There must have been thirty people in our house. Everyone was trying to clean, organize, cook, or fix something. It was what I imagine the back kitchen in a restaurant is like: everyone yelling orders, chopping onions, and passing plates.
I walked around with the pace and poise of their leader. I’m calm in that kind of pressurized situation. I like the creativity and camaraderie that’s born of a hard deadline.
Amidst the chaos, the landline rang. My aunt answered, but quickly handed it off to me: “I don’t know what to do with this. It’s a neighbor or something.”
“Hello?” I asked.
“Oh hey, Katie,” said a raspy voice from the other end. I knew, based on the raspiness, exactly who it was. Not many people have that cigarette-induced rasp anymore. Plus, she called me Katie, and only people who’ve known me my whole life do that.
“Where’s your mom today?” she asked.
“She died,” I replied matter-of-factly.
She was quiet for a moment and then came out a bunch of jumbled questions and thoughts: “Oh my gosh. Oh my gosh. Whatwhenwherewhohow? I had no idea. It’s just that… I’m in town and wanted to see if she wanted to have lunch. Oh my gosh.”
“I know…” I paused. “She passed two days ago. I’m sorry; I thought that’s why you were calling. I thought you knew.”
Gasps. Screams. Yells. “WHAAAAAAT? Just two days ago now? You can’t be serious.”
The truth is, I hadn’t heard from Raspy-McRasp in years. I hadn’t heard either of my parents mention her either. She moved back to New York (where she was from) in the early 2000s after spending a few years raising some kids down the street. Her and my mom had been great friends, and even in that moment, I would have still considered them that way.
The last I’d heard she‘d been hitting the bottle again. Struggling to put it down as she had in lifetimes past.
My parents were teetotalers. And while they loved many an alcoholic, including each other, they rarely associated with those still in the pre-admittance phase. It wasn’t their style to preach about sobriety; it was just their style to be sober. And I think that’s what always made heavy drinkers uncomfortable around them.
They didn’t judge others or overcompensate by talking about their sobriety all the time. They just didn’t drink. Simple as that.
And so, for an alcoholic in denial, hanging around them was kind of like like a high school dropout hanging around a bunch of ivy league graduates. There was a certain degree of embarrassment and shame that colored the interactions if you weren’t careful. Naturally, avoiding them altogether, like conscience in general, was easier than the alternative.
I continued, “Umm, she was really sick. She had cancer for the past few years. You know — the same kind she had all those years ago. We entered her into hospice a few weeks ago, and yup…”
The thought crossed my mind: how do you compress a decade-long story into a few sentences? Especially, to a person that had been a part of the good parts. Rasp was there for the first diagnosis, treatment cycle, and post-op checkups.
She was there for the first victory —
Mom— 1; Cancer — 0
But as it would turn out, that first face-off was only the start of a long series. A series in which mom would tire, but cancer wouldn’t. And in which cancer would reveal that it couldn’t be defeated— even by a real-life superhero.
How could I tell that story? Without highlighting the harsh reality that she wasn’t there for it. That she had missed the struggles, sure. But she’d also missed out on the good stuff, too: like laughs over iced teas and turkey sandwiches.
It was a story I knew I had to share in person. I had to assure her what she meant to my mom, and that it wasn’t her fault she hadn’t been there. Nor was it her fault that, coincidentally or not, she called for a lunch date a few days late.
It wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t anyone’s fault. It just was.
Since she was in town already, I invited her to the services — the funeral, wake, burial, and after-party. “We’d love to see you,” I told her. She obliged and hung up.
I looked for her at the services. Even as I sat there watching my mom’s eternal, claustrophobic living space lowered into the ground.
She never showed up.
I’ve always wondered why.
But I think I already know the answer.