If you were in our back yard, feet cooling in the sled-turned-wading-pool, you would have noticed her tight blond curls, the way she sat up straight in the seat her mother’s arms made, bent and wrapped around feet that had yet to carry her own small frame, sunlight around both of them as if it had been painted there. You would have held your gaze on the small girl’s dancing eyes, and when she said, “Hi” as any talking person might, you would wonder if she were a genius, because she is barely nine months old. Maybe we were all there. The earth is not so big as one might perceive relying solely on physical senses. Maybe you felt my heart thump as it opened to make room for our neighbors to become dearly loved friends. I must have said, “Hi, CJ.” (that was before she started school, before she asked to be called Connie).
On my mom’s refrigerator, a picture of two very short people pushing the large tummy of a fifteen foot, inflated rubber duck, its edges curling up with age, is held by a red plastic button of a magnet. I was sad that day, tired, wishing the children would slow down, maybe even sit down so I could too. CJ and my son, their curls now past small shoulders, raced up and down a single ramp most of the afternoon at the duck races. Marylin and I managed to share half thoughts, pieces of ideas, smiling sighs, with each other, both accustomed to not knowing the rest of a story, content with the intention of clear communication, mostly watching the story of our children’s lives unfold beneath a clear summer sky.
When I needed other mothers, CJ and Marylin came over with a bag of groceries. While our children brushed a giant stuffed tiger, we chopped strawberries, simmered vegetables, finished most thoughts; time had passed and young ones contained indoors make for better conversation among parents. Around a spread of mismatch food, an invisible thread continued to wrap our families in a gentle bond, one that does not need spoken affirmation.
These are the early memories, followed by babysitting trades, more potlucks, a little sister for CJ, a little brother for my son, and countless battles of wills between the older kids.
People will move, one after the other.
Children need to be reintroduced each year. They believe us when we tell them of the past, but must navigate a new friendship each meeting regardless. Thankfully, it always leads to giggles. Last time we stayed over at their house, when spring was just taking root, the kids were ten, ten, seven and six. Connie delighted in telling me all about her perfectly strange cast of classmates and neighbors.
I called our friends last night, expecting to ask the expected question: can we stay with you while we’re in Chicago next weekend? We hung up after I decided it would not be a good question, but before the conversation was really over. Connie needed her mom right then.
There are “first times” that are, hopefully, not universal, and news better heard while the sun is high, but reality does not always fit our preferences, nor does it really matter that night had already fallen. I would have gone hollow anyway. Connie is the first child I have watched grow from infant to playful bookworm who now faces the possibility that her life will be cut short by illness.
It was harder than learning my mother had cancer again, even though our daily lives had not crossed paths for years. Right now I want to call her CJ. I never got used to saying Connie anyway. Regardless of what I or anyone else calls her, no one can magically make her brain cancer vanish; only time and months of sickening treatments can (please God) heal her. Marylin said CJ’s prognosis is good, but since we’re talking about cancer, you never know, and the remedy wears on everyone.
I thought maybe today would be easier, that I would not feel the weight of grief so heavily. I was wrong.