Saturday, February 1, 2014

On Breakfast, Humoring Your Mother, and Remembering Your Friends

I woke up the other day feeling like a big farm breakfast. The sun was shining, the sky was blue, I had slept well and things felt right with the world. I found four pieces of bacon in a bag in the freezer, sliced off some mighty fine bread from our favorite bakery in TriBeCa for toast, and scrambled two of those farm-fresh local eggs—the ones that are in the carton all brown and greenish blue, and every size from wee to woah. I made two different pots of tea (gen mai cha and rooibos) and a glass of juice and sat down for a rare breakfast feast.

Farm-fresh local
free range organic eggs
My mobile phone rang.

I wasn’t planning to answer it. I had breakfast to eat. I looked at it, though. The number was not one I recognized, not one my phone recognized, and a suburban St. Louis, Missouri number. I expected it was a call from my high school, maybe, asking for money. Something like that. I looked up my St. Louis aunt’s number—it was not a match. I ate my breakfast. When I saw there was a message I hesitated to listen, but curiosity got the better of me.

The first time through I fumbled the pressing of the speakerphone button so I didn’t hear the name. I had to hear it twice. It was my brother’s good friend, saying I should call back, that he had important news that I would want to know about a friend. He was cheerful and pleasant in his message, and seemed a little flustered.

I finished my breakfast. My delicious toast lost its buttery wonder. The finishing of what was supposed to be a special, feel-happy meal becoming mechanical.

I called back, struggling to identify myself. I forgot my own last name.

My brother’s friend got around to telling me that he heard through the grapevine that my childhood best friend, B., who he knew from those ski trips and because their kids went to school together in St. Louis, had died.

I’m not sure when B. and I spoke last. Maybe the summer after my mother died.

When my mother was dying, in her last weeks, one of the last conversations I had with her was about the light fixtures in her house and how she and I should go over to B.’s house, to see how B. had the exact same light fixtures in her house. When a person who is dying of a brain tumor tells you this—that you should go someplace together—flat on her back from her hospital bed that is set up in the dining room so she can die at home, you agree. It sounds like a great idea. Let’s go over to B.’s house to see her light fixtures. You humor your dying mother’s nonsensical suggestions. Your mother isn’t going anywhere, will soon forget what she just told you, might even tell you again, a couple of times.

When you are a kid, your best friend is the most important person in the whole wide world. It matters whether she does Girl Scouts; even if you don’t want to sell cookies, you will do Girl Scouts if your best friend does Girl Scouts. It matters which class she is in, because if you have the scary teacher, at least you have the scary teacher together. It matters that she goes to the same day-camp in the summer, and it matters that you can walk to her house. If she gets new Jack Purcell sneakers, you get them, too.

I think B. and I became friends after my 4th grade best friend T. moved away. In the 5th grade, B. was already tall. I was still the smallest in the class. B. was a foot and a half taller than me and had the most beautiful strawberry blond hair and bright blue eyes. I had dark brown hair that I never brushed. B. showed up every day with a huge pink lipstick print on her forehead, deposited there by her mother as she left to make the short walk to school. My mother would lock the door after I left for school, so I didn’t try to sneak back in the house.

Her dog was a white German shepherd named “Princess,” a fat panting thing with a violent grudge against certain strangers. Sometimes, B. sleep-walked. B. taught me how to be preppy in junior high school, when preppy was about to be a thing. B. was popular in Junior High School when I wasn’t, but then I changed to private school in 9th grade, and left her behind. Yet, we stayed friends. She invited me to her school’s 9th grade dances; we invited her skiing on our family vacations.

My brother’s friend says B. was very private and no one knew she was ill.

Once, B. and I went to Christine’s house, where her dad was sitting in his upstairs study. Christine’s dad saw B. and got a sly grin and held out his index finger, “Pull my finger, B.,” he said.

Now, I grew up with brothers and uncles and cousins and second cousins and great uncles and grandparents and all the rest and if there was one thing I knew, it was that you did not pull the finger of anyone, avuncular or otherwise. B., being from a protected and tidy little suburban household. B. was not so prissy as to be a push-over, but still was rather reserved.  To me, B.’s mother was a throw-back, with her hair teased up and Aquanetted, her crisp housedress covered in an apron, her lips slathered in fuschia lipstick before she ever left the house. My mother wore her hair long and straight and parted in the middle, and had butterflies embroidered on her bellbottom jeans. B.’s stockbroker dad sang 50s ballads when he puttered in the basement. My dad had huge sideburns and played rec league ice hockey. B. had had none of the random forces of avuncular jocularity to contend with, and had as yet not encountered the offered finger to be pulled. 

Hence the suggested pulling was dutifully performed by B., and Christine’s dad tipped theatrically onto one butt-cheek like a pouring tea-kettle in his comfy smoking-and-paper-reading armchair, letting rip from the sitting part of his esteemed personage with a ripe and thoroughly air-tearing, wet, percussive and voluble fart, rending B. colorless and limp, nearly lifeless and faint, well before I could intercede, grab her by the arm, stop or steer her away.

We were different, B. and I, with complementary areas of expertise.

B. grew up, got married, became an architect, had three kids. She stayed in St. Louis. I grew up, got married, became a math teacher, had three kids. I stayed away. We exchanged holiday cards some years, but I’ve fallen out of the habit of holiday cards, haven’t I? I blog.

Death isn’t in and of itself evil, it’s just what happens at the end of life. It has to happen. Being dead at 51, though, with children still in school?   Sometimes I think some force of evil is erasing my childhood. Ok, maybe not evil, it’s just the way things go. Just life and death, and loss. Everything we ever have that is wonderful or good or special will go or end or shrivel or die or break or run away or collapse or have to be put down, put out of its own misery. Our job is to make the most of what we get, I guess.

Until B.’s obituary ran, a few days later, all I could find out about her online was her nominal LinkedIn presence. I saw her brother there, and her husband and oldest daughter. I have many mixed feelings about LinkedIn, but one thing I am absolutely sure of is that it is not a place to send a condolence email. I was utterly distracted by not knowing what to do, how to reach out, whom to contact, and also by what happened. It makes it hard to focus on even the littlest thing.

I have written and re-written this post, trying to come up with something to say about how the death of my childhood friend fits into my life.  I can’t. It doesn’t. I live in New York; I don’t go to St. Louis anymore. I guess I do regret not being at her funeral in St. Louis to tell that one story, preferably to the whole assembled and somber mass of grieving friends and colleagues. What would the people who posted comments in her online guest book saying they know she’s already an angel in heaven think of me? I’d like to tell them to pull my finger.

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