"And how did you two meet?"
Unfortunately I am clear on the other side of the room from the door, stranded in this circle of feet. A pair of laid-back Birkenstocks scoffs at my uptight career pumps. I clear my throat.
"While I was visiting college friends here for Thanksgiving." I think of how Ethan sat beside me at dinner, moving someone else's plate to another spot while the person was in the kitchen and wedging himself in beside me. Geez, I thought. Strangely overconfident software geek.
"How nice. Did you date from afar at first, then?" "Yes, we had a long-distance relationship for a year, then I moved here and we lived together for a year and then we married." "Very good."
I feel as if I could have said we were embezzlers and the social worker would have thought that was nice.
A few of the other women are widows, too, but they're older than me. One has white hair and glasses with lenses as big as coasters that magnify her eyes, making them look like pale blue stones underwater.
There's a man whose wife was killed in a car accident on Highway 1, and his ten-year-old daughter is having her first sleep-over party this weekend. She told him this morning that she hated him because he didn't know what Mad Libs are, and she wanted Mad Libs at her party, and why did her mother have to die and not him since he's so stupid? The man's voice speeds up and his Styrofoam cup cracks as he squeezes it. A dribble of coffee leaks onto his khakis. He tells us about the dozen girls coming to sleep in his family room this Saturday night and how he wants to surprise his daughter with an ice-cream cake; he's pretty sure that's what she wants, but his wife didn't leave any notes about the party and he's afraid to ask his daughter because he doesn't want to upset her any more.
"I think she likes mint chocolate chip," he says, looking down, his pink double chin folding over the stiff collar of his white work-shirt, which looks impossibly tight.
I want to squeeze his plump hand and tell him it's going to be all right. I know, because I was thirteen when my mother died in a car accident on her way to work, and my father and I were left to fend for ourselves.
That was my first experience with death, and I wished then that I'd gotten a dress rehearsal with a distant, elderly relative. A great-aunt Dolores whose whiskery kisses I dreaded. The only death experience before my mother was my hamster, George, who somehow got confused and ate all of the cedar chips in his cage. I came home from school to find him lying still as a stuffed animal, his water bottle dripping on his head. But there was a new hamster by that weekend who performed all of the old hamster's tricks: running in his wheel and fidgeting with his apple slice and popping his head through a toilet paper roll.
"The death of a loved one isn't really something you ever get over," the group leader explains, leaning forward in her chair. She wears a fluffy white angora sweater with a cowl neck reaching to her chin, so it looks as though her head is resting on a cloud. "Instead, one morning you wake up and it's not the first thing you think of."
While I know she's right, I can't imagine that this morning will ever come to my house.
By now, everyone in the group is sniffling and honking, and a box of Kleenex is making the rounds. As the gold foil box comes my way, I pull out several tissues and hold the wad in my hand like a bouquet. But I'm the only one in the circle who isn't crying. You don't cry at a scary movie, do you? Dr. Rupert thinks the group will help me move from denial to anger to bargaining to depression to acceptance to hope to lingerie to housewares to gift wrap. But it seems the elevator is stuck. For the past three months I've been lodged in the staring-out- the-window-and-burning-toast stage of grief.
From Good Grief by Lolly Winston. Copyright © 2004 by Lolly Winston
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