It’s when, near the beginning of your day, your husband who has had chronic Hepatitis C for forty-five years comes home from the doctor’s and says he has been declared “virus free” after two weeks participating in a drug trial for a new medication that awaits FDA approval. You jump up and down like a small child who has just watched a magician let fly a yellow chickadee from a previously empty hand. It’s the exhilaration and disbelief of being blessed with such good fortune. It’s knowing your husband’s lease on life has been renewed, and therefore, so has yours.
Then, a couple hours later, your twenty-two-year-old daughter arrives home in tears. Earlier that morning at her boyfriend’s house, she accidentally walked into the room where the body of his grandmother was being prepared for burial. She had died from lung cancer during the night. This is the first time your daughter has seen a dead body, and she now feels what it is to know that a person and a body are two very different things.
Several hours after that your younger daughter comes home from school and opens a large envelope to find a college acceptance letter offering her a $68,000 scholarship distributed over four years. She shivers with excitement and says, “It doesn’t even matter if I get accepted to any other schools. Now I’m all set.” It’s feeling awed by her capabilities and thankful she is being offered a sound opportunity while also feeling relief that now you don’t have to worry about the storm that might come if she is rejected by her top choice colleges.
It’s washing dishes at the kitchen sink yet a few hours later in the early evening, when both your husband and older daughter are at work and your younger daughter is at gymnastics, and finally allowing yourself to break in a great heaving gust over the unexpected death of your friend Mary only one week earlier. You lean down, resting your forearms on the rim of the sink, and sob into the fading bubbles and dull gray water.
And this all happens on Valentine’s Day. The day devoted to Love, poetry, roses, and chocolate. A day rooted in the legend of a priest imprisoned for aiding the persecuted and performing secret weddings.
It’s when a week later an official looking letter arrives from a lawyer designating you as a beneficiary of Mary’s IRA and the rest of her small estate. You learn that you now have the means to send your daughter to college because even though she received a large scholarship, there will still be tuition to pay. It’s suddenly having the ability to pay down the credit card debt and get your daughter the teeth implants she needs for the two upper lateral incisors she was born without due to genetic hypodontia, a congenital condition where some babies are born without some of their permanent teeth. It’s the timing of things because oral implant surgery cannot occur until the age of eighteen when the jaw has finished growing, and your daughter is seventeen and a half.
It’s when two months later you receive an acceptance to an artist residency in Vermont and discover you have been awarded a grant, of which you are overjoyed, but you realize there is still a hefty balance to be paid for the privilege of spending four weeks writing in a private studio overlooking a river, where they house and feed you and wash your dishes and linens. It’s a fee you never could have considered paying when you applied for a full fellowship prior to the receipt of that official letter from the lawyer.
It’s when four months after that you take your daughter 2,685 miles across the country to begin her freshman year of college in a place where neither of you knows a soul. It’s the excitement, the giddiness, the nervousness, the apprehension—of saying goodbye. It’s a feeling of satisfaction and completeness that as a parent you did something right by your child because she is not afraid of adventure and trying new things; she is whole and independent with a superb brain and fierce heart. And you can’t help but feel thrilled because it’s like unfolding a map to the future, so many places to go, so many possibilities. Only it’s not a map to your future, but hers, and when it comes time to leave, all you want to do is grab her, pull her close, and hang on because you know this is that pivotal moment; once you let go, it will never be the same. Every day forward in her pursuit of autonomy, she will need you a little less. But you release her into her joy—because you have to.
It’s arriving at the artist residency a month and a half later and meeting a new community of people from all over the world and discovering that it’s possible to develop deep, meaningful relationships that bond you after just one week, and after two weeks you can’t imagine ever going back to the life in which those people had no place. It’s realizing that you made an unwilling trade: the loss of one dear friend, the woman whom you considered your god-mother, in exchange for many new friends.
It’s not walking a mile in another’s moccasins—as the old saying goes—but walking in Mary’s socks. For when you cleaned out her apartment in the days after her memorial, you took all of her “Smart Wool” socks even though they were much too big. As you wear these ill-fitting socks daily, you think about Mary: her tall and gentle grace made smooth by years of practicing yoga; how she never spoke an ill word of anyone even of those for whom others carried a mutual discontent; her effortless embodiment of acceptance and unconditional love. You think about how she never had children, how you, her best friend’s daughter, are the closest thing to what she ever knew a daughter to be. And you contemplate how this wondrous experience you are having at this artist residency, in this place of maple syrup, apple cider, and autumn leaves, is made possible by Mary’s death. This thought slices your heart to the quick because you don’t know how you can ever go on without her, this dear friend who was a fixture in your life from the day you were born on the anniversary of her birth. And you know that she would be pleased to have made this possible for you, even though it meant dying. Because that’s the kind of person she was.
The polarity of incongruities is evaluating life in this manner: between matters of the heart and matters of the pocketbook. It’s experiencing gratitude and grief—simultaneously.
Laurie Easter‘s essays have appeared or are forthcoming in The Rumpus, Chautauqua, Prime Number Magazine, and Under the Gum Tree, among others. She holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and recently took on the role of Assistant Creative Nonfiction Editor forHunger Mountain: the VCFA Journal of the Arts. She lives off the grid and on the edge of wilderness in a funky, little cabin in Southern Oregon. Visit her at laurieeaster.com.
Read an interview with Laurie here.