1. My mother would have turned 82 on Feb. 1. She died at 52 on a rented hospital bed in our dining room in Connecticut.
2. As I write this, friends and family are gathering at the Sky Rink in Chelsea Piers in New York City to remember my college friend Brian who died three years ago. He would have turned 47 on Jan. 26. I will turn 47 in the second week of February.
3. My friend Emily’s two-year-old son, Ronan, will probably die in the coming weeks.
4. Anne Carson writes, “Death is stingy.” I cannot remember the sound of my mother’s voice.
5. I spent a weekend with Brian shortly before he died. He had brief moments of clarity when I could recognize the man I once shared a bedroom with. One time, during those 48 hours, he pointed at his nurse and said with a wink, “This guy is killing me.”
6. When I first met Ronan at the end of the summer of 2010, he was still undiagnosed. It’s hard to remember what it felt like not to know.
7. Shortly before she was diagnosed, my mother came to me on the porch of our home. She asked, “Does my neck look swollen to you?”
8. Brian’s son David came downstairs with his digital camera to snap a picture of his father. When David saw the photo he’d taken on the screen, he deleted it. “Didn’t look good,” he said.
9. I have photos of my daughter Poppy holding Ronan. She has a half-smile on her face, and he is squeezing her finger. I can’t tell from her expression if she knows yet.
10. My dad likes simple solutions to complex problems. He thought swollen glands were the cause of most of our illnesses, so when my mom pointed to the marble-sized lumps, I said automatically: “Swollen glands.”
11. When I first arrived at the apartment, I thought I was too late. Brian was propped on the couch, eyes closed, his breathing shallow. The dent in his head from the surgery was noticeable from the doorway. David was playing both sides of a baseball video game so his beloved Yankees were sure to win.
12. Emily called me and asked if I thought Ronan was delayed in his development. I assured her that every kid evolves at his or her own pace. I gave her examples of teens and adults I knew who took their sweet time, including a brilliant novelist who didn’t speak until he was 4.
13. My mother wore an oxygen pack on her back and held an unlit cigarette in her fingers.
14. In college, Brian would drink cans and cans of Mountain Dew and pound on doors in the middle of the night until he found someone to talk to.
15. There are photos that I know were taken before we understood about Ronan because everyone felt relaxed and free enough to look away from him.
16. A photo of my mother taken in October 1949 hangs on my refrigerator. She is surrounded by friends at a supper club on Third Avenue in New York City. She looks like a movie star. Someone wrote, “To that gal of gals!” on the paper frame.
17. Brian was the goalie for our university’s hockey team and confessed that he got so nervous during games that he would throw up over and over in his mask.
18. Even though we’ve known that Ronan will die since before his first birthday, his death will be something new. Death and dying are two totally different things.
19. I wanted to write something about my mother, so I called her old friends to gather stories. According to one source, my mother struck a Lady Godiva pose on the hood of a moving car. After she died, I’d go for midnight drives in the family station wagon with my sunglasses on.
20. On a long car trip, Brian played songs by Rod Stewart over and over until I admitted that he was, indeed, the most underrated rocker.
21. Even though it’s the writer’s job, I won’t allow myself to imagine what it would be like to lose either one of my children. When I try to envision what Ronan is thinking or feeling, I see nothing.
22. After her funeral in Connecticut, I was shocked to see all the people who followed us in their cars out to Brooklyn to put my mother in the ground.
23. During that last weekend, my friend Drew and I would tell Brian stories, hoping to spark his memory. These recollections seemed to frustrate him. “I can’t remember,” he said, over and over.
24. I often wonder what Emily will say to strangers about Ronan after he dies. Telling strangers about him now is so hard for her, but what will it be like when he’s gone? What can any of us say that will make any sense?