Liz had been a teacher. While I can’t testify to her professional excellence it’s hard to believe that someone with such a flash in her eyes and depth in her laugh could be anything but exceptional.
Everyone asks, “wasn’t she wearing a helmet?” Yes. Of course. But helmets have limitations. Once her bicycle hit a certain speed, the helmet stopped being effective.
The day before her accident we were gathered celebrating a Bar Mitzvah. The reception was a warm invitation back to the house for coffee and dessert. The kitchen was sunny and filled with happy chatter, clanking cups and plates. Homemade pastries were skillful laid-out on the dining room table. Brewing coffee perfumed the air as we told and retold stories. We left promising to meet for dinner. One day soon. Check your calendar.
Machines breathed life into Liz’ body for months. Family and friends took turns rubbing her feet and pleading into her ear, “wake up, please wake up”. I did not go to the hospital. I did not whisper in her ear. I was afraid to face her husband’s pain. Her children. I did not want the memory of her laughter replaced by noisy, mysterious machines or the memory of her eyes replaced by the sight of her slightly contorted, unconscious body.
During those months my ten-year-old son, Justin, tenderly greeted me with the same question: “Mom? How’s your friend?” How dearly I wished to say, “You’re not going to believe it, sweetheart—she’s awake!” My eight-year-old son, John, was ever optimistic. With his eyes earnest and hopeful he’d begin sentences with, “When she wakes up—” and proceed to describe elaborate celebrations staged to welcome Liz back.
But Liz had wandered too far. She wasn’t coming back.
Although young, Justin and John knew enough about life to understand death. So after days of fraught deliberation I decided to bring them to Liz’ funeral. It was their first.
Not surprisingly, her funeral was standing-room-only. Mourners stood shoulder-to-shoulder along the side aisles and crowded deep into the foyer.
The community of grief was suffocating and I struggled to breathe and digest her death. My mind resisted the facts: her’s was an accidental death. No cautionary tale. Nothing noteworthy to avoid. No one to blame.
As I stood, my left arm embracing Justin, my right arm embracing John, my most cherished bookends, my throat tightened thinking of their willingness to join me, to honor my friend with their goodbye. I felt depleted but they enriched me. I heard myself saying, “all we have is goodness.”
Afterwards, mourners of varying heights and ages crowded inside the social hall. A massive buffet cleaved the room. Trays of imported cheeses, glass bowls of fresh fruit, hot pans of roasted chicken were laid-out to feed the weary, the emotionally exhausted.
I didn’t want Justin and John witnessing more of my tears so I sent them to choose a plate of food while I embraced by friend. While only fifty-years-old Jim stood like crumpled paper. His spine was curved from the brutal weight of grief. No amount of empathy could straighten it.
Another mourner took my place beneath Jim’s arms as John appeared at my side. Justin trailed closely behind. John’s eyes sparkled as he held high a white dinner plate stacked with mini desserts. Sickly green frosting smeared over John’s teeth and top lip as he announced, “Mom! Wait ’til you see the dessert buffet!” Justin held-out his towering plate and said, “Mom, you gotta try these brownies!”
Seen through their eyes this scene (expect for the crying) had all the trappings of a great party. I considered Shhhing them. I considered giving them my hardest look as a reminder of the sadness which brought us here. But I didn’t. Instead I put my hand on John’s back and said, “show me to that dessert buffet.”