“Though it be honest, it is never good
To bring bad news: give to a gracious message
A host of tongues, but let ill tidings tell
Themselves when they be felt.”
Ten years old:
Standing behind the Green Gables Elementary School library with my best friend, Marnie. “There is something I have to tell you.” The small patch of grass, shorn, electric green from too much fertilizer, the blades sneaking up around and between my toes as my feet squish into the soil beneath, sopping wet from a timed sprinkler system set for too long. Heat radiates off the cement wall of the library, the cerulean sky in this Bay Area town always a bit too sunny. I’ve never done this before. I’m not sure how to begin. Marnie, saying “What? What happened?” in her high-pitched voice, words fast and pressing.
Marnie missed gymnastics the day the team was told. All of us girls sat on the scratchy carpeted gym floor. Gina, one of our three coaches, leaned against the wall, ram-rod straight but shuddering, her eyes red and scrunched and barely visible through tears, staccato sound vibrations puffing out through her lips: huhuhuhuhuh. Bruce, the head coach, said the words straight out, deadpan: Cathy, our third coach, would be gone for a while. He didn’t know when she’d come back, if ever. She went to Hawaii. Over the weekend her fiancé Neil had died in a car accident.
Neil. Sweet, tall, goofy Neil, with his fine brown hair parted down the middle that hung in straight wisps to his chin, framing his narrow face and long nose and gap-toothed grin. Neil, our play buddy, who wore jeans and cowboy boots and tight, worn T-shirts or button-up plaid with the sleeves rolled up. A posse of keys clipped to one of his belt loops jangled at his hip. Our game: Steal the keys—a real feat, for Neil was quick on the draw. Marnie and I would circle him, hyenas moving in for the kill, laughing, always laughing, each of us lunging in turns, grabbing for the clip as Neil twirled on the spot, reaching an arm out to tickle us, him smiling, always smiling.
Except one time I tried to play with him he did not smile.
Our gym team had been invited to be the halftime entertainment at a 49ers game at Candlestick Park. During the game, we hung out at the end zone, and every time the 49ers scored or made a good play, we jumped on the mini-tramp and did flips onto a mat. At halftime we tumbled on the artificial turf and jumped up and down waving our arms, yelling, “Go 49ers! Go 49ers!”
On the way home, I sat on the front bench seat next to the passenger door, with Neil driving and my coach, Cathy, in the middle. Three other girls were sitting in the back seat of the four-door sedan. We were heading south on Highway 101, the smell of fishy-bay-marsh-and-salt-water breeze whirling in through the half open windows. Maybe it was my intoxication from the air, maybe it was my giddiness from the game, maybe it was just that when it came to Neil, I morphed into a rambunctious gremlin. But for some unknowable reason, other than I thought it would be funny, I reached across Cathy’s lap, grabbed the steering wheel, and yanked it down up, down up, down up. In a flash, Neil’s hand slapped my forearm. I let go as his clear blue eyes glared and he growled: “Don’t ever do that again.” All my high-energy devilishness seeped out in one clean swoop. I retreated against the door and stared out the window, ashamed to look Neil in the eye.
A few months later, behind the school library: “There is something I have to tell you.”
Marnie anxiously waiting, “What? What happened?”
“Neil is dead. He died in a car crash.” Guilt rolls over me like an ocean wave somersaulting me in the surf, without breath.
There is something I don’t want to tell you. As a young girl, every time I think of Neil’s death, I feel my hand on the steering wheel. My young girl’s brain stitches these two events together into one cloth: Neil dying in a car accident, me yanking on the wheel.
Thirty-four years old:
Busy getting my children ready for school. The phone rings. It’s my friend, Leslie. She says, “Did you hear what happened?”
“No, what is it?”
“Cassie is dead. She died in a car accident.”
I’m confused. It sounds like she said Kathy. “Who?”
Why would she be calling to tell me about Cassie? I wonder. She is not close friends with her. But she is close with Kathy. That must be whom she is talking about. “Kathy?”
“I’m sorry I can’t understand you. Are you saying Kathy or Cassie?”
This is important. I want to be sure I get this right, but I still cannot tell which name she is saying. “Can you please spell it?” Leslie releases an exasperated sigh.
“C-A-S-S-I-E, with an S, as in Sam.”
My husband Steve watches me struggle through this exchange. After I learn the basic details—Cassie died in a car accident on Highway 89 on her way to Reno to visit family—I hang up the phone and prepare to tell Steve. Despite the fact that he overheard my side of the conversation and can guess what I am going to say, I feel apprehensive. Steve really liked Cassie. I mean really liked her. She was short and cute and sweet, with a sparkle in her large, hazel eyes, and every time she was around, he would get this shy, crushed-out expression, and he’d say “Hi Cassie,” in that schoolboy tone at one time reserved only for me.
There is something I don’t want to tell you. For the briefest moment after hearing the news, as I say the words to Steve, a troublesome thought flits across my consciousness: At least now I won’t have to worry about my husband’s attraction.
Thirty-six years old:
Just arisen from my tent where I am camped at a women’s gathering, stumbling bleary-eyed to the outdoor breakfast line early Sunday morning. Two friends intercept me before I cross the bridge over the creek. “Hey Laurie,” they say, “Come here.” What is it? I wonder. We sit down on a faded and dirty oriental throw rug that flattens the patchy grass into the dirt near the fire pit: smooth, dark river rocks entombing powdery, gray ashes and chunks of charred wood. I sit with these two women, both of whom had, at one time, been very close friends, but now remain women I tend to avoid, for reasons other than them being the bearers of bad news. They tell me that my friend Melissa’s husband had a heart attack and died. After hearing this I lose my appetite, but I continue to the breakfast line anyway.
Lynne, a six-foot-three Amazonian blonde to my four-foot-eleven Germanic pixie, towers over me. She has just gotten her plate filled. “There is something I have to tell you.” I move with her, far from the circles of women sitting in sheared meadow grass. She sways on long legs, plate of food in hand. “Let’s sit down,” I say. Closer to eye level, she looks at me expectantly. I can’t put it off any longer; I have to tell her. “Greg died of a heart attack yesterday.” Greg, despite being our friend Melissa’s husband, is the father of one of Lynne’s daughter’s best friends. “There was no warning,” I say. “He just dropped dead.”
Dropped Dead. That is a crass way to put it. But there is a reason for such phrases: Accuracy. It sounds flippant, but that’s the way it was. Or so I hear. Without being aware of it, Greg had something seriously wrong with his heart. Earlier in the day, he had visited one of his daughters, and when she hugged him goodbye, she heard an irregularity in its beats. “Your heart is beating really fast,” she said—or something to that effect. Stress had been building for some time, and for whatever reason, the exertion of standing from where he sat in his best friend’s living room pinnacled into his sudden collapse from cardiac arrest.
“I’m sorry to be the one to tell you,” I say to Lynne, because that’s what people say—no one wants to be the bearer of bad news. Don’t shoot the messenger.
I think about how the night previous we had all been gathered in the lodge for the talent show, and mid-stream a procession of women ushered Greg’s wife, Melissa, out of the building. I thought it a curious action at the time. Melissa’s closest friends gathered around her, the way I imagine a pod of dolphins swims in protective formation to escort a troubled swimmer out of shark-infested waters. Something is up, I had thought. But I did not imagine it could be something so drastic, so unexpected. The most likely possibility seemed that it had something to do with Melissa’s breast cancer, for she was due to begin chemotherapy the following Monday.
Later that afternoon, when the Women’s Gathering has come to a close, I give Lynne a ride home. We stop at Melissa’s house first so Lynne can check on her daughter who is there supporting her friend. I park the truck, and we trudge up the hill to the house. From outside, we can hear a small commotion within. Lynne goes in while I stand there quietly, not wanting to intrude. Melissa and Greg’s eldest, grown daughter comes out the front door. “Hi Laurie, come in, come in,” she whispers urgently, waving her arm around me, ushering me inside. I did not plan on this. I only brought Lynne to check on her daughter. Like the messenger, I am just the ride. Still, I let myself be scooped in because resisting would be more awkward. I sit right inside the door, against the window, hugging my knees, trying to blend into the carpet.
The living room is muted, with lights on only in the adjoining open-air kitchen. Melissa and Greg’s youngest teenage daughter lies on the floor, encircled by women. Melissa kneels at her daughter’s feet, face white, shell-shocked. “Why did he leave me? Why did he leave me?” the daughter moans.
He did not only leave her. He left a wife, three daughters, a grandson. But this daughter, to no fault of her own, is so despondent there is little room for anyone else’s pain. The encircling women have their hands on the girl, stroking, soothing. “Shhhhhh …” they say. Someone places a damp cloth on the girl’s forehead. She lies there delirious, a moaning limp body of grief.
Lynne’s daughter sits at her friend’s head. She glances up at her mother, tears streaming down a contorted, pink face that says: Help me, Mama; I don’t know how to do this. And I do not wish to see this. I do not wish to be privy to the acute pain of this daughter’s loss, her mother and friends at her side. I am an intruder to heartache, an unwilling witness to loss. I am just the driver.
“Why did he leave me? Why did he leave me?” her voice strangles, pleads. She wants an answer. There is no answer. Her sister, the one who ushered me in, busies herself in the kitchen—the making of food her way of dealing with trauma. Food = comfort. Action keeps the body busy, numbing the mind and heart.
There is something I don’t want to tell you. I can’t stand it, witnessing this pain, feeling it penetrate my skin. I feel as though I am underwater and the pressure of the depths is pushing in on me, threatening to burst my lungs. So I escape. I go back outside to wait where I can breathe.
Forty years old:
I’m the mother of a twelve-year-old daughter who is hospitalized after emergency abdominal surgery, sitting vigil at my daughter’s bedside. She is recovering not only from surgery but a raging infection that circulates through her bloodstream. Ruptured appendix + two quarts pus = Sepsis, a blood infection that threatened to shut down her organs. Before she was moved here, to this room on the ninth floor of Doernbecher Children’s Hospital, the intensive care unit doctor on call told an optimistic me: “She is not out of the woods yet,” squelching my hope in an attempt to impress upon me the severity of the situation. She is not out of the woods yet = your daughter is still in critical condition; she could not make it. But sitting by her unconscious side, listening to the constant beeps of monitors, watching the monotonous moving green, white, and blue lines indicating her heart rate, respiration and percent of oxygen concentration, an oxygen canula and tube in her nose, suctioning green bile from her belly, intravenous plastic tubing in her hands, a catheter bag full of pee the color of dark amber beer, the only way I could survive was to believe that every second the antibiotics dripped through her I.V. her condition improved.
Though the immediate danger has passed, she remains on a triple cocktail of intravenous antibiotics. As I watch from the built-in bed/window seat, my friend Iris calls. “I hear Akela almost died,” she says. Yes, I tell her, it was a very close call. Then without warning, without saying, there is something I have to tell you, Iris says: “Did you know that Hanneli passed away yesterday?”
Hanneli: striking blonde German beauty with a smile that stretched across counties, yoga master, and friend—and five-year sufferer of a brain tumor. I picture Hanneli’s mother, how she came with her daughter to our plant nursery on Mother’s Day many years earlier to buy flowers and vegetable starts, and I think now she will never again spend Mother’s Day with her only daughter. But I cannot open myself to the magnitude of this thought. My empathy is too acute. This reality came too close to being my own. All I want to do is push it away, sever myself from the possibility. Being presented with this dichotomy makes me angry with Iris for divulging such news to me here, now.
There is something I don’t want to tell you. This is what I say to Iris: “No, I did not know that.” But this is what I think: Thank God it wasn’t my daughter.
Laurie Easter writes from her home on the edge of the wilderness in southern Oregon, where she lives “off the grid” with her husband, daughter and a menagerie of animals. She holds an MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and recently was awarded a fellowship to the Vermont Studio Center to continue work on her essay collection. Her writing has appeared in Connotation Press, Oregon English Journal, and Bite My Manifesto.