Two years after my mom died, I met my two best friends, Kelly and Paige, at the UCLA family camp in the San Bernardino Mountains where we all worked in the summer before we graduated. Kelly made french fries at the sandwich shop and Paige ran the art center and I organized games for elementary school kids. We all lived together with a few dozen other college kids in a dorm with walls so thin we could hear every word of each other’s conversations, even with the doors closed. “Someone is making out next door to me, but I’m not sure who!” I’d scream-whisper to one of them in the lobby at midnight, as we’d laugh about the previous night’s antics before challenging each other to jump in the lake completely naked.
But the fun at camp was dampened as the anniversary of my mom’s death approached at the end of the summer. That day I wanted to lock myself in my room and be alone during my break time. I talked a bit with Kelly about how I didn’t understand much about my mom’s death, except that I was still so sad about it. Even then, Kelly was a natural counselor and somehow was able to coax me into sitting with her and Paige at lunchtime, even if we didn’t say much. Later in the day, Paige knocked on my door with two balloons. “I have an idea,” she said, leading me outside.
Paige’s 8-year-old sister had died a few years prior, something I found out about when I asked about the tattoo of Tinkerbell she had on her shoulder. “It’s for my sister,” she said, simply.
We walked out to a clearing. “Sometimes, when I want to send a message to my sister, I write to her on a balloon,” she said, and handed me a pink balloon and a marker. “Do you want to write to your mom?” I sat down and wrote something about how I missed my mom and how I wished she could see what I was doing. I wrote about the way the 10-year-old boys drove me crazy with their energy and the number of hot dogs I ate each week and the job I thought I might have someday. When I finished, I looked up to see that Paige was waiting with her balloon, filled with writing to her sister. “Now it’s time to let them go.”
I did, and it floated for a while as I cried a little. But all at once, the wind picked up and whisked my balloon straight into a tree where it popped. I jumped. Paige laughed and hugged me and said, “I guess she got the message right away.”
That night, I sat on the porch of the dorm, drank a beer with Kelly and Paige and talked about the boys we each liked and the road trip we wanted to take to Vegas and the way the moon was so bright when there was no other light around.
Almost two decades later, Kelly and Paige were in my house on the day after I buried my husband. Everyone else had left, and we sat at the dining room table as my dad unloaded the dishwasher in the kitchen and talked to each of the kids about the upcoming week. “You’ll be back at school, same as normal, ace!” I briefly heard him say to Austin, the dishes clanking while they talked.
I was reading through the many emails and texts that were pouring in from everyone while my friends thumbed through a pile of paperwork that rose at least eight inches off the table. Paige had on her glasses, pointedly looking for legal documents, and Kelly searched for any important pieces of paper that could help me in the future. I hadn’t remembered them telling me that they’d be staying after the funeral, but there they were, missing their kids and their careers to sort through documents that told me where Shawn had invested our retirement and other sorts of things that somehow I didn’t know. They didn’t say it, but I think we all felt a bit of deja-vu, facing grief again. But they were the best people to be there, as Kelly had unsurprisingly become a therapist and Paige was a lawyer. Months later, when I would talk about the time period right after Shawn died, I’d often tell other people, “If your husband has to die, it’s helpful if your two best friends are a lawyer and a therapist!”
A few hours later, I sat down to dinner with my dad, my kids and Kelly and Paige. We ate some sort of cheese casserole that came in a glass dish with the last name of a neighbor on the side. My kids picked at the food, and I thought about how we’d probably just all switch to eating cereal in a few minutes. We’d eaten a lot of cereal in the time period before and after my mom died, too. For years, my dad still sometimes suggested it as a meal, especially when it was just the two of us.
The doorbell rang. My dad wiped his hands on his napkin as he started to get up. “I’ll get it,” he said.
“No, I can do it,” I said. My dad was actually eating the casserole. I hadn’t touched mine. “I’m not hungry, anyway,” I said, pushing aside the extra cheese that my stomach couldn’t process.
I went to the door. A stranger stood outside with something large behind him. “Hello?” I said as I opened the door.
The man who stood outside my door was short and completely bald. He wore a bright white shirt and had an official-looking badge. “I have a bed here for…” He paused, looking down at the paper. “Let’s see. It’s for Shawn Brimley.”
I looked just beyond him to see a collapsed hospital bed. It was devoid of sheets. I wondered how he had gotten it up the steps all by himself.
“We don’t need it. Shawn Brimley is my husband,” I said, using the present tense. “But he died last Tuesday.”
The man’s face changed. “I’m sorry,” he said. “Oh, gosh, I’m so sorry.” At that moment, Kelly came up behind me. She stood in the doorway, signaling, I suppose, that the man shouldn’t try to bring the bed inside, even if that’s what his orders said to do. She looked kindly at him, but her body didn’t move. He looked down, embarrassed.
“It’s okay,” I said. “You didn’t know.”
The man awkwardly shoved his paperwork into his pocket. “I didn’t know,” he said, and then he caught a glimpse of Tommy, who had walked up to see what was going on.
“Mama,” Tommy said to me.
“Hi baby,” I said, and picked him up. He looked blankly at the man, and then rested his head on my shoulder.
The man froze for a second, before speaking again. “Oh, ma’am,” he said, starting to sweat even as the icy wind whipped through the door where he stood. “I’m just so sorry. So sorry.”
He turned, and went to move the bed. I shut the door. I didn’t watch to see how he got it back down the steps and into his van.
Paige came up behind me and Kelly. She gestured at the wall.
“Do you need that?” Paige asked, pointing at the large container of hand sanitizer that I secured to the wall by the door during Shawn’s hospitalization.
All week I’d been bumping into it, a physical reminder of illness and death. “I hate that,” I said.
“Of course you do,” Kelly said, putting her hand on mine.
But Paige didn’t move towards me. Instead, she raised both of her hands, gripped the sides of the hand sanitizer container and pulled with all of her might. In one big grunt, she ripped it off of the wall, pulling large pieces of plaster with it.
“Done!” she said, throwing the container towards the trash. She whipped her head back and took a deep breath, steadying herself. “Sorry about the hole.” She gestured towards the wall.
I looked at the missing paint and plaster. “It’s better now,” I said.