May 13, 1999
I heard about it first in late February from my daughter. I was dropping her off at a birthday party before going on to a basketball game. “Oh, yeah,” she said just before she slammed the door. “Josh Klein’s really sick. He needs a transplant.” She was halfway to the door before I could call her back and make her give me the details.
Marilyn and Joel live around the corner. I watched their house being built the first summer I lived here. That was more than twenty years ago. Most of us were newlyweds or young families then. The Kleins had an infant son by the time they moved in. Most of us didn’t have disposable income, central air, or even much furniture beyond a kitchen set. We spent a lot of summer evenings sitting on the curb watching the kids play.
There would be three more boys in that family, the last one born two months before my daughter. Josh, the third son, was a toddler that summer. He needed surgery to repair a heart defect and remove a poorly-formed lung. The procedure went well, and Josh grew along with all the others, smaller than his age-mates, but sturdy and strong.
After a while the kids no longer needed us to referee their games and watch for cars turning into the cul-de-sac. By then we had central air and furniture and cable, and no more babies, and those summer evenings changed. I miss them.
Josh started tenth grade in the fall, but he’d developed problems. By February he was in a hospital in Philadelphia awaiting a double transplant. Lynn heard about it at the bus stop from the younger brother. A neighbor told me that it was serious, but the time to address the problem was before Josh was too sick to benefit if a suitable set of organs became available.
I wrote to Marilyn, the standard “thinking of you in these difficult days” note. I really did think of her — how she drove to Philly every day to sit with her son and wait for someone else’s child to die so hers could live. And I prayed for her — Let it be, let it be, whisper words of wisdom, let it be. It’s the only prayer that works for me.
In my walks around the neighborhood I’d pass their house and see that a big potted aloe on a living room window sill had poked about two inches of a leaf through the vertical blinds. By last week that leaf had grown a foot, pressed up against the window and curving past another slat. No one’s turned it, I thought. No one even knows it’s there right now. Once or twice Marilyn and I passed each other coming into or out of the development. I always waved. The last time — last Thursday I think — I noticed that she didn’t wave back.
Josh died last night. I learned about it this afternoon at my oral surgeon’s office. From my oral surgeon, actually. He used to live in our neighborhood, and he belongs to Josh’s synagogue. I’d gone to see him because one of my implants is rattling. After he told me about Josh he began clucking over my periodontitis, serious but addressable. Ordinarily I might have become very upset over this inflammation that has caused me to have a screw loose. Under the circumstances it seemed almost like good news.
The funeral was this afternoon, after the custom of the Jews. On my way home from the oral surgeon I stopped at the Giant and picked up a fruit basket. I told Lynn I expected her to go with me this evening, and showed her the guidelines for a shiva visit in our book of Jewish literacy.
The first thing I saw when we walked up to the house was that aloe plant. Up close I noticed that the protruding leaf was bleached and sickly looking from so much time against a southern window. For some reason that made an overwhelming sadness wash over me. I forgot everything I was supposed to do.
I handed off the fruit basket to my best friend’s son, startled by how solemn and sad he looked. I walked right up to Marilyn, put my arms around her. “How are you?” she murmured. “I’m here,” I said. In our deepest moments, wrote Edna O’Brien, we say the most inadequate things.
In the other room I sat down beside Joel in (I learned later) one of the chairs reserved for mourners, reached out, and embraced him. I think I wasn’t supposed to do that, and I felt awkward, but what’s another parent to do.
I noticed how tall and handsome Josh’s older brothers had become. I noticed how vacant my best friend’s eyes were. I told her we had to leave quickly to get Lynn to her flute lesson. She said both she and her son had forgotten about his guitar lesson. Well, we both said, out on the sidewalk, and turned away from each other. In the car Lynn started to cry softly.
I’m a pro at attending visitations and funerals for the elderly parents of my lifelong friends, not only because I’ve had so much practice in recent years but because they are mostly from my own tradition. Of shivas I know a great deal from books but have scant practical experience. And of a mother my own age grieving a child my child’s age? This is not an event we practice for.
A lot of what I know about positive parenting I learned from watching Marilyn. A lot of the joy I experience in my family life I owe to that knowledge. Tonight I wanted to hug her and weep with her and tell her these things.
In the green tree is the bare tree, oh my friend. Recall his footsteps scattered now like stars.