I was living my life one Thursday, when I received this email message:
Wednesday August 7th,
Subject: I’m Sorry
This is Michael also known as Bubba
Melissa wanted me to reach out to you and let you know her darling Alice passed away unexpectedly yesterday
She died in her sleep
I don’t have a phone number for you
But you can call me at…
I wept. Wept. It’s such a clumsy word. My reaction was so intense that as soon as the tears sprang from my eyes, my nose began to bleed. I felt as though my entire head was exploding. My four-year-old daughter was playing her morning games in the living room as I read the words. I ran outside and crumpled on the front porch. There was absolutely nothing in my mind, aside from the pain that Melissa must be feeling.
Honestly, friends, Melissa doesn’t keep her cards close to her vest. She loves her kids. She loves her kids. She………
Shit. Shit. Shit. Oh my God.
I held Alice when she was really little. I knew she was going to be an easy baby. You could tell, right away. Grace, the Beautiful, Grace, the Fabulous, had not been an easy baby. Melissa deserved an easy baby. Melissa loves hard and strong. She works her ass off. She has the sweetest family on this earth and she’s driven and she’s a lover. She’s a person who loves. And then, she manages to earn a Ph.D while she’s loving her kids and working her ass off!
You know, I’m just happy when I can get my kitchen clean.
So, Alice smiled at me. She made me feel comfortable when I visited. Melissa needed a shower, so I held her new baby, her beautiful, little angel.
And now, she’s gone.
I got the news late. I live in the country. My cell phone is shit. I was completely unaware that my very best friend had been living with the death of her precious child for two days without me. Upon charging my phone, I found a voicemail from Melissa:
“Meleva, Alice is gone. My baby is gone”
My God. Alice died and my best friend had to leave me a voicemail. To this day, the guilt torments me.
I was in my car and on the freeway within two hours. My husband wondered if it might be helpful to bring our four-year-old daughter, Famke, with me. I texted Melissa (it was, at that point, the only way she could communicate) and she was enthusiastic. Grace was so lonely. She needed someone to play with. Anyone with a heart in their chest could see how unbelievably tragic that loneliness was. No sister. No one in the crib in the room that they shared. Just grief. Everywhere.
So, Famke and I set out for Los Angeles. She didn’t sleep on the drive as much as I thought she would. We spent the day talking about our “pet dragon” that roared when I drove over the bumps on the edge of the freeway and flew through the air leaving jet streams in the sky. We talked about Alice and Grace and how Alice was an angel now.
“Remember Grace? And, little Alice? Well, Alice died. Melissa and Grace are very sad. We will try and make them feel better!” I wept some more at the ridiculousness of my own words, but Famke didn’t see me.
What occupied my mind, for most of the trip, was that Melissa was going to have a Viewing. Why? What could that possibly do for anyone? Her? The family? I spoke to people close to me, and they all said they thought it was barbaric. One friend actually advised me not to attend. He said that he had seen a child laid out, and that it haunted him to that day. No matter how strong the aversion, I knew that I could not possibly fail Melissa. I was going to Los Angeles. I was going to this Viewing. Whatever my friend wanted to do, I would do it with her. If she had asked me to steal Alice’s body from the coroner’s office with assault weapons and drive to Peoria to bury Alice in her childhood backyard, I would have done it.
We arrived late on Thursday night. The house was dark, but I could see that there were people inside. I got Famke out of the car (she was raring to go) and walked to the front porch. Really, it’s such a lovely porch. Craftsman. That expanse of grass and then the stairway to that beautiful, wide, wooden door is gorgeous. It struck me that the house still looked so idyllic, even when a hole had been ripped in the fabric of the universe. We knocked on the door and someone let us inside. I saw Melissa. I hugged her. She looked like shit. She said she felt like shit. She had a fever. She was ridiculously apologetic about not being able to host to my daughter and me at the house. Right inside her sadness, she needed to take care of us. I will never forget that. I guess that’s when I knew that she would be all right. She offered us food. She offered me wine (she knows me.)
Famke and I excused ourselves and tried to find a motel. The one I had lined-up turned out to be a desperate looking hole. Famke and I, we love motels and hotels. Any place that isn’t home. We drove around for a while through some very treacherous neighborhoods and eventually found a precious spot, just off of Wilshire Boulevard. In fact, I recommend it highly to those of you who visit. I know you are legion, and you probably don’t know where to stay when you’re out there! Just sayin’. Anyway, it’s great. Cheap too. The Friendship Motor Inn on Crenshaw did not disappoint.
We checked in.
The Viewing was to be held the following morning. None of my fear had dissipated. I hadn’t been able to talk to Melissa. I hadn’t been able to hold her, or cry with her. Famke and I went to a local drug store and bought bottled water, and a curling iron, and candy, and a bottle of wine and went back to our motel room to wait the dawn.
I woke and felt as if my body were moving without me. What do you wear to a tragedy? What does it matter? I did my hair and did my eyes, and decided not to wear mascara because I didn’t have waterproof.
Upon arriving at the house, I encountered Melissa’s father who hugged me warmly. I really like that guy. His pain was undisguised, and his strength was inspirational. There were several people who were helping to administer the proceedings: Jonathan, Clara’s charming, British husband whom I mistook for a cowboy somehow, Bubba, of course, and then all of Melissa’s friends who had been there for her while I drove and cried. They had gone beyond duty to support Melissa. It was still hard to fathom. My friend had lost her child–her wonderful, just two-year-old baby girl. This was the problem. Can you think about this thing without it destroying you? No. I know you all know what I’m talking about. This was the single, worst thing that had ever occurred to anyone I loved.
I walked through the house. Alice wasn’t there yet. Melissa’s baby was somewhere else. Not in the house. Not in the yard. Not playing with her toys, or irritating her sister. Nope. She was on her way, in a specially, converted van. This was yet another moment of painful absurdity.
So there we were in the backyard, waiting for Alice, talking quietly and introducing ourselves to one another. Crying. I guess I could have marked the hours of that week by my own tears. I feel as though I never stopped crying, but I know I did. That week began with Bubba’s email. That Thursday was, for me, the beginning of life without Alice. More rightly, it was the beginning of my dearest friend’s life without Alice. I know it’s obvious, but it should be said that my focus, my main concern was for Melissa. She is so very important to me.
She has asked me to tell my story of that week. It hasn’t been easy to re-experience the story. I sent an email to my mother and my sister on that Monday. To save my sanity, and in the interest of expedience, I will simply share with you the letter I wrote to my mother and sister. Melissa wanted this, so here it is:
To: SISTER UNIT; MOM;
Sent: Mon, Aug 12, 2013 3:34 pm
Subject: The viewing
Sorry, I haven’t had a moment since I arrived. I am here at Melissa’s where I stayed last night. It has been an insane whirlwind of moments, both painful and wonderful. The viewing turned out to be the best idea in the world. I am completely won over by the concept. They laid her out on their own bed, in a pretty little dress with her favorite things around her. A woman brought her in a van. This is her job: Green funerals, including in-home viewings. She’s very passionate about it, and now I understand why. I felt an amazing sense of lightness after I went in. I waited until quite late in the day to do it, as I was so terrified. I kept watching for a moment when I could go in alone. Finally, I looked in and Melissa was laying on the bed next to Alice, with her mom across from them. I certainly couldn’t back out now because Melissa looked up at me and said, “Have you seen her yet?” She and her mom looked like two, beautiful, sad characters in a painting. The light was soft. There they were, just looking down at their sleeping child/grandchild. This was the moment. I had to proceed so I sat on the bed beside Alice, with Melissa lying on the other side of her.
Neither Melissa nor I are much for platitudes or bullshit, so there was no need to feel that I had to say the right thing. Melissa encouraged me to touch her, and so I did. First, just her hair. Strange. It seemed to be the only “living” thing about her. I was overcome. We cried together–her mom too–then Melissa wrapped her arm around Alice and wept. She felt so guilty. So many things she should have done: checked on her, napped with her in this bed instead of putting her in the crib, etc. All futile. All hindsight. All ridiculous. All I could do was tell her that she was a perfect mom. When she said that she must be the worst mommy in the world to let her baby die in a crib, it tore my heart to shreds.
We talked about Grace then. Grace is, intermittently, not speaking to Melissa or lashing out. I told her that Grace was so young and could only process this experience through her parents, especially her mother, so, on a level, the whole thing: Alice’s death, Melissa’s grief, all of these sad, crying faces, were all, somehow, Melissa’s fault. She thought maybe she should send her off with someone for a while. I argued that Grace really needed to do these things. This process was important.
I placed my hand on Alice. She was cold, but it didn’t bother me now. We all shared some memories of her. She was such a funny kid, an absolutely charming child in every way, and you know Melissa, she has that enchanting gift of storytelling where she can completely embody a person. She can make you feel as though Alice is right there, saying “Hiiii”, putting her blankie in the corner of her eye, and so on. It was good to feel her presence, even if it was only a reenactment, because, you see, although her body was lying there under my palm, there was no mistaking that Alice was gone. There was no way to fool yourself that she was in there.
Melissa’s wonderful friend Michael/Bubba came in. He is a dear heart and has been in charge of everything this whole week since the afternoon Alice died. Somehow the conversation wound around to that book by Tina Fey, in which she writes a prayer for her daughter. It is absolutely roll-on-the-floor funny and Michael, Linda and I hadn’t read it, so Melissa sent me to fetch the book from the bookshelf in the hall and Michael read the poem. Another thing I love about Melissa is her indomitability. The fact that a person can laugh as well as cry in the middle of a nightmare, is, in the long run, what will save her from either madness or death. She had already told me, in no uncertain terms, that if she did not have Grace, she would have followed Alice the moment she realized that her baby was gone. Yet here we were laughing through our tears with Tina Fey. My friends, that is what life is all about.
I had probably been in there an hour at that point, and there were people waiting to view little Alice, so we floated out of the room.
I know this is a lot of information, and it’s intense, and seriously, I’m almost done, but I have to write about this, and you have been asking me what’s going on……
Last thing—you need to hear about Grace and Famke.
I had just gone outside with a well-needed cocktail when someone came out to get me. I can’t remember who it was because I was still in a dream-state. They told me that when they asked Grace if she wanted to see her sister, she wanted to know if she could bring her friend Famke. So they came out to see if I was at all uncomfortable with that. I did hesitate, but then I had the epiphany that it had been such a beautiful experience for me, why wouldn’t it be so for my daughter?
The girls came in and looked. Melissa said they could touch, so they did with no hesitation whatsoever. Grace was quiet. She looked wonderingly at the beautiful doll that was once her sister. I can’t remember what the adults said. Grace wasn’t really asking questions. You could see them in her eyes, but I don’t think she could get them out of her head. Finally Famke asked Melissa how she knew that Alice was dead. Melissa answered her with a careful candor that was remarkable, under the circumstances:
“Well, honey, she wasn’t breathing anymore.”
Famke responded, “and her heart wasn’t beating?”
Famke said, “Well, we can all see her again when we go to heaven.”
Grace’s unbelievably beautiful eyes didn’t leave her sister very often. There was just a flicker once or twice to look up at her mother or Famke when they spoke. Famke became her voice–asking about the toys on the bed, and the books.
Famke said, “I just think she’s the most beautiful baby in the world.”
A few moments went by. We all tried to compose ourselves. Of course, we knew that we few souls, standing here over this little body were watching one of the most important moments any of us had ever witnessed. It was an electrified, quiet and powerfully heavy room. Grace offered something about one of Alice’s toys—I can’t remember what she said, I have to remind myself to call Linda and see if she remembers because everything flew out of my head— when, suddenly, Famke sighed, and out of the silence said simply:
She thought a moment, then finished, “I wish she could just……COME ALIVE.”
It was exactly what we all felt. I guess no one had said it yet.
So, that was the viewing. Not scary. I would say it was cathartic. Necessary, even. There must be something in us that needs to see the shell of the person we loved.
OK. I have to run. We have just returned from a balloon release up at the top of the world here in Los Angeles. Just the family and Famke and I. We hiked to the top; I’m hellaciously out of shape. Melissa said she felt peaceful. She was glad for Alice that she would never know any of the ugly things that people do to each other.
In a few minutes, little Alice’s ashes will arrive. Instead of an urn, the brilliant funeral director suggested that Melissa give her one of Alice’s blankets so they could make a little bag out of Alice’s blankie. The body of a child ends up being little more than a cupful.
Melissa says that Alice being gone is becoming more real to her every day, but as she lay in her bedroom waiting for the delivery of the ashes, she realized that her daughter no longer has eyes, or little fingers and toes, no heart, no hair. Her entire family leaves tomorrow. She doesn’t know what to do. She says she’ll probably go through all of Alice’s things and use a recorder to chronicle the memories. She doesn’t yet feel that she can write. She’s a beautiful writer, as you know.
I’m trying to get her to extend her stay next week. She does have amazing friends to turn to. I hope she uses them.
I’m leaving around 3 am and should see you in the late morning. Thanks to Jerry again for the loan of his car, and the extra day and a half.
So, there you go. As I said, it was painful, tragic and yet, in many ways, beautiful. And there were upsides; I finally met the Fergusons, for instance. I finally met Melissa’s mother, Linda. Circumstances aside, I really did find some joy that week in becoming close to all of the family members and friends. Remarkable bunch of folks. My plan, when I left the Foothills, was to be there for the Viewing and the Service and go home the next day. Melissa wouldn’t hear of our leaving. “No Way,” she said. When something like this happens, you want so badly to help. You find yourself repeating emphatically to your grief-stricken friend, “Anything I can do. Please let me know!” So, I was given the greatest gift of all, as far as friendship goes–the honor of being needed.
Melissa, Grace and little Alice up there in the sky, I love you guys. I’m sorry. Remember, anything I can do, please let me know!