(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…