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Birth and death are the two occurrences in a person's life that seem to say one thing: we are not the ones calling the shots. "The only consolations are love and best friends." That's what Mina told me two days before she died.
This much is trueJune 25, a Friday, in the summer of 2010, we were aliveme, Kendra and Isabeland Mina had been gone six months.
I was renting an apartment in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, until my "artist in residence" began at the university. It had been planned for a year. I remember thinking I would have to cancel it in order to spend time with Mina in her final days. But the doctor's estimates were generous, and her death left me instead with six months to wander or languish. I chose to wander, as per usual.
After the funeral and the long, unanchored days that followed, I took a friend up on an offer to stay with her in Paris. That's where I met Remy. Remy BadeauParisian bad-boy film director. I welcomed the whirlwind he provided with open arms. It distracted me from the pile of dead leaves I would have been otherwise.
Summer came faster than expected, like it always does. But for once, the surprise solstice wasn't gleeful.
For the first time since we were little girls, there would be no summer vacation with Isabel and Kendra and their mothers, Jesse and Lynette. Mina and I, both motherless, had struck a cozy balance with the mother-daughter pairs. And every summer the six of us took off for some exotic locale for a week of laughter and memory making. But now what would I be except a pathetic fifth wheel? It was bad enough going from a circle of four to a tottering triangle. Maybe if life had been sold to me as a tricycle, but I thought I'd bought an ATV. No more Mina, no more vacations. But wasn't my life like one big vacation, an escape from responsibility?
I already felt guilty enough about the laughing.
In the six months following the funeral, I was continually ashamed by my residual tendency to laugh. At the fruit stand. In the shower. On the metro. I'm the type that shares conspiratorial giggles with children. I flirt with old men. I laugh at myself when I stub my toe.
But grief hacks away at the soul, leaving only vestiges of your self behind. So every time I chuckled with Parisian strangers, I felt guilt like a dropkick to the sternum. It created many an awkward silence when my smile snuffed out, catching them in the laugh like a Peeping Tom in a flashbulb. Sometimes they shuddered as if a chill had found its way into the smoggy city. Then they looked at me with pity. Europeans are good at spotting the haunted.
So, that's when Remy proposed, when I was practicing not to laugh anymore. He proposed on the day before I left Honduras, in a hasty manner that smelled of panic, with a ring he said he would upgrade after my return.
I said yes, because saying no was too final, and had too many immediate consequences. I said yes because I wondered if it would fill me with genuine lingering laughter. I said yes to cloak the fact that I had failed to fulfill my best friend's dying request.
Now I had to figure out if I really intended to marry him.
So, on a Friday, June 25, I was roller-skating around my Tegucigalpa apartment, watching the sun set beyond the sliding glass doors, watching the golden light transform the grimy city into a shiny postcard. First thing I'd done when I arrived was move all the furniture into the bedrooms along with my rolled-up canvases and camera gear. The floors were just like a high school cafeteria, providing a flat expanse to soothe my bumpy thoughts.
Roller-skating was my therapy. You had to give the body something to entertain itself with so the mind could tackle all that metaphysical, esoteric, life-decision stuff bouncing around between the ear canals.
I was almost thirty. Why is it that just before thirty the carefree blur of your life stops and you hear an unfamiliar voice you identify as your grown-up self ask: Aren't you getting too old for this? And I don't think the voice was just talking about the roller-skating.
Hey, I was on the track to normalcy and respectable overachievement once upon a time. I graduated from Yale in Physics. Ask me how many of my classmates were lanky redheaded females. I had both feet pointed toward graduate school when I decided to spend six months backpacking Eastern Europe instead. I took a camera. Turns out I took to the artist/gypsy life like a baby to his first taste of sugar. Or like Isabel to social causes. Or Kendra to a six-figure salary in the fashion industry. Besides, Mina was the one meant to be an academic.
I rolled to a stop, near a gold journal on the floor. When the final diagnosis was in, Mina started three journals, one for each of the girls. Mine was a team effort, an earnest plan to contact each other after her death. I moved back in with my dad in the D.C. suburb where we all grew up, and stuck to Mina like Elmer's. My job was to compile all the physics translating everything I could find about consciousness and death into laymen's terms for Mina. Her entries came from the heart. We passed the journal back and forth between visits, and spent most every afternoon discussing, forming our plan. In this wayas the maple tree outside her window set its leaves on fire then shook them to the groundwe spent the days, the hours, and the last minutes of Mina's life like we'd spent the twenty-four years priorlaughing, crying, and together.
When she died, I read the journal over and over, obsessively trying all the ways we'd devised for me to contact her, with no results beyond excruciating sobbing fits. I felt silly and naive, totally unprepared for the weight of real grief.
In Paris, I eventually abandoned the rituals. And by Honduras, I'd begun to read the journal like the I Chingpose a question and flip to a random page for the answer. My questions varied from day to day. Where should I go next? Is it time to give up on my dreams? Why did you have to die?
I reached down and untied the roller skates. I picked up the journal and headed out to the balcony. "Isn't Gmail more practical?" I'd chided Mina, but she wanted something tangible, something that "would last." I touched the antiqued cover and had a vision of growing old with that journal, my arthritic hands resting atop the thinning pages. It gave me the chills. One deep breath and I placed my right hand flat like a plaintiff, squeezed shut my eyes, and added my voice to the din of Tegucigalpa:
"Mina, should I really marry Remy?"
When my thumb settled on a page, I opened my eyes.
October 17 Mina
Love is not inevitable, Samantha, like you seem to believe. It is a gift. It is the thing that wraps you up like a plush bathrobe to insulate you against cold, illness, and all of life's indecencies. It is the thing that makes you less naked in the mirror of reality. It blankets you. It warms you. It saves you. No, that last part is a lie. It doesn't save you. My father loved my mother from birth and she died anyway. And now me
Today, I planned to write about how grateful I am for the love you three have drenched me in. But I confess I am feeling sorry for myself instead.
And I am preoccupied with the question: Does love last?
Otherwise, how else would you describe what is left when a person dies and leaves you behind? Look at my father. I know you see him as cold and brittle, but that's because he hides inside himself, clinging to the embers of my mother's love.
He came into my room last night and fed me crumbs about her, tiny things really, but details I'd been begging for my whole lifehow she wore her hair, how she smelled, how she laughed. And when he went off to bed, I felt a warm buzzing cloud hanging in the room, just the same as when you and I laugh hysterically and then fall silent. It's love that hangs in the air, lingers in the world around us. Love is what lasts. But, maybe.
Maybe love is less of a gift and more of a distraction from an ugly truth: in the end we die alone. That is the truth, isn't it?
And it is the living's love for the dead that lingers, not the other way around.
So, when I die, I'm taking nothing with me, and leaving nothing behind.
Our "research" is going nowhere, right? It's all websites for crazies and desperate rich widows. I'm one of them, aren't I? Desperate to believe that somehow I can still enter a world I am unfairly being asked to exit.
P.S. Sam, I'm sorry. I'm never entirely myself after the chemo. Love is real and it's all there is. You love so much easier than the rest of us, and you're the easiest thing in the world to love. I'm sure you've got yourself a man and I'm sure he's wonderful. Don't get sidetracked by my bitter ramblings. Don't listen to Isabel's cynicism or Kendra's fairy-tale nonsense. Love isn't perfect, but it's all there is.
I snapped shut the journal and laugheda foreign sound in my ears. I kept laughing until my eyes watered with tears. Firmly, I told myself to simmer down; forced my ears to open to the sound of the traffic, the garble of one million people going doggedly about their lives below. I leaned over the rusty railing to peer down on the city.
Structures of every kindbody shops, gasolineras, pupu-serias, makeshift beauty salonsspread out and snaked around lumpy, haphazard neighborhoods. The poorest inhabitants got pushed up the sides of the mountains, where they'd built shantytowns out of scrap metal and concrete.
The shantytowns now ironically occupied the choicest real estate free of charge.
I smiled, but with the bitterness of orange rinds. I saw in the city a metaphor for much of how I'd lived my life. I saw good intentions and big dreams and spurts of real accomplishment. But I saw them all thwarted by sudden twists and setbacks, restlessness, and reckless jumps into uncharted territory.
I went inside to get my camera and tripod.
Click went the shutter, and I closed my eyes and listened to the city's soundtrack. Men cheered goals in open-air sports bars. Children played pickup games of kickball on dusty back roads. Mariachis cued up their first love songs of the night, unfazed by the harmonies of chickens and stray dogs. Click, and I opened my eyes.
My art combined photographs on canvas with drawings, oil paint and text. I'd had small shows in six major cities around the world, as I bounced about traveling, but never real, lasting success. My Artist Statement said I combined different mediums to "explore connections between nature, people and emotionlooking for meaning in synthesis." Right then My Life Statement would have branded me jumbled and disconnected.
"What if I'm losing it?" I asked the sun and the birds and the one million residents of Tegucigalpa.
And then my phone rang.
"No, Isabel, it would be like roller-skating over her grave."
I glanced down at my pink roller skates and regretted the comparison. But no way were we resurrecting the vacation club.
"Samantha, I need you. I already told my work I'm taking the time off. You have over a week till the residency. I looked at flights"
"No. I'm here anytime you need to talk to me. But I need to be alone."
There was a silence, a distinctly disapproving pause.
"Sam, what're you doing? Huh? You just disappeared on us. Paris? Honduras? And now you told a man you would marry hima man none of us have even met? I'm coming."
I dug my nails into my palm. "I don't want you to come. I know that makes me a jerk. But I need to think. And I can't just sit around and laugh and drink and make everything into a vacation. Not anymore."
"It's not like that. You need us"
"I'm sorry. I have to call you back."
I hung up my iPhone and sent it sailing across the gritty floor. Slumping down against the wall, my body slid in tandem with the tears.
I was losing it. And I didn't have to ask one million Hon-durans to know it.
Could Isabel really not get how abominable it would be to vacation without Mina? It wasn't the first time we'd broached the subject. After the funeral, when I was packing for France, I assumed it a nonissue, but both Kendra and Isabel mused about a summer trip in her memory, reminiscing how Mina always loved Paris. How could they not see it as a betrayal? Why didn't they understand that without Mina, everything was irrevocably different?
But I knew why.
I ran my fingers along my scalp and looked out at the night sky over my latest hometown. The stars were mostly obscuredby smog, by lights, by all the aggregate effects of human inhabitancejust like that night in Paris, the summer before we left for college.
Isabel's mother, Jesse, found a great apartment for rent in the bohemian neighborhood of Montmartre, and we arrived in July to a charming albeit sweltering abode bearing fuzzy wallpaper.
We had a longstanding tradition for the first night, what we playfully called The Opening Ceremony. We cooked a meal together and christened our new temporary home with a night of dancing, storytelling and laughter. It was supposed to remind us that the traveling was important but the company was what really mattered.