It’s terrible how much has been forgotten, which is why, I suppose, remembering seems a Holy thing.

-Anita Diamant, The Red Tent

Last Friday was my Aunt Terry’s birthday. She died over three years ago – it will be four years in October. I can not wrap my brain around that fact.

I remember the last time I saw her in such detail: It is October 7, 2011 in a hotel in Jersey City, at my cousin Beth’s wedding. Emma is the flower girl and I am a bridesmaid; my dress is beautiful, a deep purple, or aubergine.


Aunt Terry has cancer. This is new information, yet to be fully digested by those who love her. But her oncologist has a plan, she is going to be ok, because she has to be. She dances at the wedding, and in my mind this means she will beat this. She is little but mighty.


The morning after the wedding I pack our suitcases before heading down to brunch. Phil is in the shower and Emma is watching cartoons. I want to see Aunt Terry alone, before we all have to put our brunch faces on. I want to go down the hall and tap on her door, I want to climb in bed with her and smell her perfume. We will do the post-party recap; I will be a clown and make her laugh.

But what if she is not feeling well, what if Gary (her husband) is in the shower, what if I am too old to climb in bed with her, what if what if what if. So I don’t go.

I didn’t go. I wanted to take care of her in some small way but I didn’t.

Aunt Terry was the one who took care of everyone else. The summer I turned 16 I was full of teenage angst; my parents and I could not breathe the same air without fighting over it were not seeing eye to eye. It was suggested (by whom I can’t remember) that I go hang out at Aunt Terry’s for a week or three. She taught me how to mow the lawn (which I still love to do) and parallel park (which I don’t).

We sat in her kitchen one night, dipping pretzels in ice cream when she asked: “Why are you so sad, Honey?”

It was the perfect thing to say.

At the wedding brunch I sit with Aunt Terry for a while, then we all gather our stuff to leave. Phil loads the car while I check out. Aunt Terry and Gary are standing behind me. As Gary returns the key cards I turn to her and say: “I am going to come see you in Virginia, I can help. We can lay in bed and watch Modern Family for eight hours straight, ok?”

I wrap my arms around her but she seems so delicate, I am afraid of upsetting the chemo port in her chest. We say I love you and I walk the few steps to the escalator. I can see Phil and Emma through the glass window, waiting in the car below.

The image of Aunt Terry standing in the hotel lobby as I step onto the escalator is burned on my brain. I can see the light coming in the windows, creating patterns on the carpet. The cylindrical shape of the vase perched on the desk. The flowers are autumnal – yellow and orange. Gary runs his fingers through his hair; he is distracted, he wears his fear on his face. Aunt Terry leans into him, letting his body support her, and a feeling comes over me that is difficult to name – an unshakeable chill, my heart sinking into my stomach like a stone.

I wonder if a part of my brain knew this was the last time I would ever see her. That in three weeks, she would be gone. I wonder if my brain bypassed my magical thinking and said, You will want to remember this.

Lately I have been thinking a lot about memory – why we remember some things but not others. Sometimes it feels so random, even bizarre, the things that stick in my crawl: the outfit I wore on the first day of 7th grade, the distinct grape smell of Aussie Sprunch Hairspray, the notes and fingerings required to play “Louie Louie” on the mellophone.

I remember bits and pieces of both my daughters’ births, but they are fuzzy, like pieces of a dream. Yet I distinctly remember Emma coming to the hospital to meet Phoebe for the first time. She was wearing a white shirt with green and yellow butterflies. My mom had put a green bow in her hair, along with a bunch of bobby pins “to keep it in place.”

As she stood peering into the bassinet, her face a mixture of curiosity and skepticism, I remember thinking: Emma looks enormous. Like Alice in Wonderland kind of huge. I turned to Phil and before I could even speak he leaned over and whispered, “Yeah she looks 12 feet tall. It’s freaking me out.”

Maybe it’s the things that feel out of place that stick. The mind’s way of making sense of a new reality, turning it over and upside down like a Rubik’s Cube. Maybe those are the things that float around until the brain finds the right compartment to place it in. But for some things, there is no compartment. So the brain gives up, and the memory just keeps on floating in and out of the consciousness.

This is not a scientific theory. It is a Jessie Theory (which is decidedly un-scientific).

I just finished reading Patricia Hampl’s I Could Tell You Stories: Sojourns in the Land of Memory. In the essay entitled “Memory and Imagination,” she writes:

We store in memory only images of value. The value may be lost over the passage of time, but that’s the implacable judgment of feeling: This, we say somewhere within us, is something I’m hanging onto. And, of course, often we cleave to things because they posses heavy negative charges. Pain has strong arms.

Pain has strong arms.

There is a planet of regret that accompanies my final memory of Aunt Terry. It can be all-consuming, suffocating – crushing all other thoughts of her with its hugeness. But now, almost four years later, I am beginning to feel a shift – a making way, making room for other memories to surface.

Aunt Terry made PB & J on white bread with peanut butter on both sides so it sealed in the grape jelly, preventing sogginess. Her iced tea was perfectly sweet. She loved to play games -Spoons, Jenga, Outburst- and she played to win. She liked to dance, anywhere, anytime. We both snort when we laugh. She taught me how to tie the perfect bow for a Christmas wreath. She could eat just one cookie. She laughed at my jokes. I would do anything to make her laugh. I miss the sound of her voice saying my name.

In her memoir The Long Goodbye, Meghan O’Rourke writes about grief:

It’s not a question of getting over it or healing. No; it’s a question of learning to live with this transformation. For the loss is transformative, in good ways and bad, a tangle of change that cannot be threaded into the usual narrative spools. It is too central for that. It’s not an emergence from the cocoon, but a tree growing around an obstruction.

As time marches on, I pray that more memories will continue to bubble to the surface. That I will learn to grow around what I didn’t do, or what didn’t happen, of what wasn’t. I want to grow with tall branches toward the light of what did happen. Of what was.

The All-Stars

“Basketball is an intricate, high-speed game filled with split-second, spontaneous decisions. But that spontaneity is possible only when everyone first engages in hours of highly repetitive and structured practice–perfecting their shooting, dribbling, and passing and running plays over and over again–and agrees to play a carefully defined role on the court. . . . spontaneity isn’t random.”
― Malcolm Gladwell

Emma wanted to play basketball this year, but the team of third graders from her school was already full. Allison, the mom of Emma’s friend Lola, called me back in October.

“If we put together a basketball team, do you think Phil would want to coach?”

“Hmm…probably. Hang on, let me ask.” I pressed the phone into my shirt, and turned to Phil, who was separating the recycling.

“Would you want to coach Emma in basketball if Allison can get a team together?”

He took a break from crushing seltzer cans for a moment, then shrugged. “Sure. Why not?”

And the All-Stars were born.

The team was comprised of thirteen girls, many of whom had never played basketball before. It’s possible some of them had never actually seen a basketball before. Phil came home from the first Sunday night practice gnawing on the back of his hand – his version of nail biting.

“How did it go? I asked as I served up pancakes dinner.

He cracked open an Amstel Light and took a long swallow. “I have my work cut out for me.”

That week, he spent hours printing out basketball drills. When he walked in the door from practice on Sunday night, I asked, “How did it go?”

Insert hand, begin gnawing. “Maybe they are not quite ready for drills yet.”

The All-Stars lost their first game. “Hey you win some, you lose some, right?” I said over hot dogs dinner. Emma glared. Phil gnawed.

Then they lost their second game. “Hey, you guys are new to this, you’re still meshing as team, you’ll get there!” I said over scrambled eggs dinner. Emma rolled her eyes. Phil gnawed.

They lost their third game. “Well, it’s official!” Emma announced when they walked in the door. “We stink.” She tried to toss her basketball shoes in the shoe basket but missed. She growled. Phil gnawed. I made cheese sandwiches dinner. Quietly.

But then something began to shift. Not the losing part- that remained consistent. It was the talking about the losing that went away. There was a shift in energy after Sunday night practices. We had lively conversations over hot dogs dinner about how they had improved that week. “No one even layed down on the court until the very end!” Emma reported with pride.

Phil ditched the drills and instead developed his own lessons based on what he was seeing in front of him. Each week they tackled a new skill:

  • How to Not Hide in the Corner
  • Shooting In Front of the Basket, Not Behind the Basket
  • Overcoming Your Fear of the Ball
  • Only Pass to Your Teammates
  • What Color Shirt Are You Wearing
  • Passing to People With the Same Color Shirt
  • How to Tie Your Shoe Mid-Game in Under Five Minutes

By their eighth loss, Phil had stopped gnawing on his hand, and Emma had become almost philosophical about the whole thing.

“You know Mom,” she said one day while eating her after school snack, “the other third grade team is undefeated. And we are like, totally defeated. But that team played together last year, so…it’s not a super fair comparison.”

I poured her a glass of milk. “Did Dad tell you that?”

“Uh-huh,” she said with a mouthful of Goldfish. She took a gulp of milk, then added, “Dad doesn’t talk much about winning. He just wants us to build our skills. He doesn’t care if we win, he just cares if we improve. Oh and I can’t call him Dad when we talk about basketball. It’s Coach Braun.”

I smiled. “Got it. Sounds like Coach Braun is pretty good at this.”

She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand and pulled her books out of her backpack. “Yeah. The best thing about him is that he never says stuff like: ‘it’s not about winning it’s just about having fun’ or whatever. Because duh. Winning is kind of the point. He says we will win when we are ready to win.”

“Hmmm. And do you think you are ready to win?”

She paused, pencil case in hand. “Maybe. I mean, Lola scored last week. And most of us know the names of the positions now: Guard, Point Guard, Wing, Down Low…so…maybe.” And with that, she started her homework.

Sunday was the last game of the season for the All-Stars. The game started at 2:00, and by then the wintry mix that had been falling all morning had turned to ice. But the game was still on, so we bundled up and headed over the to gym. The parking lot was a skating rink.

“Do you think people will show up?” I asked, shuffling my feet across the ice.

“Let’s hope so,” Phil said. Gnaw, gnaw, gnaw.

At 2:00, the other team had twelve players, the All-Stars only had four. Allison and I huddled by the door. One more person, one more person, please please please….

“It’s Sabine!” Allison shouted. “Sabine is here!”

With a burst of icy air the gym door swung open and in stumbled Sabine and family, a bundle of wet boots and flying scarves. Game on.

The girls played with an intensity I had never seen. Even though the other team was wearing shirts of a similar hue, no one passed to an opposing player. They hadn’t quite mastered the shoe tying thing, so Phil called a time-out for lace management.

Emma scored for the first time. I cried. Lola scored. Allison and I held hands. I couldn’t believe these were the same girls. No one huddled in the corner. No one covered her face when the ball was passed. No one took a nap. They ran, they passed, they shot, they scored. The All-Stars had risen from the dead. It was a freaking Easter miracle.


The final buzzer sounded like Handel’s Messiah. 9-0, All-Stars.

What happened next is fuzzy. There was a lot of jumping. And hugging. Then some jumping together while hugging. Videos were taken of the jumping and hugging. I’m not sure what the kids were doing.

Slowly we collected ourselves and skated our way through the parking lot, high-fiving our way to our respective vehicles. When we got in the car Emma said, “Hey do you think we made the other team feel bad for cheering so loud? I feel kind of bad about that.”

Oh shit, I thought. She’s totally right.

But Phil was on it. “No worries, Buddy. I explained to their coach it was our first win. He totally understood. Besides they beat us earlier in the season, so they know what it’s like to win.”

Emma sat back in her seat, relieved. “Yeah, now I know why people like to win. It feels really good to win.”

I looked over at my husband in his Betterball t-shirt, his hair covered with ice, eyes fixed on the road. I reached over, rested my hand on his leg and thought, I know exactly what she means.