Bad Math

10257863_10205087245313522_8928703632963846795_oDavid would have been 56 today. A photo of us, my head resting on his right shoulder and our brother Tommy sitting at his left, pops up in my Facebook feed as a “memory”—as if I would forget this birthday without this visual reminder. The photo is from a restaurant in Houston called Julia’s where we had a fantastic dinner years ago, a restaurant that, like my brother, is now gone.

In my inbox, a daily email from the Writer’s Almanac says today, March 13, is the birthday of Percival Lowell, Janet Flanner, Pope Innocent XII, even Uncle Sam—at least the day he was “born” in the form of a cartoon character in 1852 in a publication called the New York Lantern. It seems David’s name, far more important to me than any of these, should also appear here in the list of VIP birthdays as I scroll.

Wikipedia says, “March 13 is the 72nd day of the year (73rd in leap years) in the Gregorian calendar. There are 293 days remaining until the end of the year.” There are 365 days—or 364 if next year is a leap year—before I feel quite this feeling again.

I saw Tommy last week when he turned 53. I know the proximity in their birthdays brought both celebration and competition growing up. Now it causes only sadness. Already, Tommy has surpassed David’s life by six years, which seems like bad math; David was born three years before Tommy. But this is what death does; it changes math. It made Tommy my oldest brother.

Forty-seven years isn’t so bad, and anyone who knew David knew he lived more than most people do in a lifetime in that span. Still, it’s hard not to feel cheated each and every year, as I am greedy. Wanting more, so much more. And unable to add much.

Though I had a rare dream about David a couple of weeks ago, so rare in fact that it might have been only the third time that he has appeared in my unconsciousness this way, unsummoned by me, a welcome visitor. In the scene, David was driving a speedboat—too fast, no surprise—while I sat in the seat behind him, being splashed with spray and laughing raucously. It felt dangerous and safe at the same time, a sense my brother provoked easily. Upon waking, I cried as I cried when I lost him the first time, in real life, the way waking up reminded me of the reality each and every day for years, and not just on his birthday.

It was strange last week, as always, to be back “home” in Houston, surrounded in our mother’s house by her photos and mementos of David—her own shrine, different from mine, from Tommy’s—reminding me of our deeply varied relationships, the relationships that still go on for each of us, even now, as a wise writer recently wrote me.

I have not yet lived as long as David did, but I hope to, and I hope to surpass him too. As the baby of the family, I wonder if I will outlive everyone eventually, if not also go beyond their years, their numbers, their experiences. I wonder, as we all must do, whether we will meet again, somewhere where numbers don’t exist.

I love Tommy, and I know he loves me too, but we are unlikely to put our heads on each other the way I did that night after dinner, warm with red wine, with good food, and with the comfort, the security, the assuredness of my siblings, with our brother David between us.

We are minus one and counting.



No Ordinary Princess

For fucks sake 2016, Princess Leia??? You have got to be kidding me.

carrie_fisher_2013It took me weeks to work through my upset over losing David Bowie early this year, then I nearly, literally, fell down when my coworker announced to me that Prince —PRINCE! — had died. Leonard Cohen’s exit right after the election was an especially poetic touch from this gruesome year. I really thought the sucker punch of the death of George Michael ON CHRISTMAS DAY might be the end of a year full of tremendous, unfair, cruel losses. So many insanely talented people who made such a difference to my growing up. But no.

Today, it’s Carrie Fisher. Despite knowing about her recent heart attack, I am gob smacked. She was supposed to have The Force, after all! She was a PRINCESS, for crying out loud, a kick ass, tough-as-nails princess, the profound female role model of my tender formative years years, one that blew all of our young minds. In elementary school, she was the one all of us girls wanted to dress up as on Halloween (my friend Khajha was the only one who actually had the right hair – the hair we all coveted) — and the kids still dress up as her. That’s what a legend she was as Leia.

Fisher had another role that was really important to me: a writer. But as much as I appreciated her acting chops, her on-screen dynamism, her storytelling gifts, her directing and screenwriting, what I loved about her most about Carrie Fisher was that she was open about her tremendous personal struggles, especially in acknowledging she had bipolar disorder.

Fisher was one of the first famous people who lived it out loud, unapologetically, along with all the baggage she and everyone who suffers with this disease has to drag along: the self-medication with alcohol and (many, many) drugs, the antisocial behavior, the terrible messes it all makes. It wasn’t pretty princessy stuff, but then, she was never an ordinary princess. She persevered. And in doing so, she allowed others with mental illnesses to see that they could make amazing contributions, let their creativity shine, and be super successful while letting that all hang out.

I’ve been thinking about heroes a lot lately. All of these famous people who inspired and moved me were also really interesting, complex, generous human beings. They were all heroes of mine.

It’s funny that the last thing Fisher finally unveiled — through her newest memoir — was the juicy truth about her affair with Harrison Ford, the thing we all suspected and waited decades to know for sure. I’m glad she left us with so many truths. The others left us with some serious mysteries, and that’s always hard to sort. I will really miss her.

Dammit, 2016. There are four days left of this year and that makes me nervous about what else might happen. Where is Obi One Kenobi? He’s our only hope.

Photo: Wiki Creative Common, by Riccardo Ghilardi

The Good Fight

suffragette_procession_1911I work at a women’s college — the oldest in the country, in fact. I didn’t attend one myself, but being there feels good — as a woman, as a feminist, as a person, as an American.

For my job, I spend a lot of time promoting the achievements of our alumnae and students, as well as other women around the globe. I celebrate women’s education and women’s successes. I try to instill hope and courage. I attempt to inspire. In doing so, I am often inspired, hopeful, even occasionally courageous.

When a few months ago Hillary Clinton wore all white to accept the Democratic nomination as the first women presidential candidate in history, those in my office quickly recognized the significance of her outfit when I did not. Mount Holyoke, like other women’s colleges, has an annual parade where everyone dresses in white, the uniform of the suffragettes who, less than 100 years ago, fought mightily for women’s right to vote and for us to be equal participants in our democracy. Hillary attended a women’s college too, Wellesley. Her outfit was clearly carefully chosen in honor of our foremothers, and it struck me as quite poetic.

Since the nomination, and ramping up as the election neared, our social media channels were abuzz with articles and photos and Tweets proudly sharing the bonded feeling of sisterhood, the excitement of this women’s “first” accomplishment, of the potential for equal representation so many of us have wished for. I always wished for a woman as president. I couldn’t imagine any little girl or any woman who didn’t. Despite my desire for a different choice as first woman candidate (full disclosure: I backed Bernie Sanders), even I was getting swept up in anticipation.

Yesterday, faculty, staff and students alike — along with women around the country — wore white, and the hashtag #WearWhiteToVote became a thing online. Yesterday, alumnae posted articles about making history. Yesterday, nearly every girlfriend I have proudly posted selfies with “I voted” stickers affixed to their chests. I was  moved. Yesterday, I, too, cast my ballot for Hillary, with the genuine hope that she would be our president elect today.

This morning, I heard about all of the students at the college who stayed up all night crying. This morning, I cancelled all of the social media posts I had carefully put together at work to publish today. This morning, I blacked out my profile photo on my personal Facebook page and then promptly closed it. This morning, I attended a meeting where, with most of our faces downcast, we discussed the need for more security on campus, just in case.

Still, by the end of the day, my officemates and I were talking about the editorial content for our quarterly magazine next year and what kind of impact we could make using that tool. We discussed the strategy for the campaign we are launching in January that focuses on applauding women’s education and empowerment, figuring the timing was still great — and the activity more important than ever. We five women sat around our circular meeting table and figured out ways to move forward — together — and to keep up the good fight.

Photo: Postcard of a Suffragette procession of 1911. Printed by H. Searjent of Ladbroke Grove, London. Public domain.

Ashes, Ashes

spodomancy_on_white_paper_-_thin_ashes_01A couple of days ago, I clicked the small ornate letter T on my iPhone, as I do most mornings, and ran my finger down the appealingly slick surface, scanning the headlines in my New York Times app. Sick of the elections, racial tensions and ongoing police dramas, I kept scrolling, taking note of items but not engaging enough to actually click on anything until I saw an article titled, “Powder Tossed at Metropolitan Opera May Have Been Human Ashes.” Yep, that’s the kind of story that always gets my attention.

I won’t suggest I don’t have a certain kind of curiosity many would call morbid, though I just consider it an interest, not unlike any kind of interest anyone might have — say, in horses or sports or knitting — except in my case, it’s all things death, dying and grieving. Sometimes, it isn’t the same kind of conversation starter as other topics. Yet, sometimes it is.

I read with great interest about how a man in the audience had waited until the intermission of a Rossini performance and then apparently sprinkled something white into the orchestra pit. He was “witnessed” doing it, he was caught on video reaching into a black bag, and then — after the rest of the show was cancelled and the audience members evacuated — the powder was examined by experts. The orchestra pit was declared a crime scene! The entire debacle was called a “terrorism scare.” That’s the kind of world we live in.

As it happened, the guy was simply trying to fulfill the dying wish of a dear friend, a guy who had originally introduced him to opera. Terry, after being diagnosed with terminal cancer, had agreed to the romantic idea that his cremains be scattered among famous concert halls. When “The Sprinkler” later wrote the director of the Met an apology letter for the enormous disturbance explaining the scheme, he said, so beautifully, “I jokingly told Terry they would never be able to vacuum all of him up. He would be there forever enjoying all the beautiful music.”

I am, I know, more than likely inordinately drawn to subjects like this. I read follow-up articles in the Times and the Washington Post, the latter of which recalled that the only times the Met had ever cancelled performances partway through was for death: once for an artist who died onstage after singing an aria about death, once for an elderly man who jumped from the balcony during “Macbeth,” and once for a tenor who literally sang the phrase, “You can only live so long” (though probably in Italian) before he succumbed to a heart attack.

If this is not all some crazy kind of poetry, what is?

It all took me back to my own situation, poetic too in its way, I suppose, especially in retrospect. Eight years ago, I sat in the library of a church parish in Houston with my mother, my brother’s stepmother and a pastor I had just met. An odd grouping, to be sure, borne of a terrible situation. Together, we opened a black plastic box, about the size of a shoebox, and a plastic bag that was tucked inside that contained my brother’s ashes, the dusty stuff he had been reduced to after his — I’m tempted to say “untimely death,” but what death is exactly timely? — and proceeded to divvy up the sandy stuff into small parcels.

The plan was to distribute little dime bags of my dear brother to his friends and relatives so that pieces of him would be sprinkled throughout the world. Because he died after hiking a bunch of peaks, because all he ever really wanted was to be outdoors, because globetrotting was one of his most intense joys, we all hoped that he, like Terry, would end up in glorious and amazing places that meant something to him for all eternity.

I wonder now where the grey-white powder from my brother, the shockingly small residue of a big life, has been sprinkled. I hadn’t thought much about it after the memorial service where we discreetly tucked the parcels into people’s hands like drugs. A unique parting gift for sure.

As Terry hoped to have tiny fragments caught in the fibers of lush red carpeting above which voices would soar, I hope that David ended up mixed into the scree on enormous mountains, in the sand of expansive beaches, in the soil of a field somewhere ablaze with wildflowers.


Grief in the Digital Age

1924318_57463667749_6077_nThey say things come in threes. This time, three talented, funny, sweet guys I cared about—all in their early 40s, all musicians—are gone within three months.

I manage a number of social media accounts for my job, so when I check Facebook, I’m genuinely not wasting time at work, usually. But as many know, company pages are often connected to personal ones, so when I logged in at my desk first thing this morning, it was my news feed I saw first.

I picked up my phone to text my husband Peyton about what I had just seen, and it simultaneously rang. He was calling me. We are often synergistic this way. And we both knew and loved these three guys.

Today, we jointly reeled over the news that a mutual college chum—one of my first band mates and a guy who lived with and shared a wall with Peyton during our time at school (through which he often heard Helmet cranked at full volume as late at 3 a.m.)—had succumbed to a particularly aggressive form of lung cancer.

Peyton and I had been shocked when we saw the first Facebook post that Max had been diagnosed, back in June. In between, we had sent him brief notes of encouragement and laughed when he posted the cover of the record Dopesmoker by the band Sleep with the caption, “Chemo music” while receiving treatment, and changed his profile picture to an illustration of an angry-eyed kid with a cigarette dangling from its lips. “Did Max never quit smoking?” we asked the air. “Regardless, shit shit shit.” While it felt like a punch to the gut each time we thought about it, there was so much else to think about.

We weren’t in close contact with Max, and hadn’t physically seen him in probably twenty years. We had that kind of semi-faux connection that Facebook breeds, comforting and easy, real in some ways, but not so real in others, better than nothing, for sure. I had seen photos of his sons, cute twin boys, and clicked “thumbs up” on his occasional posts with real affection, but we hadn’t exchanged more than one line of text in a couple of decades. It was 1992, maybe, when we first held band practice in the basement of Franklin Patterson Hall on the Hampshire College campus with two other classmates, and probably 1993 when we played our last show, calling ourselves Backwash. Classy. In 1994, he and Peyton graduated and went their separate ways.

But when I saw his wife’s post announcing his death on his Facebook page for his friends, and then talked about him with Peyton while crouching uncomfortably on a step outside my shared office space for a modicum of privacy, I fell apart—sobbing in a way that was far from acceptable for a professional setting. I spent more than half an hour in a stall in the women’s room, grabbing fistfuls of the single-ply toilet paper over and over, trying to get my act together, but couldn’t.

I felt especially lucky I work with a bunch of sensitive women when I told them had to go home.

I spent the day crying about Max, and also about Kevin, who died last month, and Jim, who died the month before. I also cried because, Why them and not us? and We’re not old enough for this yet! and What the fuck.

When they each left this life, I hadn’t felt like I could give myself the space. Or maybe I didn’t quite have the energy. Though I’m not usually one to shy away from looking at the dark matter of this life, I had far too many feelings and far too much else logistically to juggle. It was inconvenient. It felt almost wrong feeling so terrible too. Others were so much closer to Max and Kevin and Jim. I went through the familiar feeling of not deserving sadness. But when you ignore these things, they come back and bite. The pile-up was simply too much.

I allowed myself a whiskey at 10 a.m. And another at 10:30. I wanted to be toasting these guys, but instead I was just trying to calm down a little.

Each of their Facebook pages is still up, turned into little digital memorials for our 2016 social media way of life. They contain lots of notes and micro-memories and photographs. When we’re all so spread apart geographically, these virtual spots give us a sort of grave-like place to visit.

It does help a bit, even though it’s weird. To be able to find that old picture of Max and me, back when I had a nose ring and was just learning how to properly sing into a mic, back when he was showing me power chords and we were covering Black Sabbath songs badly and writing some originals badly and having a great time doing it. He’s looking over at me as if I don’t suck, I think. It’s nice. It reminds me who we were.

I go over and “visit” good ol’ Jim and Kevin while I’m online too. I hadn’t seen Jim in quite a while either—though only a couple of years, not 20—and I saw Kevin two days before he died. Still, it feels surreal that they are gone and also not gone due to this channel where fragments of their lives continue on in the Cloud like some kind of Star Trek thing we would never have imagined back in college.

These tiny souvenirs feel quite precious at the moment. The two pictures Max’s wife posted last night, the ones she took before his hair fell out from the chemo—one serious, one smiling—as she said, are a gift.

A Corgi Named Hank

IMG_3501Our friend Cassie found the four-year-old tri-colored low-rider at a pound in Nashville. She sent us pictures of him with his big warm brown eyes looking up at her through the metal bars of his kennel. The dog looked happy despite his confinement, and we were immediately smitten.

My husband Peyton and I had talked about getting a dog for years and he desperately wanted a corgi, not because he had one growing up, but because “they smile!” he said. I volunteered at a local humane society and couldn’t bring myself to purchase a dog from a breeder with so many homeless ones out there. Cassie had gone on the hunt for us and became our hero for discovering a purebred canine we could save, fulfilling both of our needs.

Once Peyton drove the corgi back to Massachusetts, the dog ran into our house as if he already knew it was home. He excitedly sniffed everything thoroughly while the cats scattered like roaches when a light switch is throw, hiding in dark corners. His physique was totally foreign to me; his long back, barrel-shaped torso, stubby legs and lack of tail didn’t fit the picture in my mind of “dog.” Despite my online research when trying to find a dog to adopt, I had never seen a corgi in person before.

Hank weighed in at forty pounds during his first vet check-up, easily ten pounds chubbier than recommended. The regimen required for him to lose a quarter of his body weight made him cranky at first, earning him the nickname Mr. Grumbles, but then turned him into an avid fan of lettuce spines and baby carrots as well as tennis-ball-retrieving and long hikes in the woods.

In addition to his thick double coat of gold and white fur, Hank has a black “saddle” on his back and a thin white blaze that runs from the top of his forehead to halfway down his nose. “It looks like someone poured a little cream on him!” Cassie said in her sweet Southern lilt, while I looked at him, imagining an odd dwarf horse. One of Hank’s ears always stands up tall like a soldier on command, the other usually flops sideways endearingly. He has a black olive nose, looks like he is wearing Egyptian eyeliner and really does smile.

When Hank goes downstairs, he hops, his fluffy white haunches bobbing like a rabbit’s backside. When Hank is very excited, he not only barks excessively, he wags his nubbin ferociously and we try not to laugh. When he wolfs down his dinner in seconds, we often say, “Corgis don’t know how to savor.” When Hank sleeps, he snores softly in a way that makes me incredibly sleepy.

Sometimes, he falls asleep on his back, white and pink belly skyward. His foxy snout points, upside down, in one direction as his petite back legs point in the other, hovering a few inches above the ground. His front legs curl in front of his chest and it looks as though he is dreaming that he is flying.


Another Year Older

Cat-card-2On my 43rd birthday, I woke up and looked in the mirror at my year-older self. I had a new giant, bright red pimple, worthy of a pizza-devouring teenager, the kind even cover-up can’t truly mask. When I went downstairs to fix my lunch, the big, fat avocado I had hoped to eat, one that had the perfect give of ripeness when gently squeezed, once cut, was entirely black inside, like one giant bruise. The new shoes I had bought myself as a present—Danskos that I had splurged on (even through eBay) because they are supposed to be wildly comfortable—were already giving me blisters by the time I got back from walking the dogs. I was, you might say, a little grumpy by then.

But when I arrived at my office, wishing I didn’t have to work, my boss presented me with a box of donuts and a jug of freshly squeezed orange juice. The department had made me a card with a silly graphic of cats and books—knowing I have too many of both, and am probably equally passionate about both. We sat at our big round worktable, usually reserved for meetings and laying out the next magazine, instead eating sticky sweets and licking our fingers and laughing. It was a good take two for the morning.

Throughout the day, I received 118 Facebook posts, many emails and a few texts, all from people I really like. It was nice. I had received exactly four old fashioned cards by snail mail, and the people who sent those get gold stars in Heaven (you know who you are!).

I waited all day to see if my brother, Tommy, would remember. Ever since our brother, David, died almost eight years ago, he’s tried. I think. David was the one who always, always remembered, and always, always called. Tommy never used to—but sometimes he does now, as if he is trying to fill in where David left off. But because he’s unpredictable, it almost feels worse than if he never said “Happy Birthday.” Because now I expect it—and a wise person once said, “Expectation is the death of serenity.” It is. Tommy didn’t remember.

I missed my David painfully hard. All day.

I bought myself what I consider an expensive bottle of wine. A $14 J. Lohr Cabernet. Drank it on the porch while I tinkered with the ukulele I received from my husband last birthday, which I have barely played since. Light, pretty tones came off of its strings and floated into the summery air despite my lack of skill.

My husband brought home my favorite pizza since we were too broke to go out. We ate in front of the TV indecorously, as I wanted to, and then followed our kid-like binge with large slices of the homemade lemon cake my mother had sent. This is a totally predictable ritual. Each year, she frets about getting it here on time, worries about what the level of freshness it will be when it arrives, wrings her hands over whether it will be crushed. She always sends it Priority, and it always arrives early, perfectly intact and utterly delicious.

My dad and stepmother, both church choir singers, called and sang “Happy Birthday” to me on my voicemail—with beautiful harmonies. It nearly made me cry.

“Now I want to hear 80s music,” I said to my husband, embracing the regressive tendencies the day had brought out in me. He found a Tom Petty concert on TV and we watched it all the way through. (My first record, incidentally, was Long After Dark. I bought it with my own money when I was nine.)

At the end of the night, I emailed my high school boyfriend, the one who was born on the same day and the same year as me, to say, “I have no idea how we ended up being 43!” We had celebrated our 16th and 17th birthdays together, for crying out loud. While we clearly weren’t meant to be together romantically forever, I’m so happy we are still friends, and I enjoy the ritual of touching base each year on our birthday. I remembered vividly emailing him on our 40th and it seemed impossible that three more years had passed.

This morning, I was pleased to see a message from him. “Well, I guess it doesn’t feel as old as 46. At that point, we’ll be closer to 50 than 40 (yikes),” he wrote in reply. True.

I suddenly wondered nervously if it would feel lightning-fast to get to that landmark, since the time seems to keep speeding up each year. Then I just hoped I would make it. I realize that getting older is a great privilege, and one not afforded to all. To have donuts and songs and kind messages—and even a terrible zit—makes for a decent day of living even if you don’t get everything you wished for.


Weird Rock Gratitude Post-Paris

1024px-Eagles_of_Death_Metal_on_stage_at_the_Commodore_Ballroom_July_20th_2009Last Friday night after eating a mellow dinner together in the kitchen, instead of going to a local rock show like we did in our twenties, my husband and both went upstairs—I to the bedroom with my laptop to work on an essay, he to his studio to work on his new record. Forty-something party animals on a weekend night.

When I settled in, I saw that I had an urgent text from my coworker. I manage a number of social media accounts for work and had a bunch of stuff scheduled to go out automatically promoting a conference, and she wrote, with all going on in Paris prob not a big priority right now.

Like millions of people who were online at the time I imagine, I Googled the question in my head, What’s happening in Paris? CNN had brief statements set up with bullet points of what they thought they knew, but it was all very sketchy, all still developing, and all very alarming. A few seconds later, my coworker wrote again: Think we should not tweet anything else conf-related tonight? Paris everywhere.

Agreed. Done. I wrote back. I spent the next 15 minutes deleting Facebook and Twitter posts. Then my attention went immediately to researching the situation unfolding in France. I saw a headline that made me yell to my husband in the room next door, “Baby? Do you know what’s going on in Paris? Come here!! Did you ever play the Bataclan?”

My guitarist husband, Peyton, spent the first 15 years of our relationship touring nationally and internationally, with his band and a handful of others. Some years, he was gone half the time. I never worried about him cheating on me like some of my girlfriends did. I worried about the vans he traveled in, overloaded with amps and guitars and too many people driving dead-tired or buzzed after a show, crashing. But I never worried about guns or bombs.

Peyton and I spent the next two hours watching TV coverage of the newest most alarming terrorist act together with banners running across the bottom of the screen reading unreal things like, “They were shooting at us like we were birds.” It was just the most recent occurrence of tremendous violence that we heard about, special only because it took place in one of the most metropolitan places in the world, not because lots of innocent people were killed and throngs more were terrified and scrambling.

But it felt much worse to me somehow. It felt really personal and close.

I’ve been a fan of the Eagles of Death Metal for a long time because I’ve been a fan of Queens of the Stone Age and Crooked Vultures and anything Josh Homme-related ever since I saw QOTSA headline a show in Boston years ago when I’d really gone to see And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead… and they were subsequently blown out of the water by this band that my friend who took me to the show said I absolutely had to see. It’s been a love affair ever since.

So, like any fan, I was sad. As a concertgoer, I was freaked. Like anyone who likes to travel internationlly, I was stunned. But as the wife of a traveling musician, I was horrified in a very personal way.

While I knew we didn’t actually know those guys, they are just like so many people that we do know who could have been playing there. When I got really honest with myself, I realized that it could have easily been not just a friend, but my own husband in that club.

“What’s going to happen to these guys?” Peyton and I pondered from the safety of our sofa.

When I checked the Eagles of Death Metal Facebook page, I found the post: We are still currently trying to determine the safety and whereabouts of all our band and crew. Someone had made a comment that the wife of the drummer had heard from him and the band members were safe. I imagined exactly what she must be feeling, considering that it could just as easily have been me having to tell the Washington Post that the band was OK. Peyton had flown to the UK for a European tour on 9-11 and I’ll never forget the panic I felt.

The next day, like millions of other people, I decided to buy the new album, only to find it sold out. And every other Eagles of Death Metal album I looked at was sold out too. It was a rock and roll form of solidarity.

Two days later, Peyton told me that all wasn’t actually well with the band. Their merch guy had been killed. It was someone that he didn’t know well, but had met a couple of times, a good guy. Too close to home.

I read many reports in the couple of days following in which journalists had to explain that the band’s name is a joke, that they aren’t really death metal or about death at all. I sighed, exasperated for them. They never asked for this kind of exposure, where everyone’s grandma and her dog knows their name, and only in a way that will forever be tainted with bloodshed and fear.

I am so grateful in my selfish way that, despite never having the fame he deserved, my husband is at home on the couch not experiencing this kind of recognition. That I can hold him close and know he is safe in my arms, at least for this moment. That there aren’t media outlets all over the world writing pieces trying to parse why his band was targeted. That politicians and strategists aren’t talking about a project he came up over a beer with some friends in someone’s studio one night that was a helluva lot of fun for years until suddenly any mention of it was to talk about one of the worst things that ever happened.

Hot Pepper Jelly

Hot Pepper JellyI came across a small jar of homemade jelly in the pantry a couple of weeks ago, the kind sealed with a silver Ball canning lid and ring, the kind grandmothers have used for “putting up” jelly, chutney, tomatoes and the like for decades. Like most, this one had a little sticker affixed to it with a decorative design around the edge and handwriting in the middle to remind me what the jar contained and when it was made: “Hot Pepper Jelly 8.11.”

I’ve been the lucky recipient of lots of lovely canned delicacies from friends and family over the years. Just recently I got spicy pickles from the neighbor across the street who grows her own cucumbers and peach salsa from a friend who belongs to a fruit farm. I’ve become obsessed with the exceedingly tasty apricot preserves a former coworker started selling and enjoyed my mom’s lemon jewel marmalade at Christmas. I find these preserved treasures with some regularity in the pantry, so I’m not sure how I overlooked this jar until now.

The handwriting is so familiar that it hurts to look at. It’s the simple lettering of my friend Kim, who died in February.

Looking at it now, I remember she had been canning all kinds of things that summer. We belonged to the same farm, which had produced a great bounty and we all had way too much produce to know what to do with. The same day she put this jar into my hand, she also gave me onion and blueberry jams, which were consumed some time back.

I’m not sure why the hot pepper jelly is still around four years later. I love pepper jelly, so maybe I was saving it – I’ve always had hoarding tendencies with things I like. Lots of people don’t know what to do with it, but Texas natives like myself know that if you need an excellent (and extremely easy) appetizer, you simply pour pepper jelly over a hunk of cream cheese and serve it with crackers. (We swore by Wheat Thins in my family.)

Kim might have given it to me for Christmas at my husband’s and my annual holiday party in 2011. She never went to any party empty-handed, and she went to a lot of parties. Usually she brought wine or cookies (or both), but that year, it must have been her homemade canned goods.

The pepper jelly made the move from our old house to this one two years ago. When I packed it up, I bet I planned to open it at the next holiday party and serve it with cream cheese and crackers so that she could appreciate it. But for some reason, she didn’t make it to the party the year we moved, and last year we didn’t have one.

2011 was the year after Kim and I stopped working together. We had been co-managers in the marketing department of a credit union for four years doing complimentary but very different jobs. She did the outward-facing work of “business development,” something we jokingly referred to as the politician-type job of shaking hands and kissing babies. I did the creative work – ads, newsletters, website, email – behind the scenes. To me, it was a work marriage made in heaven.

I am shy in big groups; Kim was the opposite. Petite and blonde with a cute turned-up nose that defined the word “pert,” she absolutely bubbled in the presence of others. Kim liked people in a way I don’t, always finding something interesting to talk about and laughing as easily as she breathed. When we went to an event together, I would huddle closely to her for safety and she would push me into the crowd insisting, “Go shake hands with three people you don’t know!”

When my brother died, Kim was bereft for me. She’d experienced plenty of loss of her own, including a dear boyfriend named Tommy early on, who died in a motorcycle crash. She told me how every time she saw a goldfinch, she thought it was Tommy. She offered me her unused vacation time when I got stuck out of town with my family longer than expected for my brother’s memorial. Her sympathy was what I needed and what I didn’t get from many others. Upon my return home, I was surprised by a kitchen full of dozens of multicolored paper hearts cut out of construction paper. Kim had broken in and pasted them up everywhere – on cabinet doors, countertops, the stairway railing – like the most glorious, loving, kindergarten project you’d ever seen. I kept them up for weeks.

When our boss got crazy, she and I both quit within two weeks of each other out of solidarity.

Last spring, she was working a new job with a mutual friend – a friend I made because of her – and he had a major stroke. It was terrifying for her, as she was the one he called after collapsing at home. She was the one who then called the ambulance, his wife, their boss, his friends. She called me and asked me to fill in for him on some design work. We were so afraid we would lose him, but amazingly, he recovered beautifully after some time.

Kim started having health concerns of her own a few months later. I knew her stomach was bothering her and she was having some tests done. The last time we met for a drink, she didn’t order a glass of wine, but had seltzer instead. I heard from a mutual friend that she landed at a specialty hospital in Worcester for a few weeks. I emailed her and asked what was going on. “Kidney failure,” she typed back. She was having dialysis.

That seemed rather dire, but when she emailed and texted me, she sounded so upbeat, so normal, so Kim. I asked if I should drive out and she said no. I asked if she needed anything and she said no. I thought we would just get together when she got home, and we meant to, we really did. But somehow it just didn’t happen.

Then the friend who had the stroke, the one we had been so scared of losing less than a year before, sent me a message late on a Sunday night in early February. He said, out of the blue, that he didn’t think she was going to make it.

It was so sudden and so devastating. In that moment, I realized that it never even crossed my mind that Kim could die. I had never met anyone so alive. She was 51. She had three vibrant kids and more adoring friends than anyone I’d ever met. She wasn’t even that sick, was she?? It didn’t make any sense.

I turned into a frenzied mess, running up and down the stairs, texting and calling her friends, crying all over my husband, going through a whole box of Kleenex, punching the pillows on my bed, panicking, sweating despite the cold, and needing to do something, anything, and it was all much too late. There was nothing I could do. I was told by her best friend, “it’s family time at the hospital.” I finally fell asleep that night. She never woke up.

I missed Kim a little extra on her birthday in June – we used to celebrate together since we were less than two weeks apart. A goldfinch flitted over me that day, strangely close, and I wondered.

All I have is this little jar of hot pepper jelly as a souvenir. I love that it is petite and spicy, just like she was. I wish I had more, just like I wish I had more time with her, but I’m grateful for it all the same. At this year’s holiday party, I’m going to get a big chunk of cream cheese and pour it all on top and serve it up with crackers – Wheat Thins – with a glass of red wine in hand, and I will toast her, my beautiful friend, the one and only, Kim.

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