Left to my own memory, I would tell you that this takes place in West Virginia, but my mother has convinced me that our six-month stay in West Virginia was over and we were back in Harrisburg. I am four and I attend nursery school (as it was called then), perhaps for half-days, perhaps all day, since my mother works full time––a rarity for mothers then. One evening, I greet her by announcing that the other kids are babies and I am not going back. I think they whine too much and cry too much and talk more like babies than four-year-olds. They even look like babies and I am embarrassed to be in the same class. I feel it reflects badly on me. Apparently I’m very convincing because my mother finds a private kindergarten that will take me mid-year and at the wrong age. Kindergarten is an immediate improvement, and in the spring there is a formal graduation complete with caps and gowns. I can tell that the parents find our procession adorable (who can blame them?) but their amusement bothers me. I feel grown-up and dignified and it’s hard to maintain that feeling when I hear their appreciative inhales.
My mother now has the challenge of getting me into first grade for the following fall when I will be five years and two months. She and my father went to school in New York City when it was routine for smart kids to skip a grade during the elementary school years, often more than one. But in Pennsylvania things are not done this way. The school officials believe it is a bad idea; no one has done it and no good can come of it. I have to pass muster with our pediatrician and this is followed by a lengthy exam with a psychologist. Despite my usual shyness, I find the tests entertaining and the attention not unpleasant. I am allowed to begin first grade in the fall. My mother walks me to the classroom and I seem to be the last child to arrive that morning. I don’t like this. It is not a happy situation for a reserved child to be the last to enter a room of strangers. First grade suits me though; I am still the tallest child but I’m not embarrassed to be here and there are things to learn. At some point, the psychologist comes to the classroom to observe. Luckily, I have no idea I am being watched. He is pleased with me, but my mother tells me many years later that the teacher didn’t approve of me being in the class. I am allowed to continue because the only deficit she can name is that my paper-cutting skills are sub par.
I’m in fifth grade and I’m still the tallest girl but one or two of the boys are taller, finally. I am always the skinniest and always the youngest. We moved the previous year to Washington D.C.––Maryland really, but we always say “D.C.” Moving is never a favorite activity of children but this one is especially difficult. It coincides with me having been persuaded to cut off my very long, not great but pretty good hair. It coincides with the onset of glasses, always the cheapest frame sold, which means horn-rimmed, pastel-colored (the choice was white, pink, or blue) with little speckles throughout the surface of the frame. Years later when friends come across the few photos in which I have not hidden these things behind my back, they look at me with compassion. One day at recess, I am hanging out with some kids from my class and a few unfamiliar kids from another fifth grade class. One of them begins to taunt me. He says that I am so tall and look so much older that I must have flunked a year, maybe even two. I must be fourteen. I am ten and I don’t feel flattered by this. My sister is four years older and I am often taken for her twin, which I think is a compliment. But I don’t think he means anything flattering by it. I think he means that I look stupid and I don’t fit in. This encounter is a definite setback in my quest to be in the right grade with the right people. I have, by the way, become very good at using scissors and my friends often ask me to cut out the ball dresses we design during our “Gone With the Wind” phase.
1962 – 1968
Things improve slightly in junior high school. Other kids are starting to grow now. Being skinny (I try to insist on the word ‘slim’ but it doesn’t take) is not a good thing but I see that it attracts less vitriol than the opposite. In seventh grade I meet two friends who will prove to be friends for life, though for one of them life will be cruelly short. Popularity is out of reach and I think that I handle this gracefully. In our high school, being smart is valued almost above looks. But it also takes confidence, or a convincing impersonation of confidence, to be popular. Some years after high school I learn that a surprising number of the popular girls turned out to be lesbians. I wonder if their brain chemistry pushed them in the direction of having more confidence (simulated or real), along with a more competitive drive than the traditional female brain might provide. And perhaps these subtle enhancements were topped off by a dusting of aggression, all useful qualities for rising to the top. Popular or not, gay or straight, we begin to make our plans, which for many of us means choosing distant schools. I am still the youngest but the others are catching up nicely.
1968 – 1982
People at college seem to find out quickly that I have just turned seventeen. How does this always become a topic? I can’t believe that I am making it known–– maybe our birthdays are posted somewhere. Right away, another freshman is promoted to me as a good match. He is a young one too, even younger than I am, and this is thought to be a significant bond for us. To me, he seems as if he hasn’t quite finished puberty, and I’m embarrassed by the pairing. At one of the first dances, he asks me to dance and I say no, an unkindness I regret to this day. He is handsome and mature by graduation and goes on to have a significant career as a classical musician, but I regret my rebuff long before I know any of this, in fact from the moment it happens. When I graduate I am twenty––two months away from twenty-one––an event I celebrate at a local bar where I have been drinking for two years. When I show the bartender my I.D. in order to claim my free drink, his eyes widen, he swears, but he realizes there’s no point in worrying about it now.
For a while after college, I feel as if I have a few extra years to spend before I get my life started. I spend them well: traveling, living in a beautiful place, making mistakes with men, learning to make different mistakes with each new man (this is harder than it seems). Eventually I realize that I have used up my bonus time and begin graduate school. Many of us are the same age but there are also a few who came right from college. I feel a bit displaced. In 1982 I officially end my reign as the young one by marrying a man who is two years and four months younger.
1983 – 1988
Two sons are born during these years. Neither of us is the youngest anymore. I religiously read the college alumni magazine that arrives quarterly. This turns out to be a somewhat demoralizing thing to do if you are prone to comparisons: one graduate near my age has just received the highest honor that the University of Minnesota can bestow on a faculty member; another is the new president of Miami of Ohio; another has just been offered a post as the priest (female) of a Scottish Episcopal Church in the Kingdom of Fife (we are assumed to know where this is); another has had a book of essays published by Columbia University; and one is a comedian-magician with very successful magic show in Las Vegas and a glowing paragraph in Frommers. In the last section, titled In Memoriam, I read that the police have finally solved the murder of James, whose death in 1969 had shocked and puzzled everyone. A career criminal has finally confessed to shooting James because he fought back during a robbery in his off-campus apartment. I didn’t know James well. He was sort of famous for not using any drugs. I’m surprised at how relieved I feel that this sad mystery is solved.
I’m reading these entries one evening and feeling unaccomplished; I did manage, at least, not to get murdered during college or since, but that’s more luck than talent. I know I shouldn’t, but I hear myself saying to my husband, “I can’t believe I have made so little of my life so far.” He sees what I am reading and asks suspiciously, “Who are you comparing yourself to now?” I wait a moment. I know I will sound like a child, but still I mutter, “Koffe Annan.” He snorts with disgust and begins, “Well, if that’s how you want to…” He stops himself; he does not want to hear about Koffe Annan (class of ‘61) and he does not want to make the case, again, that I have a respectable and even admirable career which brings in not-bad money, and if I had really wanted more out of life, nothing but drive and ambition have stopped me. Instead he leaves the room. This is not an argument either of us can win––or enjoy.
I didn’t know then that in a few years the scenery was to change, and I would travel from the petty terrain of comparison and competition to the vast and foreign landscape of grief. The sections that follow may be difficult. Turn away if you need to––I did at times. Each of these people deserves a full chapter or perhaps a book, but for now, just this.
1994 – Brad
One of the two friends from seventh grade is ill. I do not know this because I have put him in a position that makes it impossible for him to tell me that he is infected. I have one too many times conveyed to him that I am sure he is healthy and he must do everything to stay that way. When the first medications become available, he finally decides to take the test. He doesn’t tell me that he took it. I am easy to avoid. He lives in New York and I have a new baby. Eventually the truth seeps through my layers of denial and I start calling. We trade messages and then I reach his partner of sixteen years and the poor guy is stuck with telling me that Brad, after many years of reasonable health, is battling his first serious infection. Brad and I talk regularly; after each phone call I am up all night. I want to be back in denial. When he’s discharged from the hospital I have flowers mailed from Hawaii. I know it’s like a treasure hunt to unpack the deep red Antherium one by one from the oversized carton. One day on the phone, he makes a casual reference to now being blind in one eye. When he realizes by my reaction that he hadn’t yet told me about this event, he apologizes profusely for shocking me. I beg him not to apologize––one shouldn’t have to go blind and apologize. Things go badly and there are several more hospitalizations. After three months of this he refuses the hospital and he dies at home, not quite forty-four. The new medications (the ones that actually work) become available in something over a year, and for many years after that I’m bitter that he missed the treatment by so little time. I trade in the tickets we were going to use to visit him for tickets to attend his memorial service. I don’t tell the ticket agent at the airport why I am changing the dates, but maybe he can read it in my face. He doesn’t charge me the change fees.
1995 – Mary, Ted
Mary is my husband’s stepmother; she is forty-eight years old, barely older than her four step-“kids.” She has been in the family for about ten years and she was welcomed not with resentment but with gratitude and relief. She is doing a fine job taking care of my impossible father-in-law, though the job is approaching impossible, between his alcoholism and his not-yet-diagnosed dementia. We learn that Mary has been seeing doctors and her vague and innocuous-sounding symptoms result in a diagnosis that kills her one short horrible month later. Leaving the funeral, thinking of the needy man she left behind, I ask my sister-in-law, “Whose marriage do you think will break up first? Taking care of him is bound to destroy something.” My husband ends up being his father’s caretaker but we don’t break up over it. My sister-in-law’s marriage does end, but over other things. I had always planned on befriending Mary after my father-in-law died.
Ted is a boyhood friend of my husband’s, though only my husband was a boy since Ted is twenty years older. In his teens, my husband was taken in by a band of artists of whom Ted was the king. Eventually they reached that stage of life where twenty years isn’t such a gulf and they became friends. Ted’s son Paul is ten years younger than my husband and looks up to him; Ted is often undependable when it comes to fatherly things. He has been battling lung cancer for several years; it’s not a type you get from smoking but the chemicals and solvents that artists work with are suspect. Ted and my husband have not been close since around the time that we had kids––too much domesticity for Ted perhaps––but illness draws them together again. After one of those long remissions that offers false hope, Ted dies in the early winter; he is sixty-two. Shortly before his death, a fire in his studio destroys much of his work. A few months before the fire, he let us buy seven pieces, the first of his art we were ever able to own. When he was well, he wouldn’t give it away and he wouldn’t sell it either, except to a scattering of museums around the country.
1997 – Paul
Paul, son of Ted, is thirty-five and far too handsome ––I can hardly think around him. Like his father, he is a talented artist and he’s finding success in tough places, including New York. He is also too smart; I know he doesn’t do anything unkind or pretentious to cause it but I feel slow and stupid around him. Besides making art, he writes for academic art journals and I find his essays impenetrable. At his funeral his mother assures me that hardly anyone can understand that kind of writing. One night two years after Ted’s death, I come home from work and my husband leads me upstairs. He has something he wants to tell me without the kids hearing. By the look on his face, it might be something good. I can’t really tell. It’s not an expression I’ve seen before. He tells me that Paul has hung himself in his studio in Williamsburg, the same studio he had proudly shown us when we were in New York for Brad’s memorial service. I don’t understand what I’ve been told. This is just like eighth grade when a girl in history class told me, “President Kennedy has been shot,” but all I could think was, Why is President Kennedy shocked? What could have shocked him? How do people know that he is shocked? Why is she telling me this? Eventually it sinks in that Paul is not shocked either. I write his mother one of my finer condolence letters; I have recently had a completely convincing dream in which I watch my young son drown and I use this in just the right way in my letter. For years, I indulge in an elaborate fantasy in which I could have saved Paul. I don’t tell anyone about this because there are enough elements of truth in my rescue fantasy that they might look at me and say, “Why didn’t you?”
2000 – Al
We’ve gotten to know a new couple and are becoming friends with them. We’re short on couples because one half of a pair turns out to be too alcoholic, or self-centered, or boring. Sometimes we like both halves of a couple and it’s clearly meant to be a match, except they don’t think so. Getting married doesn’t really rescue you from the dating life. You may be married but you’re still dating. So it is not a small thing that we like both halves of this pair. She, however, is very reserved and things only really work when Al is around too. He is enthusiastic and voluble and can carry the social weight for both of them when she’s in a quiet mood. In May, he tells us about his diagnosis; a neighbor who is a doctor saw a spot on his back and told him to get help now. Al is upbeat and brave and does every horrible thing they tell him to. I decide that my husband and I are under some kind of terrible curse, except that so far, the danger is only to those around us. I know it’s not rational, but I am nonetheless sure that if we hadn’t befriended them, he would be fine. The statistics promise him a few years but he dies on Thanksgiving morning. They are our young friends––he was forty-three. She meets a good man not long after, but he is also quiet. We make some attempts for a year or two, but everyone loses interest.
Carol isn’t a close friend but she is a good friend of twenty years. It’s a steady friendship though we only see each other a few times a year. She travels and I think we are the only people who call and say we want to see the photographs and hear about your trip and let’s schedule a time for it. If you travel, you know that most people want to hear about your trip for exactly eleven seconds. Carol is politically liberal and compassionate but not a radical like some of her friends; she likes that she can say things to us that might offend the others. She appreciates that we don’t over-parent our kids and that it’s safe for her to grumble about the indulgence she sees around her. We’re not in her inner circle but we’re important to each other, and its’ a friendship of compatibility, not of proximity or convenience. In 2003, while traveling in France, she can’t ignore her symptoms any longer and when she gets back, she turns herself in for a diagnosis. Carol is a doctor and thus is denied the denial stage, a cruel omission. Before Carol’s illness the death rate around us had slowed down for a few years. We both lost our fathers but they were old and their bodies (and my father-in-law’s mind) had given out and only very bad things lay ahead for them. But here we go again with a not-old person dying and I don’t want to be around it.
During the last five months of her life––a life which, like the others (except Paul)––she is desperate to hang on to, I do as little as possible: I bring flowers twice; I bring fresh sliced peaches on the first day she is allowed to eat again; I bring her books. Her close friends can’t choose the right books, but I am good at matching people with books. I do not volunteer for any shifts of overnight care and I do not visit often. I do not want to know more than I already know. My husband, on the other hand, dives right in. He takes over her lawn mowing and helps her other friends with gardening. She is determined to put in a first-floor bathroom, counting on having enough time to need it. Most people think she will never use it, but it is a great distraction for her. My husband enlists an architect who understands the timeline, and Carol and he design a wonderful bathroom. Carol chooses tile, paint, and fixtures from the many samples and catalogs brought to her chair, and then to her bed. I think my husband is nuts to become so close to her now, closer than he has ever been in the past. I do not say this out loud. Heroic acts are performed to keep the bathroom project moving and the room is completed. One bath later, Carol, at age fifty-one, enters the hospice she helped found.
2006 – Dennis
Don’t despair, this is the last for now, as far as I know. Dennis is also fifty-one. His two children are on the young side, a son in middle school and a daughter in high school. He married late because he and my friend didn’t meet until 1989. She is my age and we were single together long enough to become really tired of being single. I was the first to meet someone suitable, and she had several more discouraging years of looking. I admired her technique though-––she was very businesslike. She joined a singles group and would go regularly to these bleak events. She wouldn’t drink more than one glass of wine because she wanted to make clearheaded decisions. In other words she was doing everything differently than she had when she was younger. Eventually her patience and discipline paid off; she met Dennis and they began a careful courtship. He is a sincere Catholic and his earlier divorce was something he was not going to repeat. It was necessary, but this is not a man who fails at things––that marriage was probably the first failure of his life. After their wedding, Dennis and my friend moved quickly and had two babies right away. Kids didn’t slow them down much. You can get tired just from hearing about one of their weekends––don’t even ask about vacations. One Tuesday night in late October, Dennis commits the second failure of his life. Watching the bitter end of a Tigers’ World Series game late at night, uncharacteristically alone, he has a heart attack, no warning, no known disease, good marks on his last physical. He manages to get to the stairs and wake his daughter just in time for her to watch him die. His mother, a querulous and burdensome woman (even when not grief-stricken) who lives yards away and under their care, blames this fifteen-year-old child for not knowing CPR and she tells her this. My friend doesn’t blame her daughter but does find a role for his mother in the explosion of her husband’s heart, and now her own.
Aren’t you relieved? No names in the heading. Just life again. My husband, always good with the dying and the affairs of the dead (I do not mean this entirely as a compliment) is able to be helpful with the complicated aftermath of Dennis’ death, though it is still a full-time job for our friend. It turns out that very full lives result in very full afterlives. Dennis is dead for less than a month when I begin a private list of possible men for her to meet. I am outraged that after all her hard work, she is single again. She is outraged too.
In a few weeks my husband and I are going to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago to see a new show titled PAUL DICKERSON: AS ART. In April we hope to go to New York for a few days, and if we’re lucky, we’ll see Brad’s partner. It took him about ten years to find someone he cared about. Brad wasn’t really replaceable. I suppose none of us is, but that part was written only for him.
I haven’t been the youngest for a long time and I only seem young to the elderly. I think more about time than age now, and friends know not to complain around me about getting old. Whatever ungrateful thoughts I have on the topic, I keep to myself.