In the summer of 1998, I was expecting Agatha and my childhood friend, Steph, had just given birth to a baby girl: Kenza. I was visiting my parents at the time, and Steph came over to show us all the new baby.
Steph told me she was worried: what if she wasn't a good mother? What if she had passed down her own unruly, curly hair? What if she swears in front of Kenza?
I said, "Don't worry about things like swearing -- she's going to know who you are."
All the while that Steph was talking about her concerns, she was effortless caring for Kenza. She fed her, burped her, bounced her to sleep, and held her with one arm curled around her. Kenza woke for a moment; Steph changed her diaper and then Kenza went right back to sleep in the same position.
I wanted to say, "Look! You're doing it! You may be worried, but here you are, doing it." I didn't say anything because the words sounded patronizing. I had more children than Steph, but I did not have more answers and I certainly did not want to behave as if I did. Face-to-face is hard for me, and I told myself that when I was back in Oakland I would write Steph a letter.
But back in Oakland, the words looked just as patronizing on paper. There didn't seem to be a way for one woman to tell a peer she was going to be a great mom, that in fact, she already was. Or maybe my awkwardness was because of my own childhood friendship with Steph: we've known each other since we were ten. I met Steph on my first day at a terrifying new school that became no less frightening over time. Steph had always been the undisputed alpha in our friendship: she was the one who thought of the pranks, and the crank calls we would make. I was afraid of everything, but with Steph I felt brave.
Today I attended the funeral of Steph's mom, Martine. Martine was a French professor at UW -- Milwaukee and so our parents all knew each other, even before Steph and I first met. I was there for Steph, but also as Perlman Respresentation.
I listened to Steph and Kenza speak together, taking turns, Steph taking over when Kenza was too emotional to continue sharing memories of her grandmother. I wondered if any of my girls, at Kenza's age, could do that: stand in front of a room full of people and tell stories about her grandmother. Kenza cried, but remained standing and talking, and reading aloud from Hemingway. And I was impressed.
I've spent the past year exhausted from grief and have only recently felt myself beginning to wake up. But watching Steph in her grief, knowing what she is feeling and wanting somehow to weed out the worst parts of it for her -- the horror, the unacceptable absence, the fatigue -- and knowing there's nothing I can do: it is another kind of unbearable.
After the memorial we went to the cemetery and watched Martine's casket get lowered into the ground. Everyone took turns putting orange roses on her coffin, and then we all said good-bye, in unison, in every language known by the large group of people. I think we said good-bye about fifteen times.
The reception was at Steph's house: she, Martine and Kenza had all lived there together. LB and I could not stay long because we had to get back to Olive, as usual.
When I hugged Steph good-bye I could feel that horror, that oh of injustice at the surprising amount of pain at losing someone you'd gone your whole life knowing you would eventually lose.
I did not want to let her go. I reminded her of what my dad had said to me many times, since I was ten years old: Your other friends will come and go, but you will always be friends with Steph.
Steph told me she loved me, and I put my hand on her cheek.
I am not a face-toucher. In fact, I'd go as far as to say that there are no face-touchers in the Perlman lineage. But at that moment I remembered ringing Steph's doorbell when I was ten years old. She had showered recently and her hair was in ringlets, and she was hoping, as she always did, that it would somehow dry straight. My hair changed at puberty and then it was both of us, wishing we had the straight, swingy, Wisconsin hair of all our classmates.
During the long drive back to Northbrook, I thought about the last lines of Toni Morrison's Sula:
And the loss pressed down on her chest and came up into her throat. ‘We was girls together,’ she said as though explaining something. ‘O Lord, Sula,’ she cried, ‘girl, girl, girlgirlgirl.’ It was a fine cry—loud and long—but it had no bottom and it had not top, just circles and circles of sorrow.”
I could not remember if I said "I love you" back. But that face-touching thing: Steph knows me well enough to recognize it meant all the things I have never been able to tell her.