February 14, 2014


Roberta Israeloff

ABBY AND I MET IN A GENTLE YOGA CLASS. ” ’Gentle’ as in ’geriatric,’ ” she said, as we waited on our mats for the class to begin, watching all the young girls arch their backs and touch their toes.  We both spent most of the class resting in child pose, and when it was over she asked if I wanted to get a cup of coffee.  Recently retired, Abby was determined to move from one activity to the next—art classes, square dancing, courses in the Byzantine Empire—on a whim, settling on whatever at that moment caught her fancy.

We were out of synch work-wise: I’d just launched a new and absorbing career.  But I worked from home and my schedule was flexible enough that I could meet Abby when she’d call, often out of the blue. We got to know each other not by sitting and talking but through activity, which she always imbued with a sense of adventure.  Even flower shopping.  We once spent an entire morning driving from one nursery to the next looking for a pot of nasturtiums to put on the patio outside her bedroom. It was late June and healthy specimens were hard to find. We stopped for lunch, and I thought she’d given up but on our way home, she pulled into a ramshackle nursery off a small country road.  “We have a few,” the owner told us. “It’s late for them.”

Abby glanced at the array—they looked much better than any we’d seen—and said, “Thanks, but no.”

They were the wrong color, she explained when we were back in the car.  “I want the yellow that’s almost pink.  After Al and I get back from Japan, you and I will go out east.  Nurseries there always have them.”

*   *   *

We grew close for many reasons but mainly because of our feelings for our oldest children, neither married or even seriously dating at a time when many of their peers were.  We each had younger children on whom we doted but who seemed to raise themselves, with no fuss. The older boys, though, however big and resilient and capable they appeared to the rest of the world, were as soft inside as summer peaches. That we worried in the same irrational ways dawned on us pretty quickly into our relationship.  But of course everything in our relationship happened quickly.

“Let’s each knit baby sweaters,” she said.  She’d stopped to admire one in the window of our town’s new knitting store.  It had little rabbits for buttons.

“We’re years away from having grandchildren,” I said.

“That gives us time to prepare,” she said.  I gave her the look her grandmother would have given her, the same one mine would have given me:  Don’t even think about making or buying anything for a baby you can’t see.

“If you give me your finished sweater and I give you mine to hold onto until we need them, then there’s no reason we have to wait,” she said.  “We’re just thinking ahead.”

By now we were in the store and she was fingering various yarns.  I knew the grandparents of my oldest, closest friends. I’d sat in their girlhood bedrooms; we’d sprawled on the bed leafing through Seventeen Magazine, listened to the White Album for the first time, got high before going to see Easy Rider. I had no such history with Abby—yet felt almost as close to her as if we had.

We’re new old friends, Abby would say, summing it all up. We selected the same pattern—she chose yellow yarn, I chose green.

On July Fourth, Abby invited my husband and me to a barbecue. I knew she lived near the water but didn’t realize that the Sound was just a few feet from her backyard.  We ate on the deck as she and her husband Al explained what would come next—the community’s annual bonfire. Every house on the crescent beach lit one, starting with the house nearest the town and extending out along the peninsula.  Her kids had spent the entire day assembling the enormous piles of wood and waited their turn to ignite it just after dusk.  It crackled and blazed as if alive, generating walls of heat, distorting our vision, belching embers, ash and smoke into the darkening sky. The mood on the entire stretch of beach was jovial—lots of beer, laughter—but I was terrified.  It felt primitive.    “They look like pyres,” I told my husband.

*   *   *

By the time Abby and Al returned from Japan, in late August, she’d finished the yellow sweater and had begun one in beige. I was still struggling with the sleeves of mine.  “You’re knitting at lightning speed,” I told her.

“I have to,” she said.  Then she told me that she’d had some tests, and some of the findings were ominous.  One of them showed a shadow, possibly a growth. “They’re always finding shadows,” I said.  “It’s probably nothing.”

“It doesn’t sound like nothing,” she said.

The last time Abby came to my house, she asked me, “Why don’t you ever cry?”

“I don’t know,” I said.

“All my other friends, we sit and cry,” she said.

I didn’t have an answer.  She wanted one.  She was patient; she’d sit and wait. “I think it’s because I just can’t believe it,” I finally said.

She’d brought me two scarves, one that she’d purchased for my birthday, months ago, and one that was hers and she wanted me to have.  I thought about my grandmother’s jewelry box, filled with beads.  “Take what you want mamala,” she’d say at the end of her life.  “What do I need them for?”

*    *   *

“Can you come over for a couple of hours?” Al asked.  He had to go to a meeting, and needed someone to sit with her.  I figured her closer friends weren’t available.  But a few hours later Abby called and said, “Bring the baby sweaters with you”—the sweaters I’d been keeping for her.

I found her in bed wearing a bathrobe and a turban.  Her night table was piled with books, magazines, medicine bottles, and a kidney-shaped metal tray.  “In case I throw up,” she said.

I settled into my chair. “If the phone rings when I’m asleep, don’t answer it,” she said.  She told me she was tired and didn’t want to undergo the next round of chemo.  But her children wanted her to, as did Al. “What would you do?” she asked. I think my face reflected pure panic.  Another question that wasn’t rhetorical—she wanted an answer.

“I don’t know,” I said.  “I don’t know how anyone could know in advance.”

She said nothing.  “It’s your body,” I said finally, thinking, “It’s your body that betrayed you.”

“Your sweater is in the bottom dresser drawer,” she said. I found it wrapped in tissue paper, just as I’d given it to her a few months earlier.  I put the sweaters Abby had knit in that spot, and placed mine in my purse. By the time I returned to the chair, she was asleep.

“You’re still here,” she said,  her eyes fluttering open, finding me standing by the patio door.  This is where she’d wanted to put that pot of nasturtiums, so she could see them when she awoke.

“You have a million-dollar view,” I said. The sun was slowly setting over the trees to the west, the water turning electric blue. On the sand, I could see the remains of the summer’s bonfire, a few charred sticks.

She smiled but didn’t turn to look. She didn’t have the energy.

*    *    *

The first time I emailed Al asking if he wanted to meet for coffee, he wrote back so immediately that my finger was still on the send key.  I pictured him sitting alone in the big house, a wisp of a man, hunched over his laptop on the kitchen table.  Sure, he wrote. We agreed on Barnes and Noble at noon.  That’s become our standing date, three times a year.  He’d buy me a latte, order himself an iced tea, even in winter, and we catch up on our kids and parents, his travel, my work. We always planned to take a hike together—his summer place is near ours—but it never materialized.  We talked a lot about school; he was a teacher, and both our older sons are as well.

“I’m seeing someone,” Al said to me about five minutes into our conversation.  “Seriously seeing someone. Someone I knew from before.”  I smiled. This was good to hear, something I hoped for him. Five years had elapsed since Abby’s funeral.  It was time.  “And my son’s engaged,” he said.

“Lovely,” I said.  “I’m so happy for you.”  And I was. What neither of us had to say was how happy Abby would be. I recalled all our lunches when we worried about our sons finding life companions. Our own marriages had been so fruitful, so enriching, that we couldn’t help but want the same for our children. And of course she’d want Al to remarry.  She knew the studies as well as I did—happily married people who lose spouses are the most likely to remarry.

By the time I returned to my car I was in tears, crying for Abby the first time. Everyone was moving on, taking the next step, and leaving her behind. To Al’s girlfriend, Abby would become “my first wife,” to her son, “my mother who died before we met,” to her grandchild, the woman in the photo album, the one who knit the yellow sweater.  We tailor our grief like a custom-made coat so that we can wear it without feeling encumbered and move about freely in our lives. That’s how it happens; that’s how it’s supposed to happen.

It’s what Abby wanted. But as each of her desires came to fruition, she’d vanish a little more, become a little more distant, recede from all of us. Even me. She’d become the friend I wish I’d had more time with. The friendship I found when I least expected it, long after I’d stopped looking or hoping for it. The person I’m trying to hold on to against all odds by writing this story about her.  It’s all I have, but it will have to be enough.  And in a way that she’d completely understand, it is.

Roberta Israeloff is the author and co-author of over a dozen books, most recently Kindling the Flame: Reflections on Ritual, Faith, and Family (Simon & Schuster).  Her short stories, articles, and essays have appeared in many publications and anthologies including The New York Times, Newsday, Lilith, Parents, and the North American Review.  She currently directs the Squire Family Foundation which strives to introduce pre-college students to philosophy. Contact: risraeloff@squirefoundation.org.

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