*for an edited audio version of this letter, go here
this is danny writing and this is my letter to lydia, written on the plane home.
Jan 11, 2007
Mommy has cancer. You don’t know what that is, but I do. And mommy does. And you will, at some point. Maybe you already do. I don’t know. I haven’t seen you yet. I think you know though. Before I left for DC, you kept hugging her and kissing her and saying that you were sad. And when we asked you why you said it was because mommy was sad. And so there’s that.
And I’m on a plane from Baltimore to Denver to come home and be with you and mommy.
I found out because she called me, while I was teaching, and I didn’t answer the phone. And she called again, and I still didn’t answer because I was teaching. But fifteen minutes later I checked my messages and there was this awful sound. And that was it.
At the airport I tried to get on a plane and while I was in line, a woman overheard what I had said to the ticket agent. She turned around and told me she was a cancer survivor, and then just reached out. And I reached out. I couldn’t help it, even if I wanted to. And she held me for a long time. A long time.
That was two hours ago.
Welcome to the club, she seemed to be saying.
And I love you. She seemed to be saying that too.
And everything’s going to be alright and maybe nothing will be alright. That too.
And I cried, right there in the airport in this woman’s arms. Next to me people were trying to upgrade to first class, the woman at the ticket counter was doing her hair, behind me the screens flashed with departures and arrivals.
I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I know this – that I’m on the plane right now sitting between a woman and her elderly mother-in-law. The mother in law is wearing a man’s watch. She’s 84 or so. It’s her husband’s Timex. It’s all scratched up. Her husband died four months ago, she says, at the age of 94. They had just gotten married six years ago. The watch is scratched up, yes, and she says that he used to wear it everywhere, even to bed. She has scars on her face that she points to. The scars are what the watch left on her while she slept next to him, old and in love.
I asked her how they met, and they lived down the block from one another. Both recluses. Both artists – he a sculptor, she an artist too. And they found each other late late late in life. One night he finally came over and they talked all night long. When he finally left she couldn’t sleep. Instead she sat there crying.
“I was in love”, she said, “oh my god”.
I asked her who made the first move and she said that it just happened. And I believed her.
It was so beautiful, I told her, the willingness to be 84 and to fall in love with a man who is in his 90s or something. She said they spent two years renovating a house together…and then he died and now she’s here on the plane with his watch.
How many links did you have removed, I asked.
None, she said, and pointed to how it was not really on her wrist but on her forearm, and not wholly on her forearm but over her sweater – so that it fits.
And I think: We will adjust to this. Me and you and mommy and the baby that’s in mommy’s belly. We will push our watches up a bit and fasten them over something so that they’re tighter. And that something will be each other. That something will be what we have already. Our love, yes, but even more. The things we have that make us more than just ourselves. We will fasten our watches on top of those things and let the hands continue to move.
And we will hug people in the airport that we don’t know and let ourselves be hugged by people in the airport that we don’t know.
Then the woman and her daughter-in-law told me we’d drink some wine together and the man in the seat behind us gave us some drink coupons.
“I don’t drink,” he said.
I don’t know whether he had overheard or not. But it doesn’t matter. People started doing things…picking up slack where there was slack. Helping me, sure, tighten my watch around my wrist.
So we had three cups of wine and broke open the ridiculous little snack boxes they give you on the airplane and had cheeze and crackers with the red plastic stick for a knife, the same as when I was a kid, and laughed some at the wine and cheeze and crackers we were having on the plane.
And at the same time we were all crying.
Each woman put a hand on my wrist and I kept breaking into and out of shock. Able to have a conversation, unable to have a conversation. Thinking of you. Thinking of if you were kissing mommy. Thinking of mommy. Thinking of my students back in DC who I deserted. Thinking of mommy’s daddy and what it’s like to have a daughter who has lymphoma, and thinking of the event itself, the phone call that mommy must’ve answered and the news like a rock being thrown into water and the ripples spreading out in small, then giant, rings to me, to you, to savta to poppop, to carley, to greg mills, to the woman at the ticket counter, to meg, to jen then nick then a tree in their front yard, to sundae, to friends, and friends of friends, and friends of friends of friends, to the night outside the plane window, to the stewardess, to the women beside me on the plane right now, to our seats, to my pants and my shirt and the old woman and then to her watch, to the scratches in the watch…and maybe that’s where it ends for now.
The old woman next to me sneezes, then again.
Mommy has been sneezing so much lately. Before I left we counted the sneezes together. 48, I think, before 10am. 48 sneezes. The day they did the biopsy, three days ago, she didn’t sneeze at all…stopping to let them to pull a lymph node from the side of her neck.
They came back within an hour and said it didn’t look bad.
I think something’s hitting the airplane, the old lady says.
Just air, I say.
No, pebbles, like pebbles, she says.
And I pat her arm and tell her that we’re ok.
They said it didn’t look bad, that it didn’t look like cancer. And so I leave on a plane for DC to teach two workshops and then come back home.
But then they call back two days later and they say – I don’t know what they say – but they say that they were wrong, maybe, yes, and that mommy needs to come in tomorrow, that she has cancer, that they need to start chemotherapy.
And so there’s that.
I’m just guessing. Maybe mommy told you already. She was too hysterical to say much of anything to me other than sob and hyperventilate and the only thing I could make out was “come home” in the universal language of tragedy that’s unmistakable, but I didn’t need to make anything out. I knew. As you probably know. As the women next to me know and the scratches in the watch definitely know. They’ve known for a long time.
The old woman’s jaw clenches.
She says it clenches when she talks about her husband sometimes. Sometimes she can just talk and sometimes it just gets her right in the throat. Catches on something. She says this because I had just grabbed my throat in the middle of talking about something, about Denver or mommy or you, and then I stopped, feeling myself about to completely break apart.
It’s a weird space to be in, this space when someone tells you something and your life as you know it stops and there are new rules for everything, what you’re allowed to say to people, or cut in line at the airport, or hug strangers in line. And the old woman next to me knows it. She understands the mix of roboticism, of needing to sit on the 4 hour flight home somehow and retain some semblance of decency, or composure….along with the inability, at times, to hold that composure. That the grief overcomes it, no matter what you do.
This is the first time I’ve traveled since my husband died, she says.
And then her hand reaches toward her throat. And she closes her eyes. And that’s when my hand moves. It moves and touches her on the wrist. That’s all.
Like the woman at the airport who holds me, I now hold this woman on the plane who is traveling without her husband, who is dead, with whom she fell in love with so late in life and cried all night after he kissed her because she never thought she’d find love again. Ever.
And we will find love again, me and you and mommy. We will find a place where we can hold each other and, if even for a moment, make things better. It will start in one hour, when I get home.
It may have started already.