"Adri and Zoe's grandma got sick," I said, "and some kinds of sick don't always get better."
"What happened to Zoe's grandma?"
"You know how some kinds of sick you feel in your nose? And some kinds you feel in your tummy? Well, Zoe's grandma got a kind of sick called cancer, and it was in her breasts."
SI reached over and put her hand on my chest, tenderly grazed my skin.
"It's okay, honey. Mommy's fine."
"Did she go to a doctor?" DD asked.
"She did, honey, but it didn't get better. The sick moved from her breasts into her bones and brain." I breathed shallowly, and made eye contact with M for the briefest moment.
Is this the time? I wondered. Surely, this cannot be the right time to tell my children about Daddy's brain cancer. This is the worst time. They'll be sure Daddy is going to die. This is not the time.
My eyes prickled. "The cancer got into her brain, and then she couldn't get better. And so we're going to go to her funeral on Sunday, and see Zoe and Adri and Zoe's mommy and daddy and Uncle Dan and Aunt Amy. But you need to use your best Princess Manners. Okay?"
"Because everyone will be sad."
"Because Zoe's grandma died?"
"Why did she die?"
I held my breath for an instant. Because sometimes, it feels like God is cruel? Because it was time for her to die? Because she was tired and she fought a long battle, but lived long enough to see her three sons married and settled down? "Because sometimes when people are sick they don't get better."
On Sunday we were late.
We're always late. It's one of the drawbacks of having three kids in less than three years. We sped along the freeway as quickly as Sunday morning traffic would allow.
The whole drive, I reminded the children of their manners.
"It's very important. This is a sad day for everyone, and you need to remember your Princess Manners. No running, no yelling, remember any more?"
"Always say please and thank you!" SI offered.
"Don't throw things!" DD suggested.
"Good job, girls."
We sat in the back of the funeral parlor, on overstuffed couches covered in throw cushions. The girls played with their My Little Ponies and I bounced RH gently on my knee. She babbled loudly a time or two, but they were mostly quiet, and polite, and respectful, and I was proud.
The rabbi told us the last words Rollie spoke to her son, my good friend, when he told her he didn't want her to die.
"It's going to be okay. It's going to be okay. It's going to be okay."
That summed her up to me. I'd known her a long time. She was a terrifyingly perfect woman. A doctor, the mother of three boys, an incredible cook and fashion forward. The first time I met her, my friend had brought me home so I would have a place to go to High Holy Days services. She fed me, she joked with me, and although their was something imperial in her manner that made her feel she was towering over me and I was only a child, I always felt welcome.
I saw her at her son's wedding and her grandchildren's birthdays. I saw her at occasional holiday celebrations when I was too poor or too busy to travel home to my own family. She always seemed content to add another chair to the table.
Her youngest son was married only six weeks before. She barely made it through the reception before she was in the hospital with a stroke.
"It's going to be okay."
Of course it was. Because she was the person who always made it okay. She was ready.
As we approached the graveside, Adri saw the girls. Her face lit with happiness. I understood- at ten years old, she knew what happened. She knew she had lost her grandma forever. But she was a child, and she was alone. And now my children, who were too young to understand grief, would play with her. Zoe, who was younger still, stayed at home.
I watched Adri vacillate between happiness and profound sadness, oblivious of their contradictions. It was hard to breathe, watching pure emotion without the adult filter of self-consciousness.
We sat shiva with the family all afternoon. The three girls disappeared to play with Adri's dollhouse, where they happily ignored the sad adults. I was grateful my children could help their friend this way. I was grateful that by playing "pass the baby" downstairs with RH, I could spread a little joy among the adults.
Adri ran up to me, informed me that she had taken the girls to the potty (pride beaming from every pore) and the SI had pooed, "In Grandma and Grandpa's bathroom," and needed my help. She stopped to play with the baby, and I went upstairs alone.
I followed the sounds of my children's laughter into the bedroom. I tried not to notice Rollie's things set out, I tried harder not to notice his. Her widower, Adri and Zoe's grandpa, whose grief cut into parts of me I try to pretend don't exist.
I walked into the bathroom and cleaned SI. She was so proud to be sitting on the big potty, and I hugged my children so tight and sent them back to play, and as I followed my eyes landed on Rollie's vanity and I froze.
I stared at the wig on its stand before the mirror, and the room went airless.
I stared, and I cried, because I knew she would have hated for me to see it, but she was beyond the cares of breaches of privacy or propriety or decorum. She had a house of grown sons and a husband who wept openly together, her sons slumped against their wives as those strong young women held them up. Strong, like her. Her sons couldn't help but find women that emulated this one, essential part of Rollie.
"It's going to be okay."
Tonight I'm taking my children to LaLa's Relay For Life. Because LaLa also got sick in her breasts. She also fought the cancer, and she won.
Her son was young, barely in high school. She wasn't ready.
"Why did Zoe's grandma not get better, but LaLa did?"
"I don't know, honey. But you don't need to worry about your Princess manners this time. This time you can yell and clap and shout because everybody is going to be so happy."
I pictured LaLa in her wig at my wedding. I pictured Zoe's grandma's wig on its stand.
I pictured M, bald, his scar red and shiny and puckered in the crook of its curl. Curving from in front of his ear to create two thirds of a circle that ended again over his forehead. I pictured it beneath my hands as I gently scrubbed the blood that had been caked on for over a week out of his hair, knowing that in a few weeks his hair would fall out anyway. I remember touching each one, prying off the clay colored crust, reminding myself how thick and full it was, carefully flaking away congealed blood behind his ear.
I pictured M, his head on my lap, as day after day I tweezed the ingrown hairs in the scars of his staple holes, cleaning the infections gently.
I pictured M, newly bald and exhausted from radiation, smiling broadly for our "Save the Date" postcards. Six years ago to the day.
I pictured Zoe's grandparents, caring for each other through the last month.
I pictured my father's face when I was barely older than Adri and fell asleep on an armchair waiting for him to come home, waking me up to tell me his mother had died from cancer.
I pictured my friend, weeping into his wife's shoulder at the graveside.
I pictured LaLa, her hair curled, grinning in her sparkling mantle of earrings, necklaces, bracelets, and hair bows, with arms thrown wide to hug my children.
I pictured M dancing with RH at her wedding in the terrifyingly not-too-distant future.
"It's going to be okay."