Five Years: How to take inventory? There’s been a house sold, furniture moved, broken bones healed, doctors fired, friends lost, new friends made; there’s been one dog added to the mix, one cat as well, and a new landscape gradually forcing its shapes and colors on my mind, a process of imprinting seven years now in the making.
This afternoon I heard the writer Abigail Thomas being interviewed on NPR. I stayed in the car to listen, the door opened, my feet propped on the window. Finally it is spring in Williamstown, Massachusetts.
Over the years I’d taught two of Thomas’ memoirs—Safekeeping and Three Dog Night-- and frequently recommended her book, Thinking About Memoir. I’d not realized she’d recently published another memoir. I’d often imagined her as my contemporary—but she and the interviewer—Joe Donohue—whom adores her and her writing—mentioned several times that she is seventy-three.
If my sister Gail were alive, she would turn seventy-three on May l2th.
Thomas told Joe that there are some vices she is just not going to give up—at her age. Drinking? Smoking? Both. Neither. When she laughed, I felt sick at heart at the sound of her struggling lungs, the short-of-breath smoker's wheezy laugh. It was the laugh of my sister, dead now eight years. Not of lung cancer—perhaps because she didn't live long enough to die of cancer. She died in her sleep. Also, beneath Thomas’ laugh was a certain laughing at the absurdity and the wonder of it all. The whole enchilada—as my sister would have said, once said.
When my sister died there was no autopsy.
There was no funeral.
She had not wanted either.
Gail had been a heavy drinker and smoker since she was thirteen. Those were her vices. Her heart was big, her stories were sometimes down and dirty, but always hilarious. Her philosophy? “Marsha, don’t live by woulda coulda. And banish shoulda from your vocabulary.”
She had been my friend until I published a memoir in 2001. She never spoke to me after its publication. There had not been enough time under the bridge for a reconciliation.
Two weeks ago I reconciled with a woman who had been a dearest friend for over thirty years.
She drove ten hours to visit—this is an important detail since she was once a woman who was too nervous on the road to drive the hour to the Houston airport—not for me, not for anyone. For days before her visit, I’d forced myself into a state of unnatural calm. I’d made a conscious effort not to predict what might happen. When she walked into the house, I thought-- five wasted years. Five years without her. What a waste.
Late that night—after margaritas—we sat on the screened porch that was lit up like a romantic movie with candles and Christmas lights. The laptop between us, we were shoulder to shoulder as we watched Sia on a YouTube video. As Sia sang Chandelier, two women dancers in body stockings, which made them appear nude, and with platinum blonde pageboys, which made them seem other-worldly, flew about the living room of a seedy or neglected or half-emptied apartment. They grasped and embraced and mimed their pain and joy as they slammed and pulled and pranced and danced and danced and danced.
My friend and I had not yet done what we eventually did, which was to go over the details of our last disastrous meeting.
Five years ago, we’d met in New York. It turned out we were not in any shape to be in the company of each other. If only we had known.
She’d gone through a long lingering painful demise of her mother at the same time that her family business in Honduras was going under. The business had finally gone bankrupt and her mother had died of complications from dementia.
And I was sick, though I didn’t know it. I’d been diagnosed with MS but had not recognized an exacerbation when in the middle of one; also called a flare or a relapse, it’s basically a flurry of activity in which the autoimmune system attacks the nerve sheaths to form sores that ultimately heal to become scars. That’s what was happening to me during our two-week visit. My friend was weary and frightened out of her wits. I was physically ill and acted like a bear surrounded by stinging flies.
Once years ago in Houston, my friend and I had gone to The Big Easy, a neighborhood bar with a small dance floor and great blues bands. We were not young. We were middle-aged.
I have thought of this night hundreds of times, seen my friend's face, her smile, her glorious radiant fire of flame of spirit as she wildly romped around the dance floor, the two of us the only dancers in front of the blues band. Our love and our love of movement and of music propelled us out of time throughout that transcendent night. I have not danced like that again. I don't know how I did it then--already experiencing the symptoms of the as yet undiagnosed MS. My balance was off, my right leg weak, which was worrisome but not yet a handicap. I will never ever again dance like that.
How can that be?
Yet as my friend and I sat together and watched Sia's dancers couple and uncouple, I realized I had come to a deep-hearted peace with the end of my dancing days. I've danced.
There was something I wanted to say here about Abigail Thomas and what I heard in her voice today, and about my sister and how hollowed out and lonely I feel, almost to the point of collapse, that I did not get to say good-bye.
I wanted to weave together the other strands of the afternoon: my friend, the time lapse, the time lost between us, a long season we decided we had to name. We tried out several: the time of silence; the lost years; the breach, the break, the broken, the unbearable, the silence. We wanted the name to have the Garcia-Marquez gravitas about it. She’d met her husband while we were all in graduate school and later they moved to his home country, Honduras. I’d gone there often. We know about magical realism.
Why did it take us so long to find our way back to each other?
This is not a question for which I have time.
Today Thomas had said that one comes to a certain age when one doesn’t want to spend too much time looking back.
There’s just not enough time.
And my friend and I already have lost too much of it.