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ROBIN ABCARIAN

The Ties That Bind Can Be Knotted With Pain

November 16, 1994|ROBIN ABCARIAN

The plane was at cruising altitude, headed west, chasing the dusk. Eventually, the sun outran us and the sky turned a deep, peaceful blue. I stared out the window, feeling bereft.

What I saw after a moment gave considerable cheer.

Down below, the darkness had been erased by incandescence. There was no announcement from the cockpit, but no mistaking the location. Out of nowhere: grids of white street lights like sequins on black velvet, then, right down the middle of all that sparkle, an improbable seam of green and pink and yellow neon. It was fantastic. It was Las Vegas, national monument to impulsiveness, to pleasure, to the here and now.

And why the hell not?

That's what I was thinking anyway as we soared past the lights and the ground disappeared again.

Go for it. Live it up. Carpe diem.

It can all be snatched away so damn fast.

*

I was coming home from a weekend visiting friends near Detroit, and there was good reason for my mood.

Three of them had suffered personal tragedies that were remarkably similar: All had lost life partners at unexpectedly early ages. John, who recently underwent brain surgery, lost Joel to AIDS last month. Nancy, who has beaten back cancer more than once, lost Brian to heart failure five years ago. And three years before that, Sherri lost Don to a heart attack, six months after they adopted a baby girl.

"Welcome to Michigan," John said dryly when I pointed out the common thread.

There was more: A fourth Michigan friend had discovered that the breast cancer she fought years ago with mastectomy has staged a comeback.

She relayed this information matter-of-factly, as we looked at pictures of her daughter's wedding, an extraordinary garden affair for 200 that she put together last summer on the rolling lawn of her yard, in the shadow of a great gray barn. It seemed incongruous, somehow, yet wholly normal to be talking about catastrophic illness and matrimony at the same time.

Morbidity and marriage: two of life's greatest challenges.

My friend is on chemotherapy. Oral doses for now, she said, intravenously when the pain comes.

"The pain?" I asked as we paused between photos. "Is that inevitable?"

"Well," she said, "it's bone cancer."

I wanted to hold her, to hug her, to tell her how much she means to me and how much I will miss her. I wanted to scream. Instead, I nodded and tried to convey all that with a pat.

So, I was thinking as the plane sailed on, the ties that bind me to these friends are knotted with just as much pain as joy. With them, I have learned to face these extraordinary, yet perfectly banal losses. They have taught me a lot about what matters most. And it isn't elections, particularly, nor is it money nor jobs.

As the plane touched down, I was desperate to hold my husband and child in my arms once again.

*

I was driving down a country road last weekend, going to see the woman who had given her daughter such a gorgeous wedding, when this thought suddenly popped into my mind: We all have to eat a peck of dirt.

Then I smiled, remembering an old story about a friend's sister, who heard this aphorism as a child and was discovered in the back yard with a spoonful of dirt poised near her mouth and a smudged face.

She was, she told her parents, just trying to get a head start. Ain't it the truth. Some of us eat it sooner; some later.

As a child, I knew no tragedy. Only in the very recent past has life grabbed me by the throat and taught me a thing or two about taking it for granted.

My mother nearly died after a blood vessel burst in her brain nearly two years ago.

My father--my immortal, healthy father--suffered a heart attack a few months back.

And my sweet baby girl developed an illness at the end of the summer that did a heart-stopping impersonation of leukemia before we discovered it was something far less serious.

On Monday, with thoughts of mortality buzzing inside my head, I arrived at work to learn that a well-loved colleague, Bea Maxwell, had died over the weekend, suddenly, unexpectedly, of an apparent asthma attack.

I thought of Vegas. I thought of my friends. And I thought of Bea's children.

Carpe diem, everyone.

It gets snatched away so damn fast.

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