This morning in Brooklyn, there is rain. It darkens the cement of the sidewalks and slickens the unswept leaves. It annoys the commuters as they hurry to the subways and buses, caught off-guard by such chilly assault after two days of spring-like warmth. It lays a cotton-thin blanket of fog over the snarling pre-work traffic of the BQE. It shortens the dogs’ walks, their owners tugging gently on the leashes, leading them back home.
Today, while the rain taps against the windows of a hospital in Brooklyn, they will remove the tubes keeping my friend Sylvie alive since the seizure that stopped her heart a few days ago. Today, those of us whose lives intersected with hers will say goodbye.
I first met Sylvie in Lamaze class at St. Vincent’s hospital. When the boy surprised us by coming three weeks early, before the Lamaze class had even finished, she and her husband Vid came to visit and ask questions. Years later, I was surprised to run into her in Prospect Park. Our sons attended the same elementary school, and Sylvie and I often took the boys to the park on nice afternoons or out for a hot chocolate when the weather did not cooperate or to the zoo, enjoying the comforts of motherhood shared. There were times of sitting at her vintage red Formica dining table drinking bubbly water (She bought Pellegrino by the case) and eating the kids’ leftover animal crackers while laughing about one absurdity or another. Sylvie had a truly dark sense of humor, Beckett dark, and I loved that about her.
She was a tattooed, subversive French-Belgian New Yorker with in-laws in India and New Zealand, a real world traveler. She had an appreciation for and involvement in the edgy, underground arts world. She was as comfortable discussing feminism and the work of Kara Walker and Karen Finley as she was picking out paint colors for her living room or organizing Art Day or the plant sale at our elementary school. She loved French comics, and she shared this love with her son. She delighted in watching her daughter run around making the small, interesting discoveries that toddlers do, often erupting in laughter when the girl would escape from her diaper or put odd things on her head. Many was the morning that Sylvie and I would meet up at either Tea Lounge or Ladybird Bakery and gab over coffee before starting our daily routines.
We did not always agree. Sylvie had little regard for the arcane rules of social politesse. Or rather, she was not bothered by them—she was inquisitive and direct in the way that children can be. The straight line of untainted honesty. One day, in the midst of suffering through the writing of The Sweet Far Thing, when I was losing my mind, I breezed into the schoolyard at 3:15, feeling harried and hunted and irritable as all hell.
“How are you?” she said.
“If I were any more stressed out, we’d be having this conversation on the ceiling,” I snarked.
She looked at me and said, matter-of-factly, “Yeah, but you’re always stressed out, Libba.”
“Fuck you, too, Sylvie,” I said, pissed off. And she laughed, because she enjoyed it when you didn’t try to pretty things up. When you just…were. And then we went to my house with the kids and had something to eat. She had, quite rightly, reminded me to get over myself. In the feint-and-parry world that can often distinguish our zip code, it was nice to feel that there was no pretending with Sylvie. She was consistent on that score. It was a comfort.
On Monday night, I sat with Sylvie in a cramped ICU room whose boundaries were drawn by flimsy pale curtains. Inside, it was the half-dark of hospital rooms, which, like cities, never seem to sleep. Sylvie lay peacefully in bed, a tube taped to her mouth, a ventilator raising and lowering her chest mechanically with a slightly jerky rise and fall as if it were a dancer not entirely sure of the steps and trying to catch up. I stared at the computer screen readout of her vital signs as if I could divine some meaning there—heart rate, blood pressure, jagged Etch-A-Sketch lines of functioning that I did not understand.
There were pictures of her children on the wall—a school photo of her 10-year-old son and a candid of her 3-year-old daughter—and a profile shot of her husband. A child’s drawing, colorful, cheerful dots of paint dripped across the white paper sky with abandon, was Scotch-taped above a medical advisory. The radio in her room played some godawful bubblegum pop, which Sylvie would have hated. I joked that I would stage a coup and put on Joy Division. On the other side of the glass, doctors and nurses moved indifferently, used as they are to the daily occurrence of tragedy.
I did not know what to say. I did not know what to do. I sat on my hands and stared at her swollen eyes, her lower lip pulled down by the angle of the breathing tube. After a while, a nurse in blue scrubs came to change the saline bag, moving silently, finessing both the IV and the weight of grief. First do no harm. She said nothing but gave me a sympathetic half-smile, an acknowledgment that what was, was; what would be, would be. No more magical thinking. Accept. Accept and continue. Give comfort. Learn compassion. Be here now—not distracted by the radio static of work to be done and chores to be seen to and not forgetting to pick up milk and remembering to email so-and-so about the what’s-it. It is what the Buddhists and the holy ones encourage us to do, to be mindful. Let the tears come; the grief we feel is the price we pay for caring. This is the painful course correction death bequeaths. Do not worry, you will forget and relearn time and again.
The nurse left as quietly as she’d come. I wept then. A steady flow of tears I could not seem to wipe away fast enough, the salt on my lips, my nose running, the act of swallowing sound painful, a great ballooning in the throat, sorrow pushing with determined hands against the doors I’d hastily erected there. Eventually, I worked up the courage to stroke Sylvie’s hair and then to hold her hand, which felt puffy and slightly hard but surprisingly warm. I said words I wanted to say to her. I said goodbye.
I’ve debated whether or not to post this. I’m debating it even as I type these words. But writing is how I make sense of the world, how I make sense of the nonsensical. It is how I try to come to terms with what is unfair and yet, what will be, whether I like it or not. And so, this morning, I write because it is the only thing over which I can exercise control. I write because I am human and, as life should be shared, so, too, should grief.
I am reminded of one of my favorite poems about loss, “Lament,” by Edna St. Vincent Millay:
Your father is dead.
From his old coats
I’ll make you little jackets;
I’ll make you little trousers
From his old pants.
There’ll be in his pockets
Things he used to put there,
Keys and pennies
Covered with tobacco;
Dan shall have the pennies
To save in his bank;
Anne shall have the keys
To make a pretty noise with.
Life must go on,
And the dead be forgotten;
Life must go on,
Though good men die;
Anne, eat your breakfast;
Dan, take your medicine;
Life must go on;
I forget just why.
Life must go on. I forget just why.
This morning in Brooklyn, there is rain. It blesses the heads of the pre-schoolers snaking up the sidewalks in a human chain. It beats a gentle rhythm against the windshields of the parked cars. It heralds the coming of winter waiting in its armory. It baptizes the streets, washes the gutters clean, sends tiny rivers down and away with surety, toward a great joining, a place we do not see from where we stand.
It is rain and it will not be stopped.
It is rain and rain and rain.
We must learn to live with it.