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Sunday, December 1, 2002

Dear Kate,

Gene left the morning after you died, and ever since I’ve been thinking how strange that he came to spend that ill-fated weekend with us, after not having seen each other for five years, came because of John’s impending death, only to witness yours. When John hired Gene and me as instructors some forty years ago, I never imagined that our lives would intersect in so many ways—on fishing trips, at poker games, professional meetings, and now like this. On the way to the airport, he spoke of being “honored” to be with us when you were dying, whereas I felt blessed by the gift of his calm presence. And dazed by the thought of all he’d been through, given his visit to John and his death-watch with me. I can hardly imagine what it would have been like without him. At the airport, just before leaving, he gave me a piece of advice I hadn’t heard before, but that I’ve been getting ever since—as in “Don’t make any big decisions about anything for at least a year, not until you’re more stable than you are right now.”

The way I feel right now, stability is light years away, especially after last week. An emotional stress test, it began with the sight of your elegant table for the dinner party that never took place, the last work of your hands confronting me and Gene when we got back from the hospital and walked into the dining room—the green silk runner down the length of the table, the green glass center piece with the chrysanthemums still as fresh as when you arranged them, the green straw placemats, the green napkins atop the brown pottery plates, the wood-handled cutlery, the amber wine glasses, the amber water glasses. I remember you putting it together that morning, still in your nightgown, swanning around the dining room before you went to the fair—remember you showing me the moss-green mums and telling me with a twinkle in your eye “they’re called Kermits.” But the shock of your death was so huge, obliterating, that I completely forgot the dinner party, the table, and everything else until Gene and I walked into the house that afternoon. Such a glittering display, emblem of your impeccable eye, I was momentarily transfixed by it, then overcome with remorse for having taken such things for granted. Then and there, I vowed to leave the table untouched as long as possible, to keep the flowers alive as long as possible, to celebrate Thanksgiving—some thanksgiving!—on a table set by you. And that’s what happened five days later, with a guest list of your dreams. Not only Marybeth, Ken, and Elizabeth, in keeping with our neighborly rotation, but also Amy, Hannah, Marshall, and Martha—the first time that my children and your sister were all here together in at least ten years. The only one missing was you. But you were there—and not just in the setting and your classic menu, nor just in the simple toast “To Kate.” You were there in the “Thanksgiving Prayer” that I found among your papers on the kitchen counter.

Lord, we thank you for the harvest
Spread before us,
And the company of loved ones
All around us.

Such a haunting little grace that I barely got through it. But then again, everything the past week has been so haunting that I barely got through it. Like going to the funeral home last Sunday, almost a year to the day after you dragged me there to make arrangements for ourselves. “We’ve got to do this,” you said, “so it’s all taken care of when the time comes, and no one has to worry about what to do or what we want.” Too bad you didn’t tell them how to do your hair—not to rinse out the gray, not to comb out the bangs. But the strange-looking hairdo was nothing compared to the feel of your body under the lovely antique quilt—so stiff and cold when I bent over to hug you that the chills swept over me again, and words came rushing out of my mouth as if some other voice had commandeered my own. “That’s not her, that’s not her,” I screamed, running out of the room. And Carolyn, the funeral attendant, answered me calmly, frankly—“No, it’s not her, it’s not her at all. That’s just her body. She’s gone.” A truth that suddenly hit me so hard, I burst into tears for the first time since you died, the dam broken at last that had me wondering until then if I was so numb, so stunned, I’d never shed a single tear.

I’ve heard about people being in shock or suffering from post-traumatic stress, but I never imagined it could be so weird. Like the sirens ringing in my ears, the chills sweeping down my body again and again the first night in bed without you. And the night after that and the night after that, until Amy gave me a sedative that smoothed out the nights a bit but certainly not the days. Now, in fact, I suddenly find myself breaking down almost any time or place—in the supermarket aisle with Marshall the day before Thanksgiving, in the garden yesterday afternoon pulling the last of our fall radishes, in the kitchen this evening, looking out at the candles that someone’s evidently been lighting in memory of you at the neighborhood park, at the end of the new Harry Potter movie when the young heroine, seemingly dead, suddenly came to life again. A fantasy too close to home.

Were it not for our friends and neighbors, I might have been in tears all week, but their visits and gifts made me feel as if I should put up a staunch front, like you would have done, like your mother did after your father’s sudden death. What else to do, then, but tell them the story of that fateful afternoon, the story they evidently craved to know, as if knowing what happened could make sense of your shocking death. I told it so many times that my tale hardened into a set-piece—“It all began just a few minutes after she got home from the art fair . . .” How quickly a formula takes hold—life and death alike embalmed in language. And when I wasn’t telling the story, I was showing photographs of you that I propped up around the living room. The big black and whites that Rowley took in my bachelor apartment when we were still in our salad days and he needed to do a series of portraits for his photography class. You sitting at the ice cream table in your wide-brimmed hat, holding a large umbrella over your head, your fingers elegantly clutching the handle. You sitting at the table, your eyes cast downward, your hand on its marble surface, your shoulder length hair covering half your face. What a bizarre yoking—the afternoon of your death and an afternoon thirty-seven years ago when you came to my apartment and modelled for Rowley’s art shots. But then again, compared to your death, nothing seems bizarre. Not even these letters.

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