This week almost kicked Gratitude Month to the curb. In a low moment I considered posting: “Life sucks. The End.”
On Monday evening I ran into Shaw’s for a few things before picking Emma up from Brownies. As the cashier scanned my items, a message popped up on my phone from one of my old neighbors in Pennsylvania:
Hey Jess, I am sorry to pass on some tragic news – Jen Stagnaro passed away this morning during her run. She collapsed and couldn’t be revived.
“Excuse me, m’am, what is this?”
I looked up and saw the cashier staring at me, holding up a now seemingly foreign vegetable, waiting for a response.
“What?” Suddenly I didn’t know where I was or what I was doing there.
“What is this? Is it like an onion or what?”
“No it’s…..um…it’s a….omgwhatthefuckisthatcalled…..fennel. It’s fennel.”
I somehow managed to pay for the groceries and get them into the car, where I sat in the dark for a while. I read the message over and over, stunned. Oh my God. Jen. Oh my God. My mind was suddenly flooded with images of Jen’s sweet face, her beachy-blond hair, her fair, rosy skin.
For the three years I lived in Malvern PA, Jen and I were friends and neighbors. I had the pleasure of getting to know her, her husband Mike and their three gorgeous kids. Sitting in the Shaw’s parking lot, memories played in my head like a home video: drinking wine with Jen at book club, waving to her across the gym at Body Pump, stopping for a chat when we were both out walking our dogs.
I pictured her two girls -blond, athletic, mini-versions of Jen- hopping my fence in the backyard on their way to a friend’s house. Her proud Facebook pics of her son Drew playing hockey. Her supportive and thoughtful comments about something I had written – an opinion that meant a lot to me, coming from a teacher and bookworm like herself. Oh my God. Jen. How the hell is this happening?
I moved through the rest of the night in a fog: pick up Emma, dinner, homework, bed. I thought of my other Malvern neighbors, and how stunned and shattered they must be. Never before had I lived in a more tight-knit community: potluck dinners, pool parties, running groups and meal trains. And Jen, always in the middle of these events, helping, contributing, making shit happen. Sweet and strong. Lovely and feisty.
I thought of Mike, Maggie, Annie and Drew. How do they go on? No, really. How does that work?
My phone chimed and dinged with more messages from friends and neighbors. One text from my friend Mo said:
I came home and hugged [her husband] immediately! It makes you think, you know?
It did – it made me think about a lot of things. Just a an hour earlier, Phil had come home, having just heard the news himself. He came up behind me as I sauteed some kale, put his hands on my shoulders and said, “Do you need a hug?”
I stiffened. “No, thanks. I’m good.”
I know, I know: What a frigid bitch! What’s her problem?
I don’t know what my problem is – I have many – but all I know is that I absolutely did not want to be hugged, or held, or pretty much anything in the touching category. This irked me, and continued to do so when Phil and I went to bed that night.
We read for a while on our respective sides of the bed, but when I turned out the light, I stayed on my edge, curled into a ball. I could feel Phil’s eyes on my back, silently begging me to meet him in the middle…to lean into him, to spoon, settle into the nook. On a night where he was hanging on by a thread in a world that felt so unsafe and tenuous, he wanted someone to hold onto. So did I. But I couldn’t.
Then, the next morning, as I was trying to make sense of this through writing, my friend Kari sent me this video.
Do we love harder? Do we squeeze tighter? Or do we pretend not to care that everyone we love is going to be taken away from us?
I fear the middle of the bed because I fear that one day Phil won’t be there to meet me. So I try and beat him to the punch by pretending not to need him, by curling myself up into an icy cocoon, thinking that will prepare me, make it hurt less when my worst fears are realized.
But we all know it doesn’t work that way.
Yesterday we found out our sweet dog Ellie has bone cancer.
Our Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands. Not sure how I will ever say goodbye to those sad eyes. We have anywhere from a few weeks to a few months left with her. This time will be filled with as much holding, hugging and squeezing as her fragile little body will allow. That night in bed, after reading our books and turning out the light, I shimmied to the middle of the bed where Phil was already waiting, and settled into the nook.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
This week I am grateful for Jen Stagnaro. I feel blessed to have known her and called her friend. I will always remember her smile, her dry wit, and her deep love for her children. Those memories will keep her light alive for me. Forever.
I pray that her family and friends hold on to each other a little tighter and say,
I will not let go.