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Wearing the Banner of an Old Friend

June 12, 1986|CAROLYN POLESE | Polese lives in Arcata. She has not used her friend's real name in this article

"Firecrackers!" my little boy shouted as I pulled my jeans out of the bottom drawer, revealing the tip of something red.

"Not firecrackers, red spider webs!" he cried as his fingers plucked forth a tangle of brilliant yarn.

He plunged into the drawer to pull his discovery out from its hiding place.

The Lacy Woolen Cape

"No. It's a cape!" He twirled with it, wrapping himself in red. The lacy fringe bobbed around his ankles. Memories, voices, emotions confronted me, as if they'd been waiting to be released from those woolen folds. He raised his eyes and grinned.

"I never saw this before," he said.

"It's Deirdre's," I told him, my voice catching on that familiar name. "That's Deirdre's shawl."

"Who's she?"

Fifteen years ago. Dancing barefoot across the quad on campus, her hair swinging free, her bright shawl a banner, Deirdre led me out of the safe world of books into the spontaneous now of dances, rallies, midnight bonfires and men. Deirdre was always intense, questioning everything: teachers, lovers, life. And she had that laugh, teasing and joy-filled at first, later hollow, self-mocking.

"A friend," I told my son. "My roommate in college, long before I met your Dad."

It was clear from the lack of expression in his eyes that we were talking ancient history now. But the bright-red shawl held enough fascination to keep the questions bubbling.

"Will she come back for it?" he asked.

"No, honey. She's dead."

Those words meant little to him. He didn't hear the shot. His throat has never been stopped up with shock, or loss.

"Why'd she die?"

That was the question. Over and over from Deirdre's mother during the week we waited at the hospital for Deirdre's brain to die: "Was it boys? Was it drugs? Why?"

Did I do the right thing? I could have told Deirdre's mother about the times her daughter slipped into that dark, inner world. Then she would lie on her bed wailing, begging to be held and rocked, sometimes mewling wordlessly, a sound I wouldn't hear again until my first child was born.

Searching for an Answer

"Why?" Her mother's face, lined and hardened, tear wet, cornered me by the hospital bed. "Can't you tell me why?"

I could have played back Deirdre's curses, her anger. And late one night, but only once, "You know, I'd rather get a gun and kill myself than go crazy."

"Why?" her mother begged, wailed, wanting me to repeat my answer.

What could I tell her, trapped as I was between the truth and the living?

I didn't understand why I said what I did back then. Now I can see that the older woman and I chose life, no matter how hard or how poorly lived. We were left to make of Deirdre's death whatever would serve life best.

"She was sad," I told my little boy. This time I knew that the answer--the same one I had given Deirdre's mother--was the right one. "Very sad. And she didn't know how to ask for help."

"But that's easy. You just should shout 'Help! Help!' " he said, his brown eyes so certain behind the bright-red shawl.

"Sometimes sadness seems very big. Sometimes people are afraid to ask." I'd been standing there with Deirdre at the abyss of post-adolescent confusion and rage. Afraid to ask for help for her because she'd seemed so sure of herself when she said, "I can handle this." Unaware that I could ask for myself. Until I met Deirdre, I'd always been able to retreat between the covers of my books.

Then I saw where Deirdre got, tightrope-walking her psyche alone.

After the service, her mother had told me to take what I wanted from Deirdre's effects. I chose the red shawl like a banner from her top drawer and the next day I signed up for counseling. With persistence, I found the right listener, a safety net as I struggled gracelessly with growing up, and with grief.

"If you yell 'Help!' " my son told me, turning my face with his hands to make sure I was listening, "I'll always come."

"Me, too," I told him. He was in my arms, smelling of mothballs and patchouli oil. "No matter what, no matter when, honey, I always love you."

Deirdre missed so much.

From Red to Pink

He pulled the stopper of the sink and turned on cold water. I squirted the soap and put in Deirdre's shawl.

The color wept out. Blood red filled the sink.

"What's wrong?"

"The dye is running," I told him, steadying myself against the sink's cold edge.

"Where to?" he asked and giggled at his wit.

The shawl dried out a deep, rosy pink. Changed, but a banner still.

"You look pretty tonight." This time it was my husband talking. We were going dancing, stepping out in the lilac-filled night.

I did a dance step there on the street. Not barefoot, but free from a terrible care. My friend's shawl rested warmly over my arms. It's a burden I can carry now.

Just for this night I wore Deirdre's shawl. And I danced and laughed and breathed the sweet air of evening for her.

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