"I hear and I forget; I see and I remember; I write and I understand." - Chinese proverb

Saturday, December 31, 2011


Give sorrow words. The grief that does not speak
Whispers the o'er-fraught heart, and bids it break.
        --Malcolm in Macbeth, by William Shakespeare

Thanks to who decided there was such a thing as a "year" and that it should be 365 days long, 2011 is winding to a close, and frankly that's fine by me.  This year has truly sucked.  Illnesses, severe economic deficiencies, bad dye jobs and WFSB canning everyone's favorite weatherman Geoff Fox (who thus was not around to predict, parse and soothe us during a winter only the Abominable Snowman could love)...these were a few things I and mine have had to deal with.  And yes, another year has gone by with no real social life.  This also appears to be an I-Didn't-Do-Anything-But-Got-In-Trouble-Just-The-Same year.  More than once.  (Because of innocent Facebook postings, more than once, dammit.)  But by far, by FAR, the hardest thing I have had to deal with -- am still trying to deal with -- is the sudden death of my best friend.

No, Elaine wasn't in immediate danger, even though she did have brain cancer.  Yeah -- how do you like that?  I knew she hadn't felt well for a good year; "I keep FALLING," she said.  "I don't remember tripping or losing my balance or getting dizzy, I just FALL."  Maybe late-onset multiple sclerosis, I thought?  Or a side effect of one of her medications?  Not that she took many.  "All I want to do is SLEEP," she said.  Depression, for sure, I thought, and made her promise to tell her doctor.  Heaven knows she had as much of a reason to be depressed as the rest of us.  She had a bout of pneumonia last winter, not that surprising; it seemed that everyone had some chest thing going on last winter, either bronchitis or pneumonia or both, and Elaine smoked, so that added to the witch's brew of susceptibility.  (Though I will be the first to admit, she did look so very cool with a cig.)

She had some tests, she took some antibiotics, she finally felt better.  I worried.  Elaine didn't get sick very often.  Even in the old days of raising six kids.  But she was a good six-hour drive away, minimum, and the best I could do for now was talk to her on the telephone.  And tell her I loved her, I always told her I loved her...and I did.  And I had her back, and she knew it.  And I knew it was marvelous for her, knowing this, and I was glad.

We'd known each other 40 years.  Since my brother Bob was still "Bobby."  The age difference meant nothing.  She knew every room I'd ever lived in; she knew my parents, and my father's rakish sense of humor.   He'd hang out there sometimes playing guitar when Elaine lived across the street from us, and he had given Elaine and her sister our picnic table to sit 11 kids around...and she never ended a call without asking how he and my mother were.  We'd lost touch for a bit -- kind of a long bit -- while Elaine played mom and wife...and wife...and wife...and wife yet again, and I just bounced around from one potential life to another.   Somehow, though, at the fringes of my mind, I knew she was there somewhere and would be back.
I was beside myself with delight to run into her again a decade ago, and we took up right where we'd left off; I was dazzled, as was everyone who knew her, by her incredible beauty (think Judi Dench-radiant, with crinkling eyes), hearty irreverent laugh, sexy swagger, layers of responsibility to the world and soulful enjoyment of life, whether it was a glass of cranberry juice with crackers and cheese, dress-dissing at the Academy Awards show or helping her elderly father wash his hair.  She held to certain beliefs: eating cheese before bed gave a person wacky dreams, that was one.  Eggland's Best eggs were indeed the best, that was another.  Streetwise and at the same time credulous, she was hard, kind, and unstoppable.

Life had not been especially easy, or especially nice, for Elaine.  Her second child died from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.  Her youngest son had almost died in a trailer fire.  Her husbands had been jerks.  When she was pregnant with her fifth baby, the others had been taken away from her on the strength of a jealous ex, and had lived in foster homes for a while; she was continually forging new relationships with them, all but the oldest, who wanted no part of it.  I found that sad, but understandable at the same time.  Elaine wanted to write her story down, and I wish she had.  At the very least she wanted her kids to sit around the supper table and talk about it.  I wish they'd done that too.

Elaine had a bunch of grandkids.  She may have been especially close to her oldest granddaughter Kelly, though.  Kelly had been born with osteogenesis imperfecta.  Her bones broke easily.  Her van was handicap-equipped.  One time someone parked too close to the van and Kelly couldn't get in.  Elaine, who was with her, crawled inside the van to move it and "had to drive laying DOWN," she recalled.   But it was FUNNY.  And Naomi; how sad that Naomi will never get to know her grandmother...the funny, sexy, swaggery, take-no-prisoners grandmother who made her Halloween costumes, did a pink room for her, studied her hair -- Naomi will grow up to be a beautiful woman of color.  Naomi, who was lucky enough to be absorbed into this family.
Elaine loved a good Chinese buffet, Elizabeth Taylor "White Diamonds" perfume, getting a manicure (not square -- oval), estate jewelry (or good CZ reproductions from the Home Shopping Channel), the "Antique Roadshow" and "History Detectives" and all of the British comedies on PBS.  (If it were not for Elaine, I would never be getting my brows waxed.  Or spend time ironing stuff.)  She loved going to thrift shops and flea markets and tag sales, and wearing good perfume.  She loved to read.  And like as not, whenever I'd go to visit her, the pile of books beside her bed held at least one title I was reading myself or had just finished.  We loved to recommend books to one another, but sometimes I think we did it by E.S.P.!

Elaine taught me the best way to cook cauliflower (buy a fresh head, cut the bottom off, put it stem side down on a regular dinner plate, stretch plastic wrap moderately tightly across it -- two sheets, in a figure "X" --  and put it in the microwave for about 10 minutes.  Awesome.)  She showed me a much quicker, less fidgety way to seal a loaf of bread than with those annoying little twist ties: just twist the plastic, hold it by the twisted part, open the top and fold it down over the loaf.  (You do have to have a few slices gone for this to work well.  But it does work so well.)

In 2002 she and I went to Las Vegas and we had a TIME.  I don't gamble -- I have no luck, and I find it depressing and boring to hand my money over to strangers -- so you'd think it would be a strange destination for me.  Not at all.  Elaine gambled (one of her favorite pastimes) while I went on bus trips and swam in the pool.  One morning I sat on the stool next to hers at the slot machines.  "Here," she said, giving me a handful of quarters.  I quickly won five dollars and made to call the guy over to pay me.  "Hey," I said to Elaine, "it's a free breakfast buffet."  "Don't EMBARRASS me," she whispered.  I embarrassed her a lot on that trip.  In the plane on the way back I fell so sound asleep that I was "catching flies" all the way from Nevada to Tennessee.  "Your ass was pushing that other lady just about out into the aisle," she said (I had a center seat).  "I don't KNOW you," said Elaine.  I'm tickled to remember that.

I was there to simply be there.  To stand around the dancing waters at the Bellagio while Andrea Bocelli's voice rang smoothly through the balmy air...to twist and shout on Fremont Street underneath a million colored lights and Jimi Hendrix singing "'Scuse me, while I kiss the sky!"  To watch open-mouthed as the Cirque du Soleil acrobats pranced, climbed and swung overhead, to stand at the top of the Stratosphere looking down on the lights blossoming up from the desert.  To be there with my friend.  That was it.  All of it.
One New Year's Eve she convinced me to go with her to a free buffet at the local V.F.W.  This was not in my comfort zone, but we got ourselves glammed up and went.  Even as I sat there in the old beat-up hall with its peeling paint and scuffed wooden floors, listening to an earnest band of wall-eyed men in flannel shirts play Merle Haggard songs almost unrecognizably, I knew it would be a reminiscence of monumentally hokey proportions and I was having the time of my life.  

"I LOVE tablecloths," she said last year when I was visiting.  I  knew one tablecloth she'd really love.  I had gotten it in a second-hand shop in Northern California.  It was royal blue with little white chickens on it; I had the cloth napkins to match.  I folded it up when I got back home, I looked for a box to put it in and ship it up to her, knowing how she'd use it in her pretty kitchen, how she'd go through the days happy that I'd thought to give it to her, and then I hesitated.  I'll grant you that I don't use tablecloths much.  But I thought, I'll use this one, won't I?  And I decided to keep it a while longer.  To mull it over.   I love tablecloths too.  I never sent it, but I can hardly look at it now.  I don't need to tell anyone this, but act on your impulses toward those you love...show them what they mean to you.  Make them happy...it will make you happy; happier, probably, than holding onto table linens you may never use.  In fact you probably won't.  There are enough dirty bastards in the world we have to deal with; give them as short shrift as humanly possible, and devote yourself to the others, the good ones who don't come along all that often.  Count yourself lucky.  Count yourself blessed.  Yeah, I should've sent that tablecloth.  It's as simple as that.  Sometimes it's as simple as that.

It's been a hard year.  A really hard year.  My mother fell in the night this past September and fractured her pelvis, the same day I was to leave for Maine to see Elaine.  I wasn't going to go, but, "GO," said my mother from her stretcher in the local emergency clinic.  "What can you do here?"  Elaine was tired from six weeks of radiation, but elated to have 12 days off before starting chemo.  Other than that, and the fact that she was bald now, nothing had changed.  Her place was pretty much the one place I could completely relax in.  Yes, we went to Goodwill.  Yep, we read.  We ate; Elaine was one of the best cooks I have ever known.  Unlike me -- I tried to boil hotdogs without water one night, smoking up the house and burning one of her good pans, more fodder for her to shake her head at and me to never live down.  She could have berated me for this, made a serious fool of me.  But she called me after I got home, yelled at me for not letting her know I was back okay, and declared that the next time I came up I was "gonna cook a meal.  I don't care what.  You pick it, I'll get the ingredients, and you're cooking a meal.  And that's that."   We laughed, I was poked fun at, and I smile now to think about it.  There are far, far more smiles than not.  When you are truly loved, you smile.

There were more stories, more laughing, more celebrity-related editorial remarks as we watched the season premiere of "Dancing With The Stars."  A bunch of us went into town to the Chinese restaurant; Elaine wore a sparkly blouse and a red turban, and fretted as we stood outside waiting for a ride because her son had left the shades in his bedroom uneven.  The absolute COMFORT of it all was the steadfast and seductive component.  Never to be taken for granted, never to be given up.  Not without the fight of the century.

I know now what it is like to be brought to your knees, paralyzed, on the strength of a message left on your answering machine.  I know now what it is to have your heart so weighed down that a piece of it breaks off.  In the quiet night now there are wonderful others of course...but there is no HER.  Not FAIR.  I want to call her.  I have stuff to say.  I have stuff only she would understand.  I'M NOT THROUGH BEING HER FRIEND YET!! 

The weekend after she died, I wanted to be sure she was okay.  I've never done this before, except with a beloved cat, Beau ("Send Me A Butterfly").  I told her she had that weekend to show me a clown.  Then I would know.  Why a clown?  One thing we did for fun was collect a certain something for awhile -- lighthouses or swans or clowns, poking through Goodwill for finds, rotating collections after a bit.  She had collected clowns; now, she said just before I left, she thought she might start collecting swans.  If she showed me either a clown or a swan, before the weekend had ended, I'd know, I told her.  Foolishness, I guess.  But so human.

My friend Holly and I decided to go tag-saling that weekend.  Even though I love it, I don't do much of it normally; when I have time, I don't have the money and when I have money I don't have the time.  But we thought we'd ride around and stop at a few.  Yes, you guessed it -- the last one we stopped at had a clown collection.  In fact I lost count of the number of clowns that were there for sale.  The one that brought me up short was the one with a duck and a goose.  Not a swan but pretty damn close.  What are the chances you'd see a clown with a duck and a goose?  It makes no sense.  I bought it.  I put it on my dresser next to her picture.  It brings me something, though I'm not sure it's comfort.
With Elaine you saw light.  There was darkness, but sunbeams too, disappearing around the corner of a room, caught sight of out of the corner of your eye.  The other day I gave my mother a bath.  Afterward, we powdered her up with Chantilly dusting powder.  The scent of it always conjures up an image in my mind: ladies who lunch in the 1930s, wearing white gloves, in a city with elevator attendants...a soft, sweet image.  The scent stayed on my hands all day.  I closed my eyes.  It made me smile, imagining those ladies.  I got through the day thinking of them and smiling.  Make no mistake.  I laugh, but I am really broken in places...I am so not okay.  The best way to get through things, Elaine would say, is to keep going.  I will look for things to keep going.  Things she might have left for me.  Clowns.  Swans.  Light in the corner of an otherwise darkened room.  A day of perfume.

1 comment:

  1. I'm so sorry for your loss...my best friend is sitting next to me right now...ironic.

    I know exactly what you mean. There are certain things that ONLY SHE will understand/appreciate.

    Take care xo