As soon as they return from the hospital to their fifth floor West 70th Street apartment Ritchie goes to his room. Michael turns on the Jets game in the living room. Deborah settles by the window that looks out at the asphalt playground five stories below. It is late afternoon but the children’s energy has not let up. From up high their screams are soothing, like birds chirping in the countryside, each with a different call, talking back and forth to each other through the airwaves. Laughter, anger, silliness, pleading, a little boy’s voice over and over in Spanish, “Mira! Mira,” then another and another, “Higher…” “Get away….” “Stop that Joey…” Then a mother, “Get over here… Now!”
When she was playground age, Lisa used to call Deborah over to this window. Within seconds their coats were on, and they were on their way out. They both loved that about the apartment- the nicest view in all of Manhattan, the playground beneath them.
Leaning against the windowsill, Deborah looks for little Maria and her mother. She’s been drawn to Maria ever since she watched her being introduced to the swing. Frightened cries as her mother pushed her higher, laughter and shouting as she came swooping down.
Gradually that changed. Excitement replaced her fear. As she glided back to earth she shouted, “Higher, higher” to her mother who had positioned herself to send her flying again. Weeks later, quiet willpower as, by herself, she kicked harder and harder, and then still harder, rhythmically pumping the swing to the highest possible point.
She reminded Deborah of Lisa’s determination. Eventually, she started to do stunts like Lisa, standing on the swing, first on two legs then one, anything to revive her original fear and sweet conquest of it. Her most recent trick? Leaping off the swing as it descends, a perfect landing 3 feet from takeoff. Nadia Comenici!
Except tonight Maria is not there. Deborah settles on a different child who is swinging calmly, ritualistically performing the same kick so that the arc takes her upward. The height she is reaching commands Deborah’s attention. In what she is doing there is her own kind of beauty, her legs held straight out, gracefully heading towards the sky. But, consistency is not dramatic enough to distract Deborah. Billy’s cries from the hospital return in her mind and she’s as distressed as ever.
She stands in front of Michael blocking his view of the Jets game.
He tries to see around her.
“Fourth quarter!” he counters in a conciliatory tone.
Deborah doesn’t move. He mutes the TV sound with his remote. But her irritation with him grows. She wants his full attention. It’s her or the Jets. It’s no contest.
“ 7-7, fourth quarter” He repeats. He assumes Deborah understands the importance of this game for the Jets.
“Great!” she snaps back sarcastically.
“Debby, just tell me what you want.” He’s about to run out of patience. He’s warning her.
She sees herself as offering little provocation. But she’s aware she’s just as pissed off as he is.
He’s the same as her father, Sunday after noon widowhood. During a game the house could be burning down. Her father was not at home. For three hours he was dead to them. Except, it was the Giants not the Jets.
In the earliest years, when the current of Deborah and Michael’s love was powerful, there were no wrong moments, no good time or bad time to talk to him. There was no right way or wrong way to begin. His attention was a given. Anything she did, or said, put her on his stage.
That is long gone.
“I want to take Lisa out of the hospital.”
He looks at her like she is not in her right mind. Fire is coming out of his eyes. She returns to the window. Maria’s arrived.
Watching Maria in the playground is sheer joy. She is one of the few remaining ways Deborah can connect to someone else without becoming agitated. Her friend of 20 years, Anne has grown impatient with her. “You have to get yourself together. You can’t let this get the best of you.”… It’s her way of saying “I don’t want to hear any more.” She wants to chat about her own life.
Laura’s the opposite. She’s over solicitous, talking in a droopy “poor Deborah” voice, which has more than once pushed Deborah’s mood from being morose to complete emptiness. Once, after Laura left, suicide entered her mind. It wasn’t the first time she had that reaction, but as before she quickly dismissed the thought. “Where would that leave Lisa?”
She couldn’t as quickly dismiss the thought however, that, if it were to happen by accident, she would welcome a quick death . It would be a relief.
Lana is in a category by herself. Ten years ago, Lana’s brother and his wife were murdered in their bedroom by a stranger who had grown up in her brother’s house before he bought it. Lana has never fully recovered. She can talk 20 minutes straight about her misfortunes, barely stopping to come up for air.
Deborah holds the phone a foot away from her ear.
“Lana?” Michael asks her. Deborah smiles as she puts down the phone.
“That is not nice.”
“I promise you. I won’t miss a word.” She whispers. “She’s told me these stories a hundred times.”
“She uses the exact same words.”
“So then get off.”
Lana is divorced. Her children, as early as they could, moved away. They limit their contact to a once a year visit at Christmas. Short visits. It hurts. When they were young she gave them more love than she had ever given anyone. Not a lot. She is a self involved person. But more. Christmas ends the same every year. They snap at her when she hints that they should be grateful. Arum, the oldest boy, pushes her hand away when she tries to lift the hair out of his eyes.
She has little left for Deborah.
Any mention of Lisa and she immediately steers the conversation to her brother. Her final word to Deborah is always the same. She’s lucky because she has Michael.
It isn’t just Anne or Laura or Lana who won’t or can’t connect with Deborah since Lisa’s illness. All of her relationships aren’t going well. She gets nothing from cheap encouragement or dreary empathy. But almost every other response from people equally turns Deborah off.
It’s no one’s fault. What else can people do? They mean well. Still she longs for heartfelt sympathy. There is too little of that. When the moment occurs its over in a jiffy. She rarely any longer initiates seeing anyone. Not that her friends are beating down her door. If they are in a good mood, even a so-so mood, the last thing they want to do is get together with Deborah. Obligation demands a phone call every once in a while, but that’s about it. Seeing her can poison an entire day.
Before Lisa’s illness Deborah may have given the thought of how alone she is, how alone we all are, a nod, but she never fully understood its implications. As the mood arose she saw her friends. They saw her. They came in and out of her mornings and afternoons, visiting, phoning, shopping, in a natural flow that usually left pleasant feelings. That was enough for her. She liked them. They liked her. They were “friends.” If you had asked her before her current state, she would have told you she was lucky to have so many friends. Some of them go way back to grammar school, friends she trusts, and who want the best for her.
But everything’s changed now. Everyone was duly concerned about Lisa at first. They probably still are, but as the news about Lisa got worse, time spent with Deborah became unpleasant, sometimes unbearable. Lisa’s lymphoma gives Deborah a generous allowance of forgiveness for whatever unpleasant behavior she shows, but there are limits.
Her emotions keep breaking through, despite everyone’s determination to not let that happen. When it does, time spent with her is miserable, far beyond what they bargained for when they offered to see her.
Deborah has come up with a variety of strategies to improve her behavior. She usually gives short answers when people ask about Lisa. “Fine. Thank you for asking.” That’s it.
When one of her friends visits, the first few moments are strained, as she and they try to keep it light. On occasion they might reach a point where they can let down their guard, even relax.
But despite their best efforts, Deborah’s desperation invariably comes out. A pleading look in her eyes- the slightest sign of anguish and the visit might as well be over. Small talk may continue. They might chatter as if they have noticed nothing, but the gulf between Deborah and them grows stronger the more they labor to keep it light. Her visitors wait for the moment to exit gracefully. And even then, as hard as Deborah tries to wish them a casual good-bye, the pain on her face is obvious. Which is humiliating.
Before now she assumed that if her friends really tried, they could get through to her. She hasn’t totally given up on that idea. But her acceptance that it is not going to happen is growing. Fortunately, she isn’t bothered as much as she initially was. Her father always told her this was the human condition. “We are born alone and die alone. You have to accept it and live with it.” He’d tell every member of the family the lesson he had learned as his little gift to their spiritual composure. She always dismissed his perspective as an excuse for his not being social. But lately it isn’t as easy to dismiss him. She hadn’t realized it also applied to the family of a sick child.
When she is alone, she can feel whatever it is she feels, without the added concern of whether her helplessness is creeping others out.
It is creepy. Her lack of interest in fun things, good gossip, a joke Johnny Carson told the night before, her inability to engage in pleasurable interchange, irritates whoever is stuck with her.
Michael’s advice is to not let her difficulty with friends bother her, “You can’t let it get to you. You just can’t!” She listens to him, and sometimes after a pep talk she feels a lot better. But then, some incident mirrors the truth to her. So whatever motivation he’s tried to instill, quickly dissipates.
She knows she shouldn’t, but again and again she takes thoughtless remarks personally, intended or not. It isn’t just what people say to her which tears away at her confidence. It’s their reaction to what she says. What she is talking about is never found interesting enough for their eyes to not glaze over, even when she’s made an effort to be clever. Even when she has been clever. She can’t remember the last time, Anne, Laura any of them, asked her to get together with them in a way that sounded like they truly wanted to be with her.
Going over unsuccessful conversations in her mind, working them to death, can take over entire afternoons. Soothing thoughts she has used in the past to get distance, fresh ideas and resolutions she’d make as part of her effort to make herself a better person, her pursuit through her twenties and thirties, to be a better Deborah carried her through many rough times. Before Lisa’s illness, when she came up with an intelligent way to attack her shortcomings, she could blanket herself in self-satisfaction She was able to construct attitudes which convinced her she was, in fact, wise or good to make such fine declarations of her intent. Just believing she would follow through gave her self kudos. That purposefulness, the feeling that she was getting some where kept her on an even keel.
She still tries to put it all together. It isn’t her they are rejecting. Why would anyone want to hang out with the mother of a girl with cancer? Misfortune, not personality shortcomings are the problem. But her common sense no longer works as well. She can’t get herself to fully believe that conclusion.
Growing up, Deborah’s mother’s fierce efforts, years and years of battles with her and too many tears from her, all were aimed at teaching Deborah how to put on a mask. The right hair, the right make-up, how to hide unpleasant feelings so others can’t gather ammunition against you, everything she thought she hated most about her mother’s advice, the paranoia implicit in her lessons, she now treasures. She wishes she could regain her ability to follow her mother’s example, be pleasant and never let down her veneer.
But she was never good at it, and she is terrible at it now. She can’t imitate cheerfulness. When she was a teenager, she often practiced her smile in front of the mirror. Eventually she got acceptably comfortable with people. No effort was involved. Now she is back to square one. Her best smile is pasty.
With Laura it got very ugly. Laura belief in Truth as the secret of good relationships became extreme. Without a hint of regret, last week, seemingly out of nowhere, Laura’s indignation took over.
“You’re milking your misery, trying to get everyone to feel sorry for you.” As she spoke Laura stared at her. She knew it was true. Deborah wished she could crawl into a hole.
Michael was furious. She may believe truth is intrinsically better than deception, but pouring salt on Deborah’s wounds was beyond the call of duty.
After that Deborah watched herself like a hawk. As soon as she would hear the slightest intonation of pleading she shut it down.
Or tried to. She can’t help it. She can’t fully stop it. The truth is, if she were free to shout out her feelings, she would beg anyone and everyone for mercy, even if they have brought a baguette and good aged cheddar from Zabar’s. As she makes coffee, and tries to chat, that tone in her voice takes over before she is aware that she is at it again.
Even Gail, who used to adore her, and thus initially gave Deborah the most latitude, can’t take much of Deborah now. Losing Gail hurt more than the others, but perhaps it was inevitable. Gail’s tolerance for her moods allowed Deborah to build up a head of steam, to go way beyond acceptable limits with her self pity. it was ugly. And it happened more than once. So the outcome was inevitable. Neither of them could any longer conjure up a reset, drop previous missteps in their relationship so they could have a fresh start and try to enjoy a nice afternoon.
Michael says times like these are how you find out who your real friends are. Yeah people love you when you are in your glory, but the test of friendship is how they are when you are down.
Only he isn’t much better. When he’s listened to her struggles about how it went with this friend or that one for the umpteenth time (“What did they mean by this? By that?”) especially, when he’s at work, he’s little different than her friends. He finds an excuse to hang up. He can do that easily at work, tell her he is busy, even when he isn’t, but at home…
Dr. Stern told Michael about Freud’s Totem and Taboo. How in certain primitive cultures, families in mourning are shunned. It has nothing to do with social factors. The spirits of a dead person are said to hang over family members and possess them. It’s believed that if a villager gets near a grieving person, the dead person’s spirit will infect the villager. So they stay away.
That thought comforts Michael when he tunes Deborah out. He doesn’t feel as trapped. Realizing that his reaction to her is part of a universal impulse means it is not a defect in his character. It is no longer his fault. That allows him to listen without a guilty conscience, which makes it easier when her eyes beseech him for answers. He has no answers. Nor does anyone else. But, being relieved of his guilt helps him to be patient, and that helps Deborah.
It starkly contrasts with him when he is irritated by her clinging. She knows it immediately and hate starts to flow between them. So with the help of Freud he doesn’t get irritated, and this keeps both of them ahead of the game. If only Freud could supply him with some more theories to shore up his interactions with Deborah.
On a more positive note, while theories help, or any comfort he can muster up, when all is said and done, Lana is right. Like Deborah’s mother Michael possesses the most important quality. No matter what, he will be there. At least that is what he says, and he has never gone back on his word.