I saw her at the symphony on a steaming summer evening– an acquaintance from seasons past. When I spoke her name and touched her arm, she turned to face whoever I would be.
Before me stood the caricature of a female Howdy Doody doll, dressed in Chanel, eyes glazed, head bobbing, and lips applied in a red, hermetic seal. She clung to the arm of her octogenarian husband; to my eyes, a living fossil; a ghost from the Ice Age dropping in to hear a little night music.
I gasped inwardly at the spectacle before me, hoping my face did not reveal my shock, and greeted her warmly as I squeezed her hand. I was stunned in slow motion as she removed her hand from mine, and looked away.
Did she not know me?
A rush of heat pulsated my face and neck as I absorbed the gravity of the moment, recalling the many times we had fondly greeted one another at the home of our mutual friend. And now, startled, I apologized for my intrusion and walked away, remembering the last time I had seen her, almost a decade before.
I staggered into the packed church, trying to hold myself together with my arms and my hands. A gust of wind would have sent me slumping against a wall, sobbing openly, without the strength or the will to right myself.
Inside the darkened vestibule, I waited a moment for my eyes to adjust. When I could see clearly, the face of my acquaintance was before me. Gasping and weeping, she fell upon me, her tears moistening my neck. I grabbed her hand as though she were my mother, and I, her long-lost child. We stood for several moments in the unmistakable posture of shared bereavement.
The death of a beautiful, golden-haired child had brought us, individually, to this unfamiliar sanctuary. Our mutual friend was the mother left behind, whose haunted face said everything we did not want to hear.
Staring at a tiny white casket illuminated by flickering candles, my acquaintance and I were suspended together in time, grieving on the universal bones of motherhood, stranded outside the garden in a broken world that delivers both cursing and blessing to wondering and wandering souls. Sometimes the curse seems too great to bear, and this was such a day.
Throughout the interminable service, huddling together on a cold pew, the pain that encircled us was palpable. Perhaps, in another dimension, we were unknowingly attended by emergency halos with flashing lights signaling to the heavens our distress.
Our emotions could not be confined within our bodies. We trembled violently, leaking unbidden tears as we grabbed tiny tissues from tiny Sunday purses. We held one another’s hands as though we had been comrades through grammar school, college, world war, the death of JFK and Vietnam.
Except for the presence of my acquaintance that day, I would have been alone at the funeral. My acquaintance would have been alone as well, for doctors’ wives in those days were often alone, holding down the fort while the sick and dying were attended, often feeling more kinship with widows than with other wives in the prime of life; re-warming cold dinners at midnight, standing alone in the kitchen, waiting, wanting to believe that our loneliness made life better for someone, somewhere, who had greater needs than our own. We believed that if we were understanding enough and long-suffering enough and if we could always remain on high alert, we could somehow hold our husbands together and they could hold their patients together, and maybe the world would be all right, after all. But if we, the Mothers of Atlas, shrugged, dominoes would tumble, tsunamis would erupt; the world around us would collapse, and down would come baby, cradle and all.
And so, we held our breath, and we held our children, and we held the world together with our arms and our hands and our fragile hearts that were hidden away so no one could see their true and pitiful condition. And we smiled all the way through it.
We did what we were told and we enabled whatever wanted enabling and we lost whoever we might have been –or become — because the sick and the dying were always sick and dying and they would not stop, not even for a moment, so we could catch our breath or grab something to hold onto besides the secret that only we knew: Our husbands were just as fragile and just as sick and just as dying as the patients they attended. We were the keepers of the secret knowledge.
And when the great physicians wandered too close to the edge of the cliff and threatened us without saying a word, we walked softly and spoke softly and we placed ourselves between our husbands and the cliff-edge, in order to keep the world from toppling.
Our husbands, like the medicine men before them, were appointed to know everything, weren’t they? After all, they could raise the dead, and who could argue with that? And life went along just tragically, as it always had, day after day; and some wives drank in secret closets, and some abstained because they knew better than to begin what they could not stop; and some bought little toy dogs to carry in little toy handbags, and some went back to school to study art history and talk to the professor because that seemed safe, and some strayed deliberately into dangerous waters knowing fully of the risks, and some remained faithful to the numbness of their lives, counting themselves as dead, and some stayed in bed, feeling that they just might have a little fever today, and some prayed fervently, but what could they pray for except the sick and the dying; that they would all get better and quit dying so much…and then life would be good, and something hollow in the very world would be filled up with relief and happiness, and the wives could finally relax and breathe so deeply and fully that holding their breath for all those years would have been worth it.
But in truth, all the while of the holding of the breath, the silent, invisible dominoes were already falling from the shelves in the secret closets of the human heart. No microscope was small enough and no stethoscope was sensitive enough to detect such primitive conditions buried within the passageways of the human heart where the river of life is meant to flow, even in the heart of the physician.
And one day the cradles began to rock ominously, and the tribe, in a clamorous circle, turned accusing eyes upon the women of the medicine men, and the painted mouths of the tribesmen said to the women, What have you done? Did you breathe? Did you shrug? Did you look away for a moment? And the women were afraid, as always, to speak.
Though they had tried, they had not been fast enough or nimble enough to catch all of the cradles and all of the dominoes and all of the bodies as they plunged to the ground. Their arms and hands would not suffice for such a task. And so, they blamed themselves by saying if only if only if only in a voice of their own devising that no one else could understand.
And then, a mysterious event occurred. Without a word, a party of medicine men rode away on beautiful palominos to live with the buffalo on the outer regions of the plains. They did not say goodbye to their wives. And they did not return. And somehow, even on that very day, the sun continued to shine as though nothing of life-altering consequence had occurred.
The women doused the smoldering ashes of their lives, and, in sorrow, closed their tent flaps, not knowing that it was safe to breathe, but following the tradition that their hearts knew. And there they sat in numbness, silently, amid a stark and dreary landscape, barren except for the litter of empty and abandoned cradles.
In time, the shattered women began their crawl toward springs of living water in a new and different land.
The symphony was about to begin. Yet, still I lingered outside the massive doors of the auditorium, staring in the direction of my acquaintance. No longer were we clinging to one another inside an ancient grief-cloistered vestibule; but thirty feet apart in the post-modern elegance of an illuminated foyer designed by I.M. Pei. No matter the distance, I could not reach her. She was a bridge too far, and the waters between us were not navigable by any form of transport with which I was familiar.
I watched, concealed by white magnolia in silver urns, as my acquaintance and her husband began to move forward, as though a four-legged sculpture had gone rogue, transporting itself to a more suitable location, without a word spoken. Watching the performance, I was spellbound, wondering how many dress rehearsals they had endured in order to perfect the role of a life.
They walked the carpet as though it were red, and she, the Oscar nominee, en route to her front row seat to await her statuette. On cue, a tuxedoed usher appeared at her elbow and guided the glittering apparition down the aisle. Head upheld with insistent dignity, she was ready for her close-up, prepared to meet her public: Her Majesty Mrs. America the Queen, held together in alphabetical order by Anti-Depressants, Botox, Dead-Husband-Walking, Denial, Emotional Muting, Liposuction, Valium, Vodka and probably a lot of White Wine.
Inside the auditorium, I took my seat as the guest conductor was introduced to thunderous applause. I breathed deeply, and in my mind, I saw myself as an illustrated comic strip character, seated at the symphony, unable to voice my thought, lest I disturb those nearby. Inside the cartoon thought bubble that hovered above my head were written these words:
She and I are no longer merely acquaintances. Now, we are merely strangers.