17 June 2008

It's Probably Nothing

I found out today that my friend Sue in England died.

The details are not yet in, but from what I know it goes something like this: It’s a Tuesday early in June, and at 6 AM the edges of the green green grassy hills of Kent are lit with chartreuse morning light. A big, old stone house sits in the middle of a pasture, in a little valley, and as we peer inside, a pleasant-looking fiftyish schoolteacher is just waking up. She’s wearing an oversized T-shirt with a red and blue media company logo on it, and tries to gather her wits about her. She winds bundles of mahogany hair around her fingertips as wakefulness takes hold, and then stretches as she yawns.

Her husband Ian snuggles up closer to her, snoring lightly. He has a great head of gray curls. She shoves him playfully and he rolls away. She tosses a pillow onto his head. He grabs the pillow and relishes the feeling of his head sandwiched between the crisp, cool linens. He’s a video engineer who works long shifts half the week and is off the other half, so Tuesday morning Sue lets him sleep.

She relaxes for awhile in her quiet married king-sized bed with a cup of coffee made fresh from a bedside alarm clock/coffee maker; there’s even a small fridge below, in the nightstand, so she’s got milk without going downstairs. Ian has always loved installing convenient gadgets and filling their house with comfortable toys. Wishing as always that she could go back to sleep, she suddenly remembers that a friend is coming to visit the school today with her daughter. That’s better, she thinks; something special to look forward to today.

Soon, Sue is up and dressed in a sleeveless red cotton frock with light blue flowers. Clip-clopping around the house in stylish, low-heeled gladiator sandals, she’s preparing her own children, Rupert, 13, and Phoebe, 10, for school. A flurry of clothes and books and cereal bowls later, they’re all outside, sliding open the squeaky doors of their navy blue Land Rover, then slamming them shut. She winds her way east down a country lane, and as they rise up out of the trees, the sun finally makes it over the horizon. Sue’s heavy-lidded brown eyes are squinting now; her unusually tapered, impeccably manicured fingers adjust the visor so she can see.

Sue teaches kindergarten in a nearby school. She’s always been energetic. Tall and tan, with a low center of gravity, she moves with a bounce that belies middle age. She’s got a classic adenoidal East End accent full of dropped aitches; final consonants all become effs, and she’s even prone to rhyming slang. She’s got big teeth and full lips and everything she says sounds like a joke, even if it’s not intended to. This imbues her with a misleading air of ditziness. She’s oddly demonstrative for an Englishwoman—this is why the kids love her. She also has a keen interest in sharing the physical properties of the world with little kids: how fast an “ice-lolly” stick hits the floor; what happens when you mix up a couple of household powders.

At around ten, Sue collapses in front of a classroom full of young children, just as she’s about to lead them out to the old slate courtyard for morning tea (or whatever they call their mid-morning snack). All the children are wriggling to the front to see what’s happened to Ms. Mullings, who seems to have fainted.

From what the email from Laura—Ian’s sister—said, Sue died soon after, and they still don’t know why, though heart trouble is suspected.

I was just gearing myself up to work on a couple of logos that are overdue; I have trouble keeping up some days, and it’s just been busy lately. People add on endless additional tasks, and it is up to me to schedule them somewhere. I have allowed one incredibly needy client to take up time that should have been spent on other jobs, and my other clients are starting to notice. I want very much to learn new ways to make my client’s websites, and there’s so much to see online. So I sign up for a new Adobe color service, Kuler, and try to figure out how it works. This will help me pick a palette for the next logo, I think, but it requires a newer version of Flash, of course. Doesn’t everything? How much newer a version of Flash can it require? My computer is only four months old.

In the middle of it I get an email from my sister in New York about how we need to talk about my parents’ finances. Then she says, and of course it was so awful to get that horrible email with the news from Laura. That’s all she said.

Oh my God, I think, what news? I think, oh God, something’s happened to one of Laura and Roger’s kids, or Ian and Sue’s kids. Or someone has cancer. It’s probably nothing, whispers the voice in my head that always says it’s probably nothing. I think, someone’s been in a terrible auto accident, or Laura’s got breast cancer. It’s probably nothing, goes the voice that always says that. Ian once had Guillaume-BarrĂ© Syndrome, I remember vaguely, and that was pretty weird, but it’s history now. Maybe it was really Lou Gherig’s Disease after all. Maybe it’s something that I have too. It’s probably nothing, goes the voice.

What does this remind me of? Well of course there was the morning of September 11th, when my sister called from New York to tell me the World Trade Center had fallen down. It’s probably nothing, said the voice that says, it’s probably nothing.

“It’s probably nothing.” I said, having just arisen on another peculiar Tuesday, at 8AM Pacific Time.
“No, I’m not kidding, the entire World Trade Center doesn’t exist any more…” said my sister, and so on.

You know the rest of that story, of course. I didn’t believe her; if I thought about all the awful things my sister tells me, I’d probably have to be hospitalized. She sees people get killed in the street; she steps on rusty nails and breaks her feet for no reason and has to go to weird emergency rooms. She sits in parking lots with my crazy 88-year-old parents in bad neighborhoods in Queens at 3AM while my parents are freaking out and explains to them that my mother’s pain medication won’t be ready for an hour. She is a bearer of bad tidings, and I hate her for it. My feet are planted over here, fresh mist curled around my ankles like I’m the Jolly Green Giant, surrounded by artichoke fields and brussels sprouts, redwoods and walnut orchards, leaning over the Pacific Ocean like italics, going, It’s probably nothing.

I did my job, I procreated. What more do they want from me? Now I have a son, who brings me and my family cute stories that entertain and enliven the party. Even September 11th brought fourth a cute story from California: After my sister called, I summoned my ex-husband to my apartment; I was shaking like a leaf, and completely unable to make Liam’s egg salad sandwich. When we finally sat Liam between us on the couch, it was obvious something was up. Then I said Honey, some people sometimes do bad things and blow things up; then his dad said, Sit still, Honey, you don’t need to get dressed, there’s no school today. My adorable son, who was eight and in the third week of third grade, looked from one to the other of us incredulously. “They blew up my school?” he asked, with a widening grin.

Always, with a story.

What email from Laura? Somehow I’d missed it.

I met Ian when I was 18 years old, and he was a counselor for a program called Camp America. He worked at the same summer camp as me, Camp Delaware. I remember little about it, except that I met Ian, who was the first real English Person I ever knew, and I thought he sounded like George Harrison, which was really naive because George was from Liverpool and Ian’s from Bexley. I felt like the coolest counselor at camp with my English boyfriend, though he acted inscrutably restrained. All summer long Ian kept reciting Monty Python routines: Nudge, nudge, wink wink, know what I mean? I didn’t, but I laughed anyway, as if I did.

The following year when my friend Wendy and I made our debut trip to Europe, we stayed with Ian and Laura’s family. Ian and Wendy and I were hippies, unlike Disco Queen Laura, who preferred the The Hughes Corporation to Joni Mitchell, out in the back garden in Bexley sunning herself on a chaise lounge with one of those metallic cardboard sun reflectors. We thought everything was terribly charming and their family was so nice to us; after that we sent people to them and they sent people to us on a regular basis.

Since that first visit, I visited many times, with my husband and subsequent boyfriend, and sometimes alone. Laura married Roger and Ian married Sue and we all had children and Laura grew out of her disco stage, though she’s still quite the party girl. I first met Sue in 1983 when she and Ian were living together with a house full of roommates in Chiswick. This time Ian was going on and on about The Young Ones, and I got it. I was there through Thanksgiving, and they’d requested Mexican food, so I looked all over London for tortillas to make turkey tostadas. I had to make do with papadams.

I’ve taken snapshots of them that I cherish, and I’ve done paintings and pastels from these pictures. They are my British family, and I will always be here to welcome them and their friends and family. This brings me a sense of peace and connection, and rounds out who I am. I am a person with just a few very special friends and relatives fanning out around the globe. I have fun with them when we’re together. They are gracious hosts. We will always be there for one another.

Until today, when I found out that Sue died.

I can’t concentrate on logos. I went into a vacuuming—Hoovering?—mania and ingeniously cleaned out the vacuum’s filter with a plastic fork; then I vacuumed my heart out, with my iPod on. When I heard “The Things We Do For Love” by 10cc, sobs burst out of me, like in a soap opera. I’d been thinking about how we all sent telegrams when Ian and Sue got married, because that’s what you did. For their wedding I sent a reproduction vegetable-serving dish from the Santa Fe Railway china that I love, very American. And when they had their babies, we sent baby clothes or fuzzy toys. They have sent us my favorite clock, Noddy, Postman Pat, Don’t Forget Your Toothbrush and Absolutely Fabulous. Now I guess I’m supposed to send flowers. Just like, that’s the next thing you do? Telegrams, baby clothes, cool media, flowers. Next! Is this just the first of a lengthening chain of funerals, now that I’m middle-aged? They’ll snowball for awhile, the chain of funerals, and then they’ll stop?

I must call Ian tomorrow and break the chain. I must bring meaning to the chain; I must honor Sue by making the rest of my life count, and do all my logos on time so I can make my life better, and go to England and cheer up my friends and not just send flowers.

I ended up digging out a digital file of an old pastel painting I did of Sue and me in their garden when they lived in Greenwich, and fixing it up. The original is huge, like a mural; pastel dust caked on brown paper, rolled up in my closet. I’m wondering if it’d be okay to send the digital image to England, since it’s not really that flattering, and doesn’t really resemble her. But it reflects, to me, the sunniness of Sue’s personality. All day I can hear her distinctive voice clanging “don’t get your knickers in a twist,” followed by her nasal, maniacal laugh, as if, somehow, if I fill my head up with all of her chattering, it will somehow balance out the horrible silence of her absence.