Wow! You’re a grandmother. No fooling. I just got a letter from Link with a delightful picture of laughing fellow Emmett James Graham Bertram. That’s a solid grounded Midwestern name from your wild girl child, now mother. Sounds like the beginning of a country song, or long poem. “Emmett James Graham Bertram set off for the river one day. Looking for fish, running from sorrow, hoping his darling would stay.” He looks like Amanda with those fat dimpled cheeks and twinkling eyes. But blue, not mahogany brown. Uncle Nick calls him M-It. I last saw Nicky when his sturdy brave little 8-year-old self dedicated his soccer game to your memory. They won.
Amanda gave birth in Swedish Hospital, the East Wing, where you labored to accept death with grace and open hands, 18 years ago to the day. I’m sure you were there again, cheering her on, protecting her. You must be so proud. The wheel turns again.
When my Jeremy was being born, two months before Amanda, you walked your abundant self up three flights of stairs to leave crepes in the fridge. Three different kinds of filling: Dungeness crab, creamed spinach, and one with chicken and mushroom. I was so happy there was good food to eat when I got home from Alta Bates Hospital. So moved by your thoughtfulness, I cried. Well, maybe it was also that I was exhausted, scared carrying this no longer quite so mysterious little bundle of gold, to a bed where the cat had peed in immediate resentment. The winter storm had blown in through the French doors Steve had to break when he locked himself out of the house without the car keys in the rush to get to the hospital. I have a picture of Amanda and Jeremy a few months later, naked on your white shaggy rug, Amanda staring adoringly at this joyful baby trying to poke her eye. We kept that rug for a long time after you and Link moved up to Seattle, and we moved in.
It was a Tuesday morning in September. I was going to fly up to Seattle Friday; finally, you had a free weekend or were ready to let me see you post-chemotherapy, bald. We hadn’t talked since Sunday, and I woke up with a cold heavy sense of dread weighing me down like a metal cape, making it hard to breathe. I tried to reach you by phone, but your guy Tom said No, you weren’t there, but you were fine. It’s just that you had a sore throat and they wanted to check you out at the hospital. My voice screeched upward, and he got correspondingly calm, reassuring. He would be there in a few hours to bring you lunch. “No now, now you have to go NOW!” I kept screaming. An hour later, sitting in my green overstuffed armchair across from a young woman patient, a streak of white-yellow light shot horizontally across the darkened room. A jolt went through my body and I thought “She’s gone.”
Tommy called me at home before noon. The sound of his voice cracked my heart, an iceberg floated off the shore of a glacial landmass. I sat down hard on the floor. He said he had gone immediately that morning to see you. When he walked into the hospital West Wing room you were sitting on the bed in Lotus position, palms open, with your back to the door. You said “Don’t talk” and continued with your breathing, your trying to breathe, still, silent, centered. When your bald head and your hands began to turn blue, Tommy ran into the corridor to get help. They called a Code Red or is it Blue, and jumped on you with all their skill and equipment. You were already leaving.
Do you remember that summer we sat out in Suzy’s hot tub to watch the meteor shower? After hours we came in and held hands in our sleeping bags, next to each other. It took me a long time to fall asleep that night. My mind was unbound, and flashing a series of visions. The stream of images moved fluidly from one form to another, all related, everchanging, different versions of the myriad forms of things in the world. In vivid colors, from one object to another, it was like a series of slides or movie frames but smoother, not choppy, gliding from one form to another. In slow motion, each object transformed continually, maybe infinitely, from one thing to another. A candlestick and all the varieties of sizes and colors and shapes of candlesticks became a pencil and all the sizes and shapes of that and then table legs and trees and flowers of every shape and color, rosebuds and dying roses, and hats and everything you could think of, natural and manmade. In this series, it was so clear, so beautiful, to see that they were all related. It made perfect sense how each became the other, all the same, changing energy and yet different too. Forms that were unique and separate and still for at least a moment. Lasting a second or a lifetime.
I missed the magic that came with you, the faith, the fun, I had in my life when you were alive. A few years later I took the kids up to the UC summer camp, Lair of the Bear, Camp Gold of course, never Camp Blue, where we usually went for a week. Camping with beds, all meals prepared, adults to talk to, and a day’s worth of fun wear-the-child-out group activities with child care for the youngest. Did I mention single mothers cheap? I was in such a funk that summer, tired, depressed, and banking zero in my trust in God account. All I want to say about my boyfriend of that time is that he was a trained nurse and carpenter, loved sex, and at age 48 still rode a bike. He wasn’t too interested in being a grown-up, either working or parenting, so here I was with the kids, alone again.
After the campfire, a visiting astronomer set up his high-powered telescope for us to look at stars from the meadow. Waiting in line, looking at this huge dome of darkness with little pinpricks of light, which pretty much matched the proportions of my black mood, I did a silent prayer. Started a conversation with God. Actually, it was more on the demand-command side of things than the plea for mercy or gratitude for existence. I challenged you first, old buddy, to show your face. Where are you? Why did you leave? Not that you could help it. The one responsible for this mess of loss was God, who was really failing me. I threw my defiance like a spear up as far as I could. I don’t believe in you anymore. You’re not helping. I’m exhausted, lonely, broke, and tired of struggling. If you really exist, show me a sign. Otherwise…I’m not sure what I was thinking there, some kind of a continuing strike, boycott. Looking up, nothing was happening. Silence. “OK God”, generously giving him, her, another chance, bringing out a ploy from my limited reservoir of patient mothering responses, “I’m going to count to 10.” I began slowly, sternly, 10 – 9 – 8. Right about then, I heard myself, my little pinprick self under this vast dark dome sparkling with stars, asking God to prove himself. I got it, the absurdity of it. I breathed, said “Ah”, and something shifted in my chest, cracked. I felt it, heard it, a little whispered “click” like the sound-feeling when my bag of waters broke, click, announcing Jeremy’s descent beginning and I let go. Opened as wide as I could, and surrendered. Somewhere between “8” and “7”, a shooting star streaked across the sky, splitting the darkness with a lifeline of love.
Shooting Star: A Letter to Janet” first appeared in Psychological Perspectives, Vol. 52, Issue 3, 2009