Thursday, April 19, 2007

What Women Talk About

Our children bonded first the year after the new family moved to the block, playing with a kitten after a yard sale, running yarn all the way through the house during a neighborhood party. There was the first phone call about a play date. First grade at the same school, then just like that our children were best friends.

Friendship can be tentative and slower for adults. Especially in the fall when we may not even see our next-door neighbor until the spring.

“Do you want to come in for a cup of tea?” Ellyn asked when I had walked Emily up the street one Saturday. I let myself be coaxed across the threshold and into her house, still carrying garden clippers. I’d asked if I could cut some of their grapevines to make wreaths. It was November. It was wet. She put on the kettle and took out a mug that said 40 is Fabulous. “I know you’re not there yet,” Ellyn said, “but it’s either that or Jungle Book.”

We exchanged the information that placed us each in our day, her younger son had awakened very early, Alex had wanted to call my daughter at seven and counted the minutes until it was safely past nine. Her son Will came into the kitchen carrying a gallon jug of bubbles. Alex and Emily came to the kitchen to negotiate the problems of sharing candy. Will had a bologna sandwich. Alex peeled satsumas and left the peels on the top of the refrigerator. Then the older children disappeared and in one of those acts of parenting designed to allow grown-ups to talk, Ellyn filled a bubble lawnmower with the potion and Will went in circles around the dining room, entry and kitchen with bubbles spewing out of the blower before they wafted above the wood floors. We started to talk.

I’ve always thought that it would be wonderful to diagram conversations between women, to show where they start and where they end. I told her about a friend in Anacortes, who we were going to visit after ballet class with Miss Louise, how I called her for help with Emily once from a pay phone and she met me within fifteen minutes, how she insisted on dropping off breakfast for twelve the morning of Jim’s memorial.. “And now she’s pregnant, “ I concluded, “I may have offered to be her birth partner.”

We were still standing on either side of the butcher block in the middle of her kitchen, having been outside with the bubble blower and upstairs to reboot the computer and into the TV room to settle Will in front of a dinosaur video. “Have you been at a birth?” she asked me and from there we traveled farther. I listened to just parts of her birth stories. The precipitous labor that the nurse claimed wasn’t labor. How Will’s lung collapsed right after he was born, and they took him away. How her best friend brought treats to eat and a comedy to watch but all she could do was cry and leak milk.

I told her about my husband not wanting to be present, and digressed to the story of how my friend Amy hired dueling doula’s and then I came back to the birthing room. How my sister burst out, “What is this?” when she felt a lump on my calf during labor. “I want you to get this removed.” Then I jumped to last Christmas when my sister and her husband insisted on telling the birth story of their two-week old twins together. But how with two week old twins there was never time. Until the night before we flew back to Seattle and how I left my parent’s house in nightgown, ski jacket and my mother’s wool clogs, drove through sleet to their house at midnight and we curled up on their bed, with one twin in the cradle and the other twin on her father’s wide, warm chest and they told me the birth story in a form of chorus.

I explained why Jim didn’t want to be present, and how he’d had a bone marrow biopsy earlier in the day of Emily’s birth. Ellyn looked startled, pushed her hair behind her ears, “so that was going on with your husband even while you were pregnant.” We were both silent a moment and then she said, “it must have been like experiencing a war.” I was surprised because those had been my thoughts exactly back during that time. We talked about when a year could seem like a siege, like the year that a good friend died in a plane crash, her father died of a stroke, about how she and her future husband broke up and what it took to get through every day.

Next thing I was telling her about the liver biopsy day, changing Emily’s diaper and then Jim’s wound. Wondering how people perceived me? Did they think of me of someone whose husband was dying? How the word widow seems so unnatural. Ellyn admitted she often thinks about death and wonders what is on the other side. She told me about watching a friend die after falling from her horse while they were with friends on a beach. Ellyn said, “She didn’t hit her head, the horse didn’t fall on her. W couldn’t understand how she could just die.” not learning till later that a broken rib had punctured her friend’s heart as if with one fell swoop of a sword. Ellyn said it seems like a good ending now, one moment cantering along the sea - and the next minute dead.

“My father had a stroke,” she said. “He was only fifty-eight. It was one stroke and then he was brain dead. I hope he knew how much I would have liked to tell him so many more times how much I loved him. “They wanted us to decide so quickly about life support,” she said. He was still warm, how are you supposed to make a decision when they’re still so warm and he just seemed like he was sleeping? When my sister and I were there with him at the end, I realized that I had his hands.

We paused. We probably could have stopped but instead she put on the kettle again and we continued to pass our lives back and forth on either side of the butcher block, trading an infidelity for a dying cat, a distant mother for an alcoholic father. Consensus on Cary Grant and dark chocolate. “How did we get here?” I finally asked.

“We were talking about birth,” Ellyn said, and we were silent a moment retracing our steps. “Did you want to cut some of grape vines?” she asked as though that had been my true business there. For a moment I felt banished from the warm kitchen, but then she said, “I’ll bring my tea out while you cut.”

And so it was on that day with the children mysteriously occupied in her large house that we became friends. Later on she would take to inviting me to tea on Fridays after she watched my struggle to get Emily on the schoolbus. Still later we would begin walking together 4-5 hours a week. But on that day, Ellyn threw on a coat and stood by while I clipped long vines from her arbor.

“All the tea has kicked in,” I told Ellyn. “I won’t sleep for days.”

“I’m sorry,” she said.

“Well,” I told her. “I hope that you really wanted me to come in for tea because I warn you. I have no will power. I’ll almost always go where I’m invited.”

“I really wanted you to come in and have tea,” she said. “Otherwise I wouldn’t have invited you.”

That was the beginning, because there has to be beginning when women start to talk, but there does not need to be an ending. Sometimes when I am walking without Ellyn, I think about her stories instead of my own. I think of her father’s hands, still warm.

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