“You know. I’m just saving the princess from the clutches of evil.”
“Oh,” I said, impressed by the matter-of-fact way in which he replied. I ate another grape off my plate as I sat down cross-legged next to him. I’m not sure I realized it right then, but thinking back, I should have been in awe of Ethan; his courage and fortitude; his resiliency; his zen-like calm. All of that in an mere eight-year old child.
We sat there for well over an hour. There was no talking, except for the occasional, “can I try?” or “pass me a grape, please.” The adults wandered back and forth, offering his parents their condolences, the upbeat Zelda theme quietly playing out of the small color TV flickering in front of us.
It took me years to understand the way Ethan reacted to his brother’s death. Adam was my best friend, and from the moment I found out he was dead, I was torn up inside. But with Ethan, I couldn’t tell if it was shock that kept him from tears or that he had already cried it out in private.
I found out Adam had died on a Monday. I had spent the weekend tearing through Otto of the Silver Hand, carefully remembering every brilliant detail in preparation for the Medieval history project a few of us were working on. I walked into my homeroom, my book in hand, ready for another joyous week.
“Did you hear?” a classmate asked me as I slipped into my seat.
“Adam Gelfand died.”
I didn’t even take the time to respond. I stormed up to my teacher and fearfully demanded if it were true. I’m not sure my jaw closed the remainder of the day when she grimly nodded and apologized.
I dragged my feet leaving school. My au pair was upset I was late and berated me the entire way home. What a horrific day she was having. She got a speeding ticket. She missed an appointment. Nothing was going right. I simply sat there and seethed. As we walked up the stairs to the house, she made a particularly nasty comment about my lateness.
“FUCK YOU,” I screamed. She slapped me. I stood there stunned, tears welling up in my eyes. “My best friend died today,” I said firmly before storming up to my room and diving into a box of kleenex.
I couldn’t understand how the sun could be shining, the birds singing. It was a nearly perfect spring day, and yet my entire world had changed.
For me, Adam’s death was potent and real. I didn’t know why it hurt so much. It’s not like it was unforeseen.
It was only a few months prior that I had stopped by his hospital room, ignoring the stifling claustrophobia hospitals elicited in me, and left a copy of the Black Stallion resting on his arm. His mother said thank you for him because he was too tired to wake up.
Throughout fourth grade, Adam had been back and forth from chemotherapy and hospitalizations. His brain tumor was no secret. Sometimes, he’d be with our class for several weeks with no problem. Then one day he wouldn’t be there for a while. Most of us learned to live with his absence, but it was tenable for me. I guess I assumed he’d always come back.
When he was feeling well, he, Greg and I would run around our backyards reenacting great moments in heroic literature. Adam was always the good guy—Robin Hood, or Elliot Ness, or King Arthur. That’s just the way it was. He wasn’t capable of being evil, let alone pretending to be evil.
Adam had a brilliant sense of humor. He was the grand master of the pun, for a fourth grader, of course. His jokes were always clean and his smile ever present. In the later years, it was often a tired smile, but I never saw him frown for more than a moment.
As I sat next to Ethan at the reception, all these things went through my head. Each picture in the house had that beaming smile of Adam’s. In each one his eyes twinkled with an intelligence far beyond that of any of our classmates. Only a few weeks before, those things were tangible and real. Now, however, they were gone.
Yet here Ethan was, sitting in front of the little TV, mashing buttons, his stoicism inconceivable to me.
The morning of Christmas day, I awoke with a chill. The blizzard that had swept over the mountains continued unabated outside my window. Despite the fleece blanket tacked in front of my window and the drawn shades, the cold easily pulled me from my slumber.
Christmas has never been an important holiday to me. My mother’s side of the family is Christian, but I was raised Jewish. We never visited on the Christian holidays. Thanksgiving was the big full family event, in all its secular glory. The distance between Boston and Denver made it easier to ignore my extended family. After moving to Colorado, I always felt obligated to join them for Christmas, though usually I scheduled myself to work or volunteer so I didn’t have to attend.
This Christmas eve I had been working, giving me the perfect excuse not to go. Still, being family and all, I felt obligated to give my grandfather a call.
I stumbled out of bed and snagged the phone from its charger. My grandfather’s number was programmed in, so I didn’t even need to remember it as I scrolled through my phonebook.
“Merry Christmas, Grandpa,” I said as he answered.
“Oh, hi Ben.” His voice sounded down. There wasn’t even a merry Christmas back.
“Sorry I missed Christmas dinner. How’d it go?”
“Fine, fine. Here, talk to your Uncle John,” he said, as I heard the phone fade away from him.
“Hey John. Merry Christmas.”
“Merry Christmas to you too,” my uncle responded dourly.
“Is everything alright?” I asked, worry washing over me.
“Oh, mom isn’t doing so well. We’re over at the hospice now.”
“Do you want me to come down? A friend left her car with me. I could be down in–”
“No, no. It’s probably nothing,” he interrupted as I parted my shades and looked out at the falling snow. “Besides, you don’t want to drive in this. It’s really yucky out. Go. Enjoy your day off. We’ll call you if anything happens.”
“Alright,” I said, resigning myself to a day indoors. “Give everyone my love.”
My grandmother died that evening. I didn’t get a phone call until the following morning. All I could think was how I should’ve gone down; I should’ve been there.
Though my mom flew out the following week, we didn’t really spend much time together. She was busy with family. I was busy with work.
Two weeks after my grandmother had died, our family finally congregated at my grandfather’s house. My mom cooked Veal Paprikash, a traditional Czech dish and one of my favorite dishes growing up. Every time we visited, my grandmother would make it for me.
Our family sat around watching TV and chatting about trivial things all evening. There wasn’t any mention of my grandmother outright, and no one seemed perturbed by this.
Perhaps, I thought, it’s in poor taste to talk about things so soon. Then again, what do we really have to say anyway?
My aunt and uncle, who had separated, acted civilly. I was surprised. It was almost as if they were still together.
When we sat down to dinner and grace was said, there was a brief mention of my grandmother. But afterwards we returned to our normal conversation.
“This is delicious,” my uncle Bruce said. “You did an excellent job, Paula.”
“Yeah, it’s great. Though not quite as good as mom’s,” chimed my uncle Bruce.
“Well, mama had years of practice,” said my grandfather. “I think the key is a little more salt and pepper.”
“Thanks,” my mom responded, nodding in kind. It was the only real discussion of my grandmother that night.
The entire drive home, I blasted classical music, watching the snow blow across the highway as I sped toward Boulder.
Why weren’t we sadder? I wondered. Why weren’t we sitting around laughing and telling stories about my grandmother? Why was everything so normal?
And then it dawned on me. We had already finished mourning.
It would be poetic justice that some grand operatic crescendo matched my emotional epiphany. As with most things, that wasn’t the case.
For the last year and half, we had watched my grandmother wither and die. I had done my mourning the first time I visited her in the hospice. I suspect over that time we all had.
Looking around the dinner table that night, I should’ve recognized the expression each of us wore. It was the same one that Ethan had at his brother’s funeral. For two years, he had watched his brother fight with that brain tumor. By the time he finally died, he and his parents had known for a while what was coming. They were prepared. And I wasn’t.
I shed no tears when my grandmother died. If anything, it was relief I felt. Getting together that night, my family was stoic and calm. It was the perfect balance of pain and relief. We had already lost my grandmother over a year ago. There was no need to cry or share stories or reminisce. We had been doing it for so long, all we wanted was some normalcy.
As I pulled up to my house and wandered inside, the stars twinkling over head as the wind stirred up the snow, I considered for a minute whether I should sit down and play some Zelda on the Wii.
Naw, I thought, a glimmer of Adam’s smile flitting across my mind. I don’t think the clutches of evil will be threatening the princess tonight.