Fly Away Page 9


October of 2006. The funeral. I close my eyes and remember being in the middle of the St. Cecilia’s parking lot all …

alone. There are cars all around me, parked neatly in their spots. A lot of SUVs, I notice.

Kate has given me an iPod as her goodbye gift and a letter. I am supposed to listen to “Dancing Queen” and dance all by myself. I don’t want to do it, but what choice do I have, and really, when I hear the words you can dance, for a brief, wondrous moment, the music takes me away from here.

And then it is over.

I see her family coming toward me. Johnny; Kate’s parents, Margie and Bud; her kids; her brother, Sean. They look like prisoners of war freed at the end of a long death march—broken-spirited and surprised to be alive. We gather together and someone says something—what, I don’t know. I answer. We pretend to be okay for each other. Johnny is angry—how could it be any other way?

“People are coming to the house,” he says.

“It’s what she wanted,” Margie says. (How can she be standing? Her grief outweighs her by a hundred pounds.)

The thought of it—a so-called celebration of Kate’s life—makes me feel sick.

I was not good at the whole making-death-a-positive-transition thing. How could I? I wanted her to fight to the last breath. It was a mistake. I should have listened to her fear, comforted her. Instead I’d promised her that everything would be okay, that she would heal.

But I’d made another promise, too. At the end. I’d sworn to take care of her family, to be there for her children, and I would not let her down again.

I follow Margie and Bud to their Volvo. Inside, the car smells like my childhood at the Mularkeys’—menthol cigarettes, Jean Nate perfume, and hair spray.

I imagine Katie beside me again, in the backseat of the car, with her dad driving, and her mom blowing smoke out the open window. I can almost hear John Denver singing about his Rocky Mountain high.

The four miles that stretch between the Catholic church and the Ryan house seem to take forever. Everywhere I look, I see Kate’s life. The drive-through coffee stand she frequented, the ice-cream shop that made her favorite dulce de leche, the bookstore that was always her first stop at Christmastime.

And then we are there.

The yard has a wild, untended look to it. Overgrown. Katie had always been “going to” learn to garden.

We park and I get out. Kate’s brother, Sean, comes up beside me. He is five years younger than Kate and me … or than me, I guess … but he is so slight and nerdy and hunched that he looks older. His hair is thinning and his glasses are out of date, but behind the lenses his green eyes are so like Katie’s that I hug him.

Afterward, I step back, waiting for him to speak. He doesn’t, and neither do I. We have never had much to say to each other and today is obviously not a day to begin a conversation. Tomorrow he will return to his tech job in the Silicon Valley, where I imagine him living alone, playing video games at night, and eating sandwiches for every meal. I don’t know if this is even close to his life, but it’s how I see it.

He steps away and I am left alone at the car, staring up at a house that has always felt like my home, too.

I can’t go in.

I can’t.

But I have to.

I draw in a deep breath. If there’s one thing I know how to do, it’s go on. I have perfected the art of denial, haven’t I? I have always been able to ignore my pain, smile, and go on. That’s what I have to do now.

For Kate.

I go inside and join Margie in the kitchen. Together, we go about the business of setting up for a party. I move fast, becoming one of those bustling women who flit like a hummingbird. It is the only way I can keep going. Don’t think about her. Don’t remember. Margie and I become a work crew, wordlessly readying this house for a party neither of us wants to attend. I set up easels throughout the house and place photographs on them, the pictures Kate had chosen to reflect her life. I can’t look at any of them.

I am hanging on to my composure one indrawn breath at a time when I hear the doorbell ring. Behind me, footsteps thud on hardwood.

It is time.

I turn and do my best to smile, but it is uneven and impossible to maintain. I move through the crowd carefully, pouring wine and taking plates away. Every minute seems like a triumph of will. As I move, I hear snippets of conversation. People are talking about Kate, sharing memories. I don’t listen—it hurts too much and I am close to losing it now—but the stories are everywhere. As I hear her bid at the Rotary auction, I realize that the people in this room are talking about a Kate I didn’t know, and at that, sadness darts deep. And more. Jealousy.

A woman in an ill-fitting and outdated black dress comes up to me and says, “She talked about you a lot.”

I smile at that, grateful. “We were best friends for more than thirty years.”

“She was so brave during her chemo, wasn’t she?”

I can’t answer that. I wasn’t there for her, not then. In the three decades of our friendship, there was a two-year blip when a fight escalated. I had known how depressed Kate was and I’d tried to help, but as is usual for me, I went about it all wrong. In the end, I hurt Kate deeply and I didn’t apologize.

In my absence, my best friend battled cancer and had a double mastectomy. I was not there for her when her hair fell out or when her test results turned bad or when she decided to stop treatment. I will regret it for as long as I breathe.

“That second round was brutal,” says another woman, who looks like she has just come from yoga, in black leggings, ballet flats, and an oversized black cardigan.

“I was there when she shaved her head,” another woman says. “She was laughing, calling herself GI Kate. I never saw her cry.”

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I swallow hard.

“She brought lemon bars to Marah’s play, remember?” someone else says. “Only Katie would bring treats when she was…”

“Dying,” someone else says quietly, and finally the women stop talking.

I can’t take any more of this. Kate had asked me to keep people smiling. No one livens up a party like you, Tul. Be there for me.

Always, girlfriend.

I break free of the women and go over to the CD player. This old-man jazz music isn’t helping. “This is for you, Katie Scarlett,” I say, and pop a CD into the slot. When the music starts, I crank up the volume.

I see Johnny across the room. The love of her life, and, sadly, the only man in my own. The only man I’ve ever been able to count on. When I look at him, I see how battered he is, how broken. Maybe if you didn’t know him you wouldn’t see it—the downward shoulders, the place he’d missed in his morning shave, the lines beneath his eyes that had been etched there by the string of nights when he hadn’t slept. I know he has no comfort to offer me, that he has been scrubbed bare by grief.

I’ve known this man for most of my life, first as my boss and then as my best friend’s husband. For all the big events of both our lives, we’ve been together, and that’s a comfort to me. Just seeing him eases my loneliness a little. I need that, to feel less alone on this day when I’ve lost my best friend. Before I can go to him, he turns away.

The music, our music, pours like elixir into my veins, fills me. Without even thinking, I sway to the beat. I know I should smile, but my sadness is waking again, uncoiling. I see the way people are looking at me. Staring. As if I’m inappropriate somehow. But they are people who didn’t know her. I was her best friend.

The music, our music, brings her back to me in a way no spoken words ever could.

“Katie,” I murmur as if she were beside me.

I see people backing away from me.

I don’t care what they think. I turn and there she is.

Kate.

I come to a stop in front of an easel. On it is a picture of Kate and me. In it, we are young and smiling, with our arms looped around each other. I can’t remember when it was taken—the nineties, judging by my completely unflattering “Rachel” haircut and vest and cargo pants.

Grief pulls the legs out from underneath me and I fall to my knees. The tears I have been holding back all day burst out of me in great, wracking sobs. The music changes to Journey’s Don … n’t stop bee-lieving and I cry even harder.

How long am I there? Forever.

Finally, I feel a hand on my shoulder, and a gentle touch. I look up and see Margie through my tears. The tenderness in her gaze makes me cry again.

“Come on,” she says, helping me to my feet. I cling to her, let her help me into the kitchen, which is busy with women doing dishes, and then into the laundry room, where it is quiet. We hold on to each other but say nothing. What is there to say? The woman we love is gone.

Gone.

And suddenly I am beyond tired. I am exhausted. I feel myself drooping like a fading tulip. Mascara stings my eyes; my vision is still watery with tears. I touch Margie’s shoulder, noticing how thin and fragile she has become.

I follow her out of the shadowy laundry room and make my way back into the living room, but I know instantly that I can’t be here anymore. To my shame, I can’t do what Kate asked of me. I can’t pretend to celebrate her life. Me, who has spent a lifetime pretending to be fine-good-great, can’t do that now. It is too soon.

* * *

The next thing I know, it’s morning. Before I even open my eyes it hits me. She’s gone.

I groan out loud. Is this my new life, this constant rediscovery of loss?

As I get out of bed, I feel a headache start. It gathers behind my eyes, pulses. I have cried in my sleep again. It is an old childhood habit that grief has reanimated. It reminds me that I am fragile.

It is a state of being that offends me, but I can’t seem to find the strength to combat it.

My bedroom feels foreign to me, too. I have hardly been here in the last five months. In June, when I found out about Kate’s cancer, I changed my life in an instant; I walked away from everything—my mega-successful TV talk show and my condominium—and dedicated my life to caring for my best friend.

My phone rings and I stumble toward it, grateful for any distraction. The caller ID says Ryan and my first thought is, Kate’s calling, and I feel a spike of joy. Then I remember.

I pick up, hearing the strain in my voice as I say, “Hello?”

“What happened to you last night?” Johnny says without even bothering to say hi.

“I couldn’t take it,” I say, slumping onto the floor by my bed. “I tried.”

“Yeah. Big surprise.”

“What does that mean?” I sit up. “The music? It’s what Kate wanted.”

“Did you even talk to your goddaughter?”

“I tried,” I say, stung. “She only wanted to be with her friends. And I read the boys a story before bed. But…” My voice cracks. “I couldn’t stand it, Johnny. Being without her…”

“You were okay for the two years of your fight.”

I draw in a sharp breath. He has never said anything like this before. In June, when Kate called and I came running to the hospital, Johnny welcomed me back into the family without a word. “She forgave me. And believe me, I was not okay.”

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