(This is the fifth in a short series of posts)

I make phone calls all morning, and finally, I reach my first husband at his office.

Hello, darling, I say. He understands instantly why I have called.

Andrew and I always had a plan. We would stay up late at night in bed, laughing, devising ways to escape the city in the event of an attack by Godzilla or Mothra. We had our future mapped to the moment; we anticipated every contingency and had more insurance than any two young people should have had. And even now, as we talk, our voices betray that intimacy of a first marriage – where you have been young together, and loved each other in a way that you make up as you go along, and you have listened to each other throwing up in foreign hotel rooms, and have been so irrationally mad at each other that you once cancelled the other person’s credit card mid-business trip.

But my voice catches, and I cannot ask him: How did I get here? Tell me, darling, what comes next?

What comes next is that JRA plans and hosts an abbreviated shiva, but I cannot make a shiva call because I have out-of-town commitments that I must keep, and anyway I am struggling mightily with this new vocabulary of tangential Jewishness.

Arrangements are made, and dates are set, and time begins to move very fast indeed.

I drive to Scarsdale one Sunday to ride bikes with Lady H and she takes off down the Bronx River Trail like a bat out of hell, leading me and JRA on the ride in the cold, pale January afternoon. She struggles on the hills but conquers them, a far cry from a few months earlier, when even the slightest incline terrified her. As the day grows smaller, we head back down the trail, along the river, and a large, blue heron stands silently in the water, staring at me as I ride.

H! H! I holler to my budding ornithologist companion, What kind of bird is this? But she has ridden too far ahead to hear me.

JRA pulls her bike up beside me to look. It’s funny because the one person who would know isn’t here to identify it, she says with a small smile. Pete had been a lover of nature and an avid watcher of birds, and I feel a wide, dull ache in my chest flap brokenly.

The heron is still staring at me as we ride away.

The first of two services for Pete is planned for the end of January, and Andrew tells me that he and his wife will be there. He and I talk a few times before the day-of – about love, and life, and loss, and interfaith relationships. His wife is a professor of Jewish Studies, and he is a lapsed Catholic; they are raising their children Jewish. It all sounds very complex, and it reminds me of when I had to convert to Catholicism in order to marry Andrew – the Bishop came to a church in suburban Maryland to perform my confirmation – and Andrew’s parents had flown in from Connecticut in support, but to this day I believe it was to ensure that I actually went through with the whole thing.

On the day of the service at the JCC, we all drive out from the city to Westchester in a car filled with flowers and food and wine to remember and to celebrate Pete. JRA and I go to the JCC ahead of the crowd to begin setting up for the service, and for one brief moment, we are alone in a room, just the two of us – no parents, no friends, no Lady H. We have been in this sort of waiting room prior to events before but they have always been happy occasions – my weddings; her wedding; just before Lady H was born – and now, here we are, preparing to celebrate the end of the beginning.

Friends begin arriving, and the service begins, and it is beautiful. It is mostly people I haven’t seen since my first wedding, or since JRA’s. People tell stories and share memories, and Dorota reads the Horace ode in Latin that a friend read when JRA and Pete got married. And because Pete had been an avid singer before muscular dystrophy had restricted his voice, his college acapella group, the Pirates, sing a sea shanty.

As the Pirates launch into the Mingulay Boat Song, my eyes scan the crowd for Andrew, who is a few rows ahead of me, sitting with his wife. I think back to that October day, ten years earlier, when JRA and Pete were married in Boston, and she and I had shared the same wedding veil, and she had floated down the stairs wearing it as the Pirates serenaded them. I watch Andrew’s wife dab her eyes with his handkerchief, and I watch him put his arm around her and draw her close, just as he had done to me a decade before on the opposite occasion.

The next day, JRA sends me a photo taken from her front porch – it is of a murmuration of starlings; hundreds of them. They have inexplicably descended upon her street – swooping down upon her yard and doing loops over the wheelchair ramp on her lawn.

If I were the type of person who believed in signs, she says, trailing off.

And for the first time in many weeks, I feel the ache in my chest flutter a little, and start to grow wings.

(This is the fourth in a short series of posts)

I leave Argentina by way of Chile on a Tuesday night, and then fly from Santiago to New York. It is different this time than the last time I left Santiago, on a New Year’s Eve upon the finalisation of my first divorce, when I spotted a couple in evening clothes in the airport. They boarded my flight, and had danced in the aisles on the plane – getting up when the pilot had announced the New Year – looking less like a portrait of true romance than a Jack Vettriano painting, or a line from that Paul Simon song, Rene & Georgette Magritte with their Dog After the War.

I remember, years later, looking at another Jack Vettriano print in a Newport, RI hotel room, that I had read that Rene Magritte had hated and been long-estranged from his wife; that Paul Simon’s lyrics were more likely borne out of his own longing than any recollection of the Magrittes’ true tenderness for each other.

My friends want to go for dim sum on Saturday following my return, and I say I will go until the reality of having to leave my house in a blizzard sets in. I text my best friend Jade saying, I am having a very hard morning, maybe I should stay home, and she tells me to go eat dumplings anyway.

Our plan is to meet at Golden Unicorn, a restaurant that takes up several floors in a Chinatown office building. Upon arrival, we are seated at a large, round table on a dais, and the ladies come around pushing carts full of little bamboo baskets. JRA and Lady H join us a few minutes into the meal. We stuff ourselves with little doughy packets for hours, and to my surprise, my mood lightens considerably. I watch Lady H tell eee her secrets – they talk about boys, and clothes, and swimming – and Michael leans over to tease me about my recent trip, and for one moment I stop asking How did I get here? And for one moment, I think that we are all going to be Okay.

The meal ends when the carts stop coming around, and from Chinatown, JRA, Lady H and I trek uptown in the snow to visit Pete at Mt. Sinai. When we arrive, JRA goes into the belly of the ICU, and leaves me and Lady H in the waiting room where we talk with the other waiting families about the things that strangers talk about to break up the heaviness of silence between them.

Then JRA comes to take Lady H in to Daddy, and I walk the halls of the medical ICU alone.

In December, they’d had someone playing Christmas music at the piano in the hospital’s atrium. The pianist had played Christmas classics, but never Merry Christmas, Darling, which was probably because it wasn’t the sort of song that lent itself to being played on a lobby grand piano. And I remembered, back in December, that I had never really noticed Mt. Sinai before. I had run past it hundreds of times; most recently in November when I’d run my final, foolish marathon, but I’d never seen that it was right there; right on the Park.

I begin to wonder how many other obvious things I haven’t seen.

It is getting late, and the snow is still falling, and after they finish visiting Daddy, JRA and Lady H decide to stay in the city at my house that night. We manage to find a taxi to get from the hospital to my house, and on the way, at a stop light, a woman tries to commandeer the cab to take her sick child to Cornell’s ER. We graciously step out, but the cabbie screams that he cannot pick up passengers below E. 96th St. Just take the fare, I tell him. But he refuses, and speeds off, and we are left with a couple with a sick kid, and a shaken Lady H, standing in the middle of a snowdrift on the Upper East Side.

The next morning is sunny and the roads are clear, and JRA and Lady H take off early for the suburbs.

That evening, I make chicken noodle soup and a friend comes over for dinner, and it is a normal, quiet evening. But at the end of the night as my friend is putting his coat to leave, my home phone rings. It is JRA, who tells me that Pete has taken a turn for the worse. We brainstorm some logistics, but I do not expect anything to change, because time is moving so quickly and also so slow.

In the middle of the night, she messages me to call her first thing in the morning. I call her when I wake up to discover that Pete has died overnight after a month-long battle with respiratory illness, complicated by Duchenne muscular dystrophy.

I say that I am sorry because I am, and because I now know that the world looks different in the moments between when your friend is alive and dead; in the hours between when your friend was a wife and is a widow. Our call is quick, and I can hear JRA’s voice, but I am thinking about a WH Auden poem as she talks. I am transported back to a clear, cold afternoon in Dublin when Paul took me and eee to the cliffs of Howth; past a house W.B. Yeats lived in. My hips were hurting me then and I didn’t know why; I didn’t know then that my genes and my collagen were bad and there was nothing I could do. I felt helpless then, as I do now.

I am remembering that late May afternoon, when we walked in the brilliant blue, freezing sunshine, and we snapped photographs over the silent sea, and we ate 99s in the howling wind when we finished our walk. And even though I hated Flake bars, I still ate my ice cream but gave the chocolate away. I thought about poetry then, as I do now, and I thought about Yeats, and about the Auden tribute, which began:

He disappeared in the dead of winter:
The brooks were frozen, the airports almost deserted,
And snow disfigured the public statues;
The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day.
What instruments we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day…

(This is the third in a short series of posts)

I drink gin by myself on Christmas and Boxing Day in Brazil – touring Iguazu Falls and doing some yoga before heading back to Buenos Aires later in the week after Christmas. I am in the muggy, jungle-y part of Brazil, and each day, I dutifully slather myself head-to-toe in mosquito repellent, because the State Department’s website has warned of Zika in this part of the world, and I am notoriously sweet to insects.

You’re not family orientated, Paul’s words echo in my head like a mantra.

Each night, I sleep with a mosquito repellent band on each of my wrists and ankles, and one to tie my long, blonde hair up on my head.

You wrap your hair? Mr. A remarked when he came to blow it out on the morning of my company Christmas party.

Of course I do, I rolled my eyes and gestured down to the coil hair-tie on my wrist; pointed at the folded satin pillowcase set out to be put on the bed when the housekeeper changed the sheets later that day.

I don’t know any white girls who do that, he laughed.

You need to spend more time with Scandi girls, I said, Austrians; German-extraction types. Our Bottle-blonde hair breaks!

And here, in Brazil, I am sleeping in a haze of gin and DEET; desperately fending off a teratogenic virus for the benefit of an imaginary marriage-wrecking child; putting up my goldilocks with mosquito bands instead of invisibobble ties. In the mornings, I kayak in rapids with a tour guide who takes me too close to the belly of the Falls, and the spray soaks me; chokes me. It reminds me of being across the border in Chile – whitewater rafting in the rapids of the Maipo River when my first divorce was being finalised.

I got sucked under, then, and thought for one terrifying second that I would drown before I remembered how to put my feet out and float downstream until the guide could fish me out of the river with a lifeline. At the end of that journey, I’d crouched over our campfire, soaked and lonely, stinking of silty water and a fire made with wet wood that was too weak to dry me out.

I do not drown, and I do not get bit, and I will not let myself be sucked under again. I fly back from Brazil to Buenos Aires where I meet friends and I laugh like a woman unchained. We fly to Mendoza where we drink wine in burning hot vineyards where the sun glints off the snow in the Andes and everything looks like Southern California.

We hire a driver and drive the road between Argentina and Chile, hugging but not crossing the border, next to the narrow-gauge railroad where the tracks are rusting and the trains have not operated since the 1970s. We stop in the valley where Aconcagua rises in the distance, and I remember that my friend PG climbed that once, because I’m the sort of woman with friends Who Do That Kind of Thing.

Everything is deja vu, even here in the middle of the Andes.

I FaceTime my parents again on New Year’s Eve, and it’s a quick and sweet call because they are with my aunts and uncles at the lake. I tell them I am in Mendoza; they ask about Pete this time, because they have read between the lines about Paul. Pete is still in hospital, I say, and I give them specifics. My dad is worried about Lady H; JRA; Pete himself. They ask me what I am doing; they are curious about who I am with – who my friends are – but I say nothing more.

On New Year’s Day, I fly back to Buenos Aires, and take a taxi to our hotel where we are promptly robbed. I can’t even be mad about this – there’s a gentle buzz of chaos all around me – few streetlights or stoplights; seemingly no rhyme or reason at intersections; invisible lane lines on roads – and being robbed in a gentlemanly way through an alleyway park job, a switcheroo scam, and some money clearly printed on a laser printer, seems rather low-stakes in the overall scheme of things.

Everything’s fine. At this point, casual lawlessness seems almost comic relief after the rigidity of Dublin 4.

I spend a few days taking in the delights of Buenos Aires; basking in the gardens of the hotel. It looks like the set of Evita. I practice my godawful Spanish, which has improved since my trip to Chile in 2010, and all the other business and pleasure trips to Spain, but is still comically bad for someone whose heritage is largely Iberian.

Argentina is a joy. I feel like myself again for a few days; or at least, like my head is above water.

And then, on the last day, my flight back to New York is late, and checkout is mid-day so we decide to go to the spa to kill a few hours of time. I get a massage and I shower off the oils and it is only as I am putting on my leggings for the long flight back to JFK that I finally notice the first swellings of a single, massive mosquito bite on my upper thigh. It all comes back to me suddenly – the river, and the spray, and the choking feeling, and the loneliness, and the wet wood, and the longing, and the two divorces, and the monsters in my genetic code, and I remember that I am not family oriented, and I feel like the water is holding me down once again.

 

(This is the first in a short series of posts)

No one is going to believe you that BOTH your husbands were crazy, Paul tells me, No one is going to want to be with a woman who has had two husbands.

I’m not suggesting you are crazy, I say quietly, for the five hundred, seventy-five thousandth time.

No one is going to believe you.

I am exhausted.

It is early December, and the night before, I have driven out to Westchester because my friend JRA has let me know that her husband, my friend Pete, is sick and has gone into hospital. Pete has Duchenne muscular dystrophy, so colds and flus sometimes quickly escalate to pneumonia. He has had a few bouts with respiratory illness over the years, and in the event that JRA is called to the hospital overnight, I go to her house for moral support and to stay with Lady H…just in case.

There is a Sameness and a Difference in the case of Pete’s illness this time. A Sameness because he has had pneumonia before. A Difference because this came on so suddenly and with such a high fever that it feels…not the same.

But everything is fine overnight, and I am driving back to the city before the sun so I can have my mane blown out before my company Christmas party. I am listening to Merry Christmas, Darling, on repeat in my Volkswagen Jetta – a far cry from the days when I was driving back from the burbs listening to Merry Christmas, Darling in my Jaguar.

Everything is different.

The ensuing day is long, and my hair looks good, and I am cautious not to drink too much at the party because I tell JRA, If anything changes, call me!

Before sunrise on Saturday morning, the phone rings, and I am on the road back to Westchester. Pete is critically ill, and has gone into cardiac arrest, and things Do Not Look good. I arrive at the hospital to take instruction and to take care of Lady H for the day. I pull out my ever-ready Moleskine and I jot down where I need to go and when.

Then we get into my Jetta and I drive JRA back to her house because in her hurry to get to Pete overnight, she has driven to the hospital without her glasses. I wonder, briefly, what it would be like to love someone so much that I would to drive to him without my glasses.

I never miss Andrew, my first husband, on a normal day. But this is not a normal day. And I think about how, many years ago as JRA and Pete were getting together, Andrew had clucked softly and mused about the Inevitability of It All. Later, I had laughed with JRA about how Andrew and I hadn’t made it, but my friendship with JRA had. Andrew and I had had a Plan for Being There For JRA when these sorts of inevitabilities arose – he was the planner, not me, Semper Paratus and all that bullshit – but now here I was and he was not.

The main thing today is getting Lady H from place to place – taking her to breakfast; her music lesson; maybe a playdate; a birthday party in the evening – and being home for the delivery of JRA’s Christmas Tree. Her parents are coming down from Boston but I am coordinating logistics until the family can arrive and take over. I am back and forth; up and down; over around and through.

As I drive around Scarsdale playing Christmas music, I think about calling Andrew, but I remember that I don’t know his phone number. We only call each other in the office and I can find his office number on the internet. I want to scream at him: Where are you? Why am I driving this Jetta and not my beloved Jaguar in that stupid red that you made us get that I got all those speeding tickets in? Remind me again of what the plan was: How did I get here?

But I don’t know how to reach him and everything feels broken.

I have been running errands and chauffeuring Lady H around all morning. At midday, I pick Lady H up from her music lesson and since it is too early to take her to a playdate, I take her to JRA at the hospital. JRA has her record a message for Daddy because his condition is very serious. I leave my car with them in it in the hospital’s front drive to give them a moment of privacy; I walk around the corner in the freezing December mid-day and I dry-heave. I don’t know how to cry, and I don’t know how to vomit, and I don’t know how to reach my first husband, and any one of those things seems like it might be good to know how to do today.

When they are finished, I take Lady H home, and Grandma and Papa, JRA’s parents, are arriving. We cannot find the Christmas tree stand in advance of the arrival of the family Christmas tree. Grandma and I go up to the third floor to search for it – but I am unfamiliar with the crannies of JRA’s large, old home. Empty handed, we come downstairs to sit and talk, and wait. The hardest work in these situations is the waiting. Later, we scour the basement for the tree stand because the waiting is unbearable.

Families, like old houses, are complex.

Later, I take one last sweep of the third floor for the tree stand before giving up. As I stand up from the crawl space, I hit my head on the low ceiling. I see stars. I crouch down to the ground while I try to regain my balance. It is then that I text RHJ, who has been asking all day how he can be helpful. I say: Could you take the train out to Scarsdale and drive my car home?

We take Lady H to a birthday party that evening, but neither the Christmas tree nor the tree stand ever materialises. RHJ arrives to drive me home in my car. My hair is still curled from the party the night before; my head is throbbing from the bump on the beam. I still do not know what happened to my Jaguar or to Andrew’s phone number or what I am supposed to be doing now.

And all I can think is that this is not my house. And not my car. And not my husband.

How did I get here?

Sarah, Kat, Kim & I are continuing to host Reverb through 2016 as a way to share writing prompts and providing a space for writers via our Facebook group. Here’s (a very late entry for) July’s prompt. 

July’s prompt // Freedom: What is freedom to you?  How do you celebrate freedom in your daily life?

We are in a Copenhagen bar talking about our brothers.

We have run two half marathons in two countries in two days and I am shocked that I have finished. I say that running is mostly mental for me – when I run, I think about music; my dog; kissing and being kissed; the sun setting into the Pacific Ocean; running with my brother. I think about happy, positive things, because to become tangled up in the voice of self-doubt during a race is Game Over.

But it is a lie to say that I have just run 26.2 miles in two countries in two days by the power of positive thinking. I have just had both of my hips and a knee reconstructed and been diagnosed with a serious collagen disorder – whether I admit it or not – running is intensely physical.

We are here because in December, I had messaged a group of running friends suggesting we sign up for the Copenhagen Half Marathon – Smplefy; eee; Nat, and their respective partners, Laly, E, and Fox, who would come along to Sherpa. I’m not entirely sure why I did this, but it Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time. Everyone quickly signed on to this suggestion and added another half marathon in Oslo – even the partners were keen to go (except Paul, who begged off).

So we have each finished triumphantly, albeit for different reasons, and now we are in a bar, wearing matching shirts and our race medals, and we are talking about our brothers.

Nat’s brother died almost a year ago; Laly’s brother died about ten years ago. My brother is alive. I say this in my head, and I chew it and turn it over like a wad of gum in my mouth: My brother is alive.

It is not to diminish Matthew’s hard work to say that it is luck that he is not dead, but there is an element of happy statistics at play too. I listen to these women talk about their dead brothers, and it is real to me how close we came; how lucky we are. Sometimes, I think my parents cover up their raw memories of dread with Republican bootstraps and it was never that bad and stop being so dramatic, you weren’t here! But maybe when you’re in it, or when you’re a parent, you have to do that in order to survive what you’ve seen and how it all played out.

I listen to Nat’s grief – the depth and complexity of it; the nuances of the joy for the things that she experienced with her brother. All we can do is listen. Laly, too, knows that grief in a more intimate way than I do; I merely stood on the precipice and backed away.

It’s different when it’s your sibling, Laly says, It’s the only other person who knows the experience of growing up in your family. Also, it’s out of order.

It is out of order.

I remember my revulsion at the thought of losing the only other person who knew my family experience. He would disappear for a few days and we wouldn’t know whether he was in jail or dead – my mother would obsessively search the county jail inmate register – and I would try on the grief from thousands of miles away; seeing how that heavy suit of loss hung on my little frame.

I realise, now, that when I run, I prepare for every race with the thought of my brother’s first race – of watching him tie on the bandanna from his best friend’s funeral; of hearing his footsteps like a heartbeat beside me. I still dread phone calls after 8pm because I always used to think it was someone calling to say that my brother had died. I wonder why nobody ever dies during the day.

I look at Laly and Nat and wonder how they have borne the loss I narrowly escaped.

When Paul and I were out at the beach with my family this summer, a friend texted that he was in Atlanta with a colleague of his – a sorority sister of mine. I had been her advisor – she’d been in college when I’d taken the call that my brother was in jail and the world was about to end. I laughed and expressed my surprise – he sent me a photo of the two of them together. It was a worlds-colliding moment – strange and wonderful – a reminder of the way we are all connected; how past pain doesn’t necessarily taint future or current happiness/success. The photo came as I was driving back up the coast to see a project my brother was working on; managing in his new life as a builder. Sober eight years, he was working with a friend and he’d asked me and Paul to come see what he did for a living and switch his car back with my mother’s, which he’d borrowed earlier that day.

Paul stayed back in Oxnard, and I drove up to La Conchita to make the switch and see Matthew on the job. To travel that weird bend in the 101 where the sun sets over the coast and blinds you if you time it wrong; to see how far he’d come; we’d come.

As I am sitting in this bar in Copenhagen, thousands of miles from the depths of my brother’s addiction and from that day on the California coast, I think of that moment of seeing my brother at work; of that photo of my two friends; of the bend in the 101 where the sun sets; of the fear in the eyes of everyone around me the day I got the call that my brother was in jail. I think about how lucky I am. I hear Nat ask How do you explain this grief; this loss; to your partner? And I think you can’t explain it; I think your partner won’t ever believe it; I think about how addiction ends and loss is just a snapshot in time, but grief gets you, like a noose, and it works its way around your throat and never really lets you go, even once you are free.

 

Sarah, Kat, Kim & I are continuing to host Reverb through 2016 as a way to share writing prompts and providing a space for writers via our Facebook group. Here’s August’s prompt. 

Nostalgia // Tell us about your favourite summer memories. As the summer winds down, tell us about your favourite summer memories from this year (or any year). We want to see your freckled faces and tanned skin. Show us your summer.

I had to retire my favourite summer dress recently.

It was a strapless dress, and I’d had it for over a decade, so it was beyond salvaging. It was just an old brown dress from Ron Herman that I’d picked up on a trip back to LA after I’d sat for the Bar. I’d taken it all over the world with me; worn it to all sorts of major life events.

I’m not sure it was even attractive, but I felt good in it.

There is something special about a favourite summer dress – mine; anyone’s. It seemed to absorb the smells of salt and sand and sunscreen over the years. The dress was constructed of a simple t-shirt fabric, and had resisted a decade-plus of spills, and tears, and subway grit, and New York City grime. I had used the dress’s length to cover up the nasty case of shingles I’d been surprised with one hot, late summer five years ago. I had sunburned the hell out of my chest while wearing it to my ex sister-in-law’s graduation. It was a sword; a shield. If you know me in person, you probably wouldn’t remember the dress offhand, but you probably have an image in your mind’s eye of me in it.

It had come with me to explore all of China, and jump fully clothed into the sea in Thailand; had travelled all over Chile and New Zealand. We had rung in the New Year in Australia together in 2012, and soaked in blue English nights over warm beer with good company.  I had worn it back to LA one warm late-winter to console my best friend after her house burned down. The dress had been my one constant over my whole tumultuous time in NYC – through husbands, and jobs; change and upheaval. No matter the circumstances or the hemisphere, I could count on slipping into my brown summer dress and feeling like myself.

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(After the fire)

A few weeks ago, I found it in the bottom of a drawer. I hadn’t been able to find it all summer, but I knew I had put somewhere last year to remind me to take it to the tailor to have the elastic around the top replaced. I obviously had tucked it away so well, it had avoided notice. The dress was getting on in years and it needed to be repaired; probably replaced, but I wasn’t sure I was ready to part with it just yet. I slipped it on anyway – wrinkled and sagging – on my way between running Summer Streets (my first outdoor run of the season!) and a hair appointment.

During the colouring process, the gown covering me slipped open, and my colourist dripped bleach on my dress. In all my years of being a bottle blonde, that has never happened. But it did, and I knew that it was the universe’s way of telling me that The Dress Was Done.

There is something funny about living in the past; about not merely breathing in the sweet summer smell of a t-shirt dress every year, but clinging to it. There’s something silly and maybe a little sad about patching up a dress that is clearly falling off your body and smells permanently of sunblock, perfume, and faintly of sweat. So when I arrived home from my hair appointment, I changed out of my dress and slipped into a different outfit before meeting some friends for Mostly Mozart that night.

I looked like myself, but different. Older, maybe.

Before I went out, I found my kitchen scissors and I quickly cut two swatches from the bottom of the dress, then binned it. I penned a letter to Jade in California, reminiscing on the night that I’d come to her house after the fire; wearing my off-season summer dress. Then I popped the note in the mail with a scrap of dress; headed off to Lincoln Center and never looked back.

In California, there is a bit of a love-hate relationship with fire. Every year, the wildfires rage and they burn the canyons near my parents’ old house; sometimes hopping the eight lanes of freeway and lapping dangerously near the pink stucco expanse of tract-homes on winding cul-de-sacs. The droughts and the ever-growing brush make this a constant threat. But farther north, the coniferous forests also need the fire to reproduce – some of the old-growth trees, like the Giant Sequoias, need fire to release their seeds from their cones. Fire is part of the renewal process. Other trees depend on periodic fires to clear the choking brush so they can grow.

Jade almost died in a fire about a decade ago; escaping at the last minute, woken up by her cat. A few years after, I dragged her into a brush fire in Yosemite Valley, deep into the Sequoia forests, to climb above the treeline; away from but still inside the inferno.

So it seemed like the right thing to do – to take the dress you wear to the water and you wore to the fire and send it back to where it came from in California.

Being a grown-up is funny, sometimes, isn’t it.

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This is the fifth in a brief series of posts. Here are the firstsecond, and third, and fourth.

It is May.

An old friend comes to town and asks me to dinner. It is one week until my surgery date. You’re so calm about all this, my friend remarks.

I shrug. But I am glad my friend is here – this is a surprise; we have History dating back to the California Coast, and there is quite a lot unsaid between us. There is a lot of comfort in these Things Unspoken – those weird, unshakeable friendship ties that friends never have to talk about; the stuff that spans time zones, and continents. But maybe I am a bit shaken by the visit, too – always waiting for the next arrival or departure; always expecting the other shoe to drop.

I walk home in a still-cool New York night, happy and full, like an early Joni Mitchell song when her voice was still high and the melancholy was just an undertone. But then I take a phone call outside my own door that devastates and infuriates me; that throws me into a tailspin where I feel I must pretend to be my own twin sister for a week to make up for being rude to the doormen. At the time, this seems like an excellent solution to my behaviour, but in retrospect, perhaps I am not admitting that I am also unnerved by All The Things I Cannot Control.

Paul arrives into town a few days later, the weekend before my surgery, and we bicker about mundane things. It is nerves, I know, but he takes this to heart and I know I need to be better about this. Bickering has never bothered me – my parents are champion bickerers and love each other deeply. I have always seen coldness; neglect as signs of trouble in a relationship – not the day-to-day sniping. My parents say We Yell Because We Care, and I honestly think they believe it.

We arrive early at the Hospital for Special Surgery on the Monday morning – they take me back immediately to prepare me and they tell Paul they will bring him back shortly. I have done this every summer for three summers in a row, so I know what I am in for. But for Paul, this is his first time taking anyone in for a surgical procedure; this is his first time being solely responsible for another adult human’s well-being.

With this in mind, and in advance of my surgery date, I have called my best friend – my sister – Jade, who agrees without hesitation to come in from California to take care of me after the operation. It is not that my husband cannot take the time off of work. Rather, it is that I am stuck with the belief that no waspy woman worth her salt would have a man come man a sick room. This is simply Not a Done Thing. My belief is dated and sexist, but I know that while I love his company, my husband cannot do the basics without step-by-step instruction, and I Do Not Want the Hassle Right Now.

Is this wrong? Am I a bad person for this; am I anti-feminist – for asking a woman to do the work that women have always done? Or is it right and safe for a woman to ask another woman to care for her during an injury or illness?

The surgery is a success and I wake up quickly in the PACU.

After a few hours, I really really have to pee. But this surgery is performed under spinal anaesthesia and my legs are only barely awake. The nurse brings me a bed pan instead of taking me to the bathroom. I see Paul’s eyes go wide, as the nurse lifts me up and puts what appears to be a puppy pad beneath the bed pan. She then lifts me and moves my bandages out of the way as best she can, before setting the pan beneath me.

I’m, uh, gonna give you some privacy, Paul mumbles. I’m going to go get a coffee.

The nurse rolls her eyes, and I start to laugh. Paul has reached his limit.

They always do this, the nurse assures me after he is gone.

It’s better than my first husband, I tell her, I was in the ER at St. Vincent’s a lifetime ago, and the moment the doctor touched me, my ex passed out into the bed of the woman next to me. 

The nurse clucked approvingly, as if to suggest that a husband who walked away from a bed pan was definitely an upgrade from a husband who Simply Couldn’t Deal in the first place. I am inclined to agree, but in either event, I still know it was best to import Jade. That I maybe I am sexist, but I am not wrong.

Eventually, they let me leave the hospital and Paul leaves for the airport as soon as he gets me home. There is a gap between when Paul has left for the airport and when Jade arrives, so Strand and Sam and their dog, McGee come to babysit me. It is a month before their wedding; my house is a disaster because we are renovating a bathroom and the contractor is taking forever to finish; but Strand is familiar enough with Needing to Babysit Me When I Come Home From the Hospital that she seems unfazed by the whole thing.

She is a saint.

Thai food arrives in waves, because we have ordered it, and friends who live downtown have also Seamless’d an order to me. Everyone knows that I love Thai food. Jade arrives shortly after the Thai food comes, and walks in to find me surrounded by dogs, blondes, noodles and Pringles – the detritus of demolition and construction all around.