The hardest gifts to return are the ones we love the most.
We speak of interruptions……as if traffic jams, snow storms, and computer glitches mattered. But they do not. They are temporal, transient – fixable, recoverable. Some interruptions are not so. They are the sort that make time melt like a Salvador Dali painting and cause days to blur into spaces measured simply by before and after. Exhaustion is ever present. Whether waking or sleeping, there is no rest. Such was the interruption to life this week.
It is the call you never want to receive; the kind made famous in film, played out in other people’s lives that we are willing to observe with voyeuristic empathy and feigned despair only volunteering to touch those emotions within the safe distance of fiction. It is the call that once experienced you hope you are inoculated from ever having to receive again, for the sharp sting from the shock and horror is so great a pain that you are quite certain you could never possibly survive it more than once. And yet in some families they come in waves, like an epidemic. The immunization having failed to protect from another episode of the disease, the antibodies of grief, building, growing stronger with each new insult.
I think of the Kennedys. Surely they know this grief. Families who have lost multiple sons and daughters, mothers and fathers taken by war or rage. Rare and cruel fates of DNA that affect closely related clans.
While we would never wish such a fate on anyone, it’s always supposed to be someone else. It’s never supposed to be you and your family. And surely not with such frequency.
The initial startling phone call came eleven years ago. It was Oscar night. Just as Roberto Benigni stood on the back of his velvet covered theatre seat upon learning of his award for best foreign language film for Life is Beautiful, the walls began to close in and the light grew dark and tunneled as the voice on the other end of the phone stabbed my husband with the news that his mom had died. 54 and healthy. It went straight through him.
The LAPD searched Oscar parties around Los Angeles looking for her youngest sister so they could recreate the horror so familiar to us on screen: the look of confusion, the piercing pain, the innate response to hide our faces from the messenger. The defiant “NO!” screamed out at fate.
Life is in fact difficult as M. Scott Peck so famously wrote in the opening line to The Road Less Traveled, but must it be to such an incomprehensible degree? There have been a few years of reprieve since Scott’s mom died, but in the last two this family has lost an uncle, both grandparents, a teen-aged cousin, a close school aged friend and now a dear aunt who has been so much more than merely a mother’s sister. She was a beloved friend and had become a surrogate to my husband, our family, and our children.
We have shared as many or more holidays with them as we have with our own immediate families. We know where the dog food is kept in their house and that the iguana’s meal worms live in a suspended state of animation in a small plastic cup in the refrigerator…..and that they have the most brilliant and talented beautiful human beings for children and it’s because they are amazing parents which is especially remarkable given the bright light under which they must rear them. They are generous and kind people who have taken us under their wing and insisted we stay close and be not merely relatives, but a part of their family…. at home with them. We have grieved and supported one another with each successive loss – some anticipated, others tragically unnecessary.
I met Sally at our wedding, and unsurprisingly, I was a bit pre-occupied at the time. I have enjoyed getting to know her over the years as we traveled to be with them for holidays and family gatherings at their home in LA. The first time we visited I fell quite ill. As sick as I have ever been in my life. She made me ginger tea, and quarantined me to the space beneath the fluffy white comforter of their master bedroom. This she did over Thanksgiving week, while wrangling a toddler and cooking a full holiday meal as well as entertaining other guests. It was not the last time I or one of our children required medical attention while at their home. Each time she took care of us like we were her own. Making phone calls, working us in to already impossibly full physician schedules, doing whatever she could. But that’s just Sally, the nurturer, the miracle worker.
Holidays often began with Dean picking us up at the airport or us navigating our way across Hollywood from LAX in a rental car. It would be perfectly normal to come in the driveway side door and find her at the Viking caramelizing onions…….even if it were before noon, because, she had simply decided she felt like having pea soup for dinner; or baking cookies for her staff for holiday gifts, a la Martha Stewart, with smart white paper boxes lined with waxed paper and tied with customized ribbon.
So many memories involve food and cooking together. Like the Christmas she made beef wellington, and I made grandfather’s famous sticky buns. Or the Thanksgiving in Banff when we cooked all day in our pajamas, she attempting to rescue the overexposed turkey that had been brining and defrosting at room temperature for far too long prompting an emergency run to the grocery store by the men to find a replacement turkey on Thanksgiving morning. Which in theory might be tricky but not impossible had we been in LA. But we were in the foothills of the Canadian Rockies where it wasn’t even Thanksgiving and 20 pound turkeys are not a common weekday meal. After hours of being away the men returned from their turkey hunt, successful; and while she ended up cooking them both, she would not let the children eat from the questionable bird……just in case. I acted as sous-chef: spinning salad, sauteing onions, melting Gruyere, and stirring the homemade hot fudge sauce. Taking a break only to make us croissant sandwiches from scrambled eggs, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and prosciutto and perhaps indulge in another cup of coffee. We laughed and talked and shared.
She introduced us to things like Joan’s on Third, the shops at Larchmont, and the Getty. Peet’s coffee, Jamba Juice and Baja Fresh. We adventured with them to the Banff Springs Hotel and Lake Louise, The Big Top Circus in Manhattan and the model train exhibit at the New York Botanical Gardens. We learned from them that people really do shop at Rite Aid and showers and hair combing before leaving for school and work are completely optional. She taught us how to make cappuccino. She said we helped keep her grounded. We griped about families. We shared joys and sorrows. We kibitzed about raising children.
As a friend and a surrogate, she filled the enormous hole that was left by Scott’s mom when she died so unexpectedly before grandchildren had even joined the family. Sally helped us with cooking, sent us the best hand me downs, and loved our children. We loved her back.
A few years ago, one of the things I felt I had learned from the experience of losing Scott’s mom was that life was too short to continue on in the WASPY ways of my youth. So I began to tell the people in my life whom I felt a fondness for how I felt. That they were important. How they made a difference. I figured I should take James Taylor’s advice seriously and shower the people I loved with love. Sally was one of those people. Just over a year ago, I wrote to her following a phone conversation about shallots:
Just wanted to say thanks for letting me call you with my cooking questions the other day. I’m grateful that you let me do it…..and we love and appreciate that we have a good relationship with you and your family ……but part of me is really sad that I have to ask you questions like that. My mom has never bought a shallot in her life …. She hates to cook ……. I used to call [Scott’s mom] with questions like these…..and then your mom….and it feels a lot like being adrift not having someone to turn to for woman wisdom like this. Ungrounded and wobbly. Maybe you know what that feels like too…..
You have been through more than you should have had to endure these last several years….and yet you press on. I admire your determination. Weaker souls would have given up long ago.
You are a successful woman and a wonderful mother with a beautiful family. We appreciate you more than you know. And we love you too. Thank you for all that you do to give us a sense of bearing in our lives and to help us feel not quite so lost.
What a lovely letter. Thank you. I don’t know quite how to respond except to say I have a lot of cooking tips and it is essential you call me.
But, seriously, thank you from the bottom of my heart for your letter.
Having just walked into my house from exercising and thinking, of course, thinking… that dreaded thing I try to avoid, I realize I too feel adrift. It’s very hard to incorporate this last year of tragic, god awful events into a calm, resolved life. So your thoughts mean so much to me. To know that you are there, is plainly and simply wonderful. It seems that with my accumulation of years, I always demand that I be stronger, more stoic. But really it is such a burden, cause it’s just too hard to be stronger, all the time. Something has to give, and I think [the] idea of going alone – to quote a politician I really can’t even believe was our president – is a stupid idea and has to go. So thank you for being there for me, and I always want to be there for you. I understand the different ways to slice garlic too.
It’s important to know there are people who love you and will support you without conditions.
I was certain that in her accumulated years and wisdom, she had learned quite a bit more than the various ways to slice garlic. Feeling lost and directionless didn’t mean as much before I had some compassionate guides who had helped point my life in a new direction. I understand now truly how unrooted one feels to lose those who help us navigate life.
When the call comes, the audible gasp of our own reaction echoes in our mind. This inhalation is the last normal air we will breathe for days, or months, or years. For some of us, ever. The fog that clouds our mind and slows our processes becomes a swirl of emotions: confusion, anger, disbelief, bargaining, doubt, shock, horror, sadness, loss, loneliness, empathy, acceptance. This is grief. It follows the bereaved around dulling the senses, muffling life as if all were underwater. The mind is constantly engaged, yet never able to focus on any one emotion or thought, making the most difficult and impossible decisions of one’s life all the more inane and absurd. When tragedy comes like a thief in the night to the young and the vibrant, all the more so.
A life interrupted reminds us we should not forget to live. The creaking in our knees and the aching in our fingers are reminders that we are alive. It is not a warning to stop. We must make them creak everyday, for the still dark silence is at hand and the most despicable thing about the unforeseen is that it gives no warning.
When the family lost a remarkable boy, a nephew of 14, in a senseless way, the exhale of grief was so great some struggled to inhale ever again. Sally and I often spoke to one another about dealing with grief as it had become such a frequent visitor. I shared the wisdom that Queen Elizabeth imparted to the American people in the days of our collective mourning following September 11th: “Grief is the price we pay for love.” The deeper the love, the more vivid the pain. And a passage from my dear friend’s favorite movie, Shadowlands, which she has used more than once to comfort my own anticipatory grief. In preparing for his dear wife’s death C.S. Lewis and his wife Joy discuss what will come. She tries to comfort him:
“You know, I don’t want to be somewhere else anymore. I’m not waiting for anything new to happen. I’m not looking around the next corner and over the next hill. I’m here now. That’s enough.” He replies, “That’s your kind of happy isn’t it?” “Yes. Yes it is.” she responds. “The grief then is part of the happiness now……that’s the deal.”
Gordon Livingston knows the grief that only a parent who has lost a child can. In his books, Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart and And Never Stop Dancing he says: “To lose that which means the most to us is a lesson in helplessness, surrender, and survival. To experience fully the sadness and absurdity that life so often presents and still find reasons to go on is an act of courage. To cope with inevitable loss, to face life in all its confusion …… and still retain the capacity for joy, laughter, and a belief that our struggles have meaning – this is to prevail.”
Eleven years after that first fateful call, the LAPD was searching for her again, but this time because she had gone missing. “Only bad things happen quickly.” Gordon Livingston reminds us. And it is true. This time it was we who dropped to the floor in silent screams of agonizing despair from a blindsiding blow that once dealt changes everything in an instant.
On Monday she went walking with her dog, Zoe, and an acquaintance in Griffith Park not far from her home. It was expected to be a hot day in LA, but no one anticipated it would be literally the hottest day ever. After an hour of walking Sally turned back. When she didn’t return home, friends and family became concerned and the search began. The fullness of truth may never be known, whether she was overcome by heat or other factors were involved. Although she was found, Zoe faithfully by her side, she will never come home.
To the rest of the world Sally was Quentin Tarantino’s long time and enormously talented film editor. To us, she was home. We were always proud of her work, confusing the movie going public by cheering in dark theaters when we saw her name in the credits. A gifted creative spirit, yes, but a far more remarkable mother, wife, friend, and human being.
The last time we were together was in March. It was a short visit, but most of what is good in life is best measured by quality rather than quantity. I sent her a note after our visit.
We made it home last night. No one wanted to leave CA. We miss the warmth and the sun and the lush green dinosaur food that landscapes everything……
It’s about 42 today….the gray soupy cloud cover has burnt off a bit and the sun is actually shining now……The Vernal Equinox may have transpired and the flowers are beginning to poke out of the ground, but it will not be full blown spring here for another month.
We had a wonderful trip. We were busy in San Diego, and understand now why and how Europeans take a month of vacation. For the doing and for the doing nothing. We went to Joan’s on Third and picked up dinner Sunday night. I’d been wanting to go since my friend told me about it. It was beee – yootiful. Thought I had died and gone to culinary heaven. The food was as delicious as it was pretty to look at. So cool.
We loved seeing you all and are so glad you got to get away with the boys. We missed you all on Sunday…..but we completely understand. I’d want to be with my guy on his birthday too……Hope it was wonderful for you all, and he has an awesome week.
As Jack fell asleep in Lucas’s bed Sunday night he asked me to hold his hand. I asked him if he was sad. He said no, he just didn’t want to leave. When I asked why, he said, “Because it’s really nice here.” Yes….it is.
If we have never told you before, or even if we have, being there with you all…..feels like home. Safe. Warm. Comfortable. Nurturing. Loving. It’s the way home should feel, and it does. Thank you for letting us feel that with you.
Please let us know how Bella is doing.
Christy, Scott, Jack and Sam
She wrote back.
I got home last night. Late. I’m sorry I had to bolt. I really needed a bigger land scape for a sec and wanted to be with my boy as he turned 13. WOW. I have a lot to talk to you about and didn’t get a chance on our short visit. So now we’ll have to do it over the phone.
That Jack of yours is so connected to his humanity, his soul. And Sam is a true adventurist who, it seems to me, will always be riding the wind of the next great adventure. Always exploring. What great kids you have.
I really miss you guys and wish you were close by. You are my family.
Love you guys,
It was not my last note to her, but it was the last truly poignant one:
Thank you for your lovely compliments about Jack and Sam. They are intensely loved…..much of what we learned about rearing healthy, well adjusted, breathtaking children we learned by watching you and Dean. I am reminded of …..Lucas’s compassion and patience as he played with the boys…..so willing to listen and share. It’s beautiful….. Bella is lovely. And they are both talented remarkably gifted children.
There’s a wonderful poem by Veronica A. Shoffstall called Comes the Dawn where she says, “After a while you learn the subtle difference between holding a hand and chaining a soul.” It seems that’s our job as parents….to help them grow without stifling them. You seem to have achieved this with your children quite beautifully….. They are confident yet thoughtful, careful but not timid, compassionate yet self-respecting. These traits seem to thrive in an environment of unconditional love. Nice job.
You said you had a lot to talk about. When would be a good time to chat? We’ll get a glass of wine and sit on the back patio and you can do the same…..it won’t be the same as being together, but it’ll be pretty darn good.
Much love, Christy
When the pain lessens, and the sadness softens, I know we will take comfort in what remains in those who loved her best and in our beautiful memories.
It won’t be the same as being together…..but it will be living.
“When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.”
~ Kahlil Gibran
Copyright © 2010 by Christina Caine. All rights reserved.