Even the laugh that escapes unexpectedly and uncontrollably–that first inevitable laugh that feels like a betrayal, but is really the soul of your friend, or father, or son, or mother telling you it’s ok to live on.

When I woke up this morning, it was cool, maybe not worthy of a sweater, but I put it on anyway. The sleeves are now stretched past my fingertips and the hem is dotted with pilled knobs of worn wool. I sat on my bed and pulled the sweater over my knees and tried to send my thoughts across the ocean to someone who once showed me kindness. But the tragedy felt too large and far away, like I could travel and travel and never reach an understanding. A child gone. I thought that maybe I should send the sweater to Deborah, that somehow it would help. But what if it didn’t feel the same to her, if it didn’t fit, couldn’t comfort? In all the certain gestures of family, friends, neighbors and even strangers, I hope she’ll find her own extra layer. And when she does, it will make a small difference. It will.

Walk With Me, Leah

IMG_3171I woke at dawn to the sound of the muezzin calling the faithful to the mosque, as I do every morning. There is a rotation of three male voices and I never know which one will call me back to consciousness. To my relief, today it is the one I call “The Gregorian” because his chanting has a delicate, clear cadence, the kind that can ellicite calm and touch you in that small hollow under the breastplate, that odd place that beckons a quick breath. Certain Gospel voices can do this to me as well. There are lots of people who can sing, but not all of them get the message across. Like the other two muezzins, who are doing their job, but lack conviction and passion. On the mornings when they shout “Allah akbar” from the turret, it sounds like a call to obligation, but this morning, as I hear The Gregorian, I imagine the men in their robes, walking from all directions toward that voice and I am almost tempted to dress and walk to the mosque myself, just to see, to be led. But then I remember, women are not welcome in the main part. So instead I pick up the small notebook that sits beside my bed where I write down those “urgent” things that need to be recorded in the middle of the night and head to the kitchen for coffee.

Yesterday I was starting to feel the impending sadness that January 9th brings, because it is the day my close friend, Leah, died two years ago. Richard noticed and said, “Ellen, if you want to be happy, you have to start to forget.” I got angry and demanded how he could possibly ask me to forget her. He said, “What I mean is that you have to try to forget the sorrow. As long as you sit with the pain, she isn’t with you. But if you can figure out a way to honor her, she’ll be next to you.” Richard is not always so philosophical, but from time to time, he offers up just the right wisdom. Like small baubles which float to the surface, they have escaped the buried wreckage. Like all of us, he has had his own share of life’s collisions . So at some point in the middle of the night, I decided to write down the pain I felt over her loss. I wanted to let it out, get it down, so that I could think about how I would honor her instead. The small light on my phone wasn’t working, but I wrote anyway in the dark, scralling over the page, letting the tears come, knowing I would be able to decipher my own handwriting in the morning, as least get the meaning. But as I sat at the kitchen counter this morning, and opened the notebook, I saw that the page was blank. Only impressions were left. The ink in my pen had gotten caught on a philament of dust and all I had managed to record were scratches and traces. The page was scarred. I stared at it for a long time and then I began to write this piece.

I will honor Leah today by taking a long walk. One of my fondest and last memories of her was our Avon Walk for Breast Cancer in Chicago the year before she died. It had been some time since we’d seen each other and we had a lot of catching up to do. She had emailed me frequently during the training period. “Congrats on getting up to 6 miles . . .10 miles . . 15 miles . . . Don’t forget to buy dry-wick socks . . .I saw that you reached your fundraising goal, congrats . . . see you next week.” Leah was a life coach long before she put a professional label on it. She was all about setting goals, getting through the hard parts, laying stepping stones, celebrating victories. She was also someone who didn’t let you get away with much. I remember a Sunday at her apartment while we were at Duke. I was insecure, immature and ravenous for acceptance and approval. I started talking about one or another girl who I seemed to run into at all the parties, who was always perfectly quaffed, wore a different outfit every time and seemed to always say the right thing . . . but she wouldn’t give me the time of day. Leah stayed silent while she listened and then at one point looked off to the right and up to the ceiling as though she were waiting to devine the right response. Finally she looked right at me and said softly, “why are you spending so much time talking about this girl, when clearly she isn’t worth it? You’ve got plenty of friends who love you, you’re smart, you’re beautiful. It sounds to me like maybe you’re jealous, which you shouldn’t be. That’s all I’m saying.” And she didn’t mean,’ don’t read into it any further’, she meant ‘that’s all I’m saying’ as in, ‘end of conversation, ’cause I ain’t wasting any more time on this and neither are you.’ I called it the “Leah mirror.” She had a way of holding the truth up in front of you without making you feel judged or defensive and in a way, Richard did the same thing for me.

Leah wanted to come to Senegal. I will honor her by taking a long walk. I will show her. Maybe I will turn right and walk along the red dirt road that leads to the sacred Baobob trees, where the path is covered with fronds from the Flamboyants which have started to shed. It will be chilly at first and I will be sure to breathe in the scent of drying grasses and the small ground vines that hold purple wildflowers. I will smell the morning fires from the small Peul huts off to my left, wave to the women hunkered down over their steaming pots. I will listen to the “tchik, tchik” of the shepard leading his cattle to pasture. I will continue on until I reach the fields of bissap crops, ready to be harvested, those crimson petals that when boiled down to their essence, can heal. Or maybe I will turn left and walk through the brushland towards town. A fire last week burned all of the brush and the earth is scorched underfoot. It releases small clouds of black dust and shows my footprints perfectly. I have been here and I will go there. It will start to get hot, so I will take off my sweater and let the sun warm my shoulders and face. I will pass small groups of Senegalese children on their way to Koran school. Dressed in bright colors and carrying their Korans tightly to their chests, they will stop talking when they see me and smile. Some will say hello, others won’t. I will hear one of them say, “toubab denge Wolof”, the white woman speaks Wolof. I will smell their bread filled with spiced lentils, wrapped in brown paper, which they will eat outside on the stoop before entering the building. Next I will begin to see the houses that have been started and left unfinished until more money comes. They are signs of hope that the future will be built upon. Then, as I move further into the village, I will stop and talk to Samba, who owns the small bodega where I buy flour and potatoes, garlic, spices. He will be sitting just outside playing checkers with his friends at a rickety wooden table. He always wins and never cheats. I owe him 50 cents from a week ago, but he never has change, so I will buy something I don’t need and hand him $1.

I might even walk all the way to the sea, wind my way down the rubbled lane between the brown house with the orange roof and the green house with the brown roof. Then I will have to jump off the sea wall because the waves have eroded the stairs. I will stop for just a minute to take in the vast expanse of the ocean and sift through the shells that have been deposited by the tide. Pocketing my favorites, the welks, I will feel them against my leg as I walk. The vendors will be out by then and I’ll pass ancient women with skin like blue night carrying bundles of clothes, baskets of beaded necklaces and shell earings, African dolls, Pareos. I will stop and greet them. The wind will circle up under their long patterned skirts as we talk and I will catch a glimpe of foot, flat and smooth from decades of sand. I will buy something, a trinket, because they will walk much longer and further than me today. I will add it to the shells in my pocket as a reminder of today. Soon, as the tide rises, I’ll take off my shoes and walk in the water, which will be calm at that hour and starting to warm up. The salt will sting my skin as the water pulls away but each time it comes back, it will soothe.

As I head home, I’ll hear a song, that voice, the muezzin calling for mid-morning prayer, my breath catching again. Leah will hear it too because it is calling her. I’ll want her to come home with me, stay a little longer. But I’ll let her go, knowing there are many others who need to walk with her today, and always.