*image: “Regardless of What You Face,” Dr. Ernest Williamson III
An Unexpected Light
by Shuly Cawood
Sometimes I wish we could start over—not so we could change it, but to do it all again. I would rewind the clock eight years to that Saturday night contra dance, after I had escaped the crowds to cry in the back hallway of the Carrboro Century Center. Tsafi hardly knew me, but she followed me anyway and asked if I was okay. I told her I was just a little blue. She embraced me for a moment but asked no more, and we stood together next to metal folding chairs, stacked high, ready to topple at any moment. We heard the caller command a hands four, then the fiddler strike his bow to start. Still, Tsafi did not leave, did not rush out to find a straggling partner, did not look away. After I composed myself, we pulled open the heavy double doors and ducked back into the swaying, whirling crowd.
That was the first, but not the last, time we stood in the back hallway of the Century Center in a town just outside Chapel Hill, North Carolina. In other months and other years we slipped away to talk in our quiet space, the music and chatter muffled. I often stretched there before dancing, and Tsafi kept me company, her presence pushing off the darkness lingering at the hallway’s end. With her Israeli accent, Tsafi spoke with a staccatoed pronunciation I never tired of hearing, and she often gave a little laugh at the end of her sentences. We talked about men we liked and men who got on our nerves—those who pulled us too close during the swing or held our gaze too long. Tsafi could not stand sweaty men with bad breath; I disliked married men who flirted with me as if they were single. We talked about couples who could not keep their hands off each other, and about those who had broken up, who showed up separately, who danced in different lines. And when the breakup was some man and me, Tsafi remained at my side before and after each set in the dance hall. If we ended up in separate lines, we looked for each other, standing on tiptoe to peer over heads—men with tie-dyed bandanas, women with pigtails or braids—as if keeping each other in sight would somehow stave off pain.
What did we know then, back at our beginning, of endings, of goodbyes?
* * *
I still picture Tsafi with the long yellow hair she had when I first met her, had until she lost it, years later, to chemotherapy. Her hair was one of the hardest things for her to lose. Even when she carried more weight than she wanted to, her solace was always her beautiful cascade of blonde hair. And because she worked at a salon, first-time clients checked out Tsafi’s own style, color, and cut to assess her skills before they relaxed in her chair. What would having no hair mean?
Once her chemotherapy started, she did not let her hair disappear in chunks, leaving empty patches; at the earliest sign it was falling out, she shaved it all away. Immediately after, she wrote this in an email: “Turns out that my head is perfectly round and I look like a little monk.”
Her hair has been growing back for over a year, and she keeps it cropped and short. I know this, but that is never how I imagine her when we talk on the phone. I picture her the way she is in the photo in my living room of the two of us—before her cancer. She was 50 then, and her blonde hair and easy, unabashed smile remind me of summer, a season so long with light, it feels like it will never end. The photo was taken on the day I married Preston, five years ago, just before I moved to Tennessee from North Carolina. Tsafi’s hair is parted in the middle, and it flows onto her shoulders in waves and settles onto the white lace of her blouse. My arm is around her, and my right hand is touching the ends of her hair, so that a thin strand of what she will lose later is caught in my fingertips.
* * *
Preston and I ended up together in large part because of Tsafi, who had 12 more years of wisdom than I did. When Preston and I had just started dating, I started anticipating why we would not work. This is what a person does who abhors loss, who is in her late 30s and divorced, who wants to suss out any barbed truth before getting tangled in it.
First, it was that he lived too far—four hours, all the way in Johnson City, Tennessee—from where I lived in Chapel Hill. “I don’t do well in long-distance relationships,” I said.
“Just see what happens,” Tsafi told me. “Be open.”
Then it was: “He’ll want children, and I don’t want them.” I had decided in my twenties that raising kids was a weight too heavy for me to bear, that too many things could go wrong, could flail out of my control. “What are the chances he won’t want children? Every guy seems to want children.” I was good at having conversations with myself, morose accounts of how things would not work out. “I need to ask him about this. Might as well bring it up now before we go any further.”
“Shuly,” Tsafi interrupted. “Stop it. Are you going to end this relationship before it’s really begun?”
“Well, it’s more that—”
“You’re not going to ask him anything about kids right now.”
“No. You need to just get to know each other right now, let yourself see what’s possible. That’s it. Do not bring up children unless he asks you about it. Just be for a while.”
To just be challenges me. I am a person who likes to prepare for what will happen. But few bad things occur with ample notice. And even if there is notice, I tend to miss it, can only see it fully when looking back, realizing in retrospect maybe the large-screen TV my ex-husband, Bill, wanted so badly wasn’t because he loved cable but because he wanted to avoid me.
* * *
My first marriage lasted three and a half years, and the entire time I fretted over the idea Bill would die and leave me alone. It did not occur to me there are other ways to leave or that I could survive it if he did.
Bill told me he wanted a divorce just after Thanksgiving in 2001. I took a few weeks off work to return to my hometown in Ohio and try to cure the ills of grief in the company of my parents in the house where I grew up. On one of those December mornings, my mother and I watched a news interview with the wife of Tom Beamer, the man who said, “Let’s roll” on that fated September 11 flight that crashed in Pennsylvania.
“My goodness,” I said to my mother after Beamer’s wife recounted the story and described her loss. “I can’t even imagine her pain. I would hate to lose my husband.”
And my mother turned to me and said, not unkindly, “You did.”
* * *
Tsafi almost decided against chemotherapy. “I mean, everybody dies,” she said to me over the phone. “It’s just a matter of when.” But as much as Tsafi thought she could become ready, her daughter—in her mid-20s and single—could not.
I drove to Chapel Hill and visited Tsafi in the middle of her months of treatment. She had asked me to meet her after her shift, in the parking lot at the salon where she worked. By then, the last fall days had shortened, leaving us little light, and cold.
She hobbled from the brightly lit lobby into the night, across the black pavement to my car, and blundered in. She exhaled, and the air steamed into cloud.
“What do you want to do?” I asked after we hugged.
“I don’t feel well,” she said. She leaned against the headrest and closed her eyes for a moment. “I can’t eat, but I am thirsty.” Through the windshield I could see the salon’s strip mall cluttered with restaurants, a drugstore, and the big white letters of the Harris Teeter grocery. But Tsafi didn’t have the energy to trek the 50 yards to the other side, and she would not let me go. We drove around the corner to a drive-thru.
She gulped soda through a straw, and with her small hands she clutched the drink in her lap. We parked again and cranked the heat higher, and we shifted in our seats so we could see each other. Her face wore the dark lines of things I had not stood beside her to bear: the nausea, the needles in her arm, the liquid pushing into her veins, trying to alter the course of her life.
* * *
When I was 11, 12, and 13, I had a friend named Cecily. We were the kind of friends who spent the night at each other’s houses, who passed notes—folded in intricate shapes—back and forth in class, and who often liked the same boy and giggled about him. But at the start of high school, we drifted, and by the time we were juniors and she sat unbelted in the back seat of a friend’s car as it swerved out of control on Route 68, by the time she slid out the door and into the warm breath of a late spring night, we were closer to acquaintances, and then she was memory.
Cecily was the first person I knew well whom I saw lying in a casket. I was 17. The freckles across her face were buried under a layer of powder and rouge.
I heard through the whisperings of our small Ohio town that in the weeks before her death, she had gathered back the things she had lent her friends—her red high tops, maybe, or her UB40 cassette, her gold hoop earrings—as if her body and spirit knew this accident was racing toward her. Did she know? Did she guess?
Will I know?
* * *
After Tsafi’s treatment ended, the scans shone clear, but after a few months, they showed that the disease had persisted. She had to make a choice. Though only 55, she decided not to trickle the slow poison of chemo into her body again.
I visited Tsafi just after she’d found out the cancer had returned. We sat on two metal stools in a crowded Whole Foods café and leaned in close to block out the customers around us, trying for privacy in an impossible place.
“I don’t want my daughter to lose her mother so young” was what she said. Tsafi’s legs dangled, barely touching the metal bar where she might have rested her feet.
“I know,” I said, though I did not know. I have no children. But I tried to imagine it as I watched my friend hunched in her seat.
Her eyes looked rounded with shock. She stared at her food, poked it with a fork but did not eat. She finally said, “I can face this.”
It was March, and the wind blustered into the store through the automatic doors every time someone came or left. We did not take off our coats.
* * *
Cecily’s death told me a thing I had not known: I could lose someone before my life felt ready to give up the person, forever. The year Cecily died, my Great Aunt Eloise grew very frail. My father’s mother had died before I was born, so we had driven every year or two from Ohio to see her sister Eloise, my father’s aunt, in Vicksburg, Mississippi.
Aunt Eloise had divorced her Navy sailor husband after a brief marriage and never had children. She had worked as a civil servant in Occupied Japan just after World War II, and then in West Germany, where she started collecting vintage furniture before returning home to Mississippi. Alone, Aunt Eloise rattled around in and sold antiques out of a house so haunted she had called the police on nights she heard the clatter of what she assumed were people breaking in and the shoving of boxes across the floor. The police never found anyone, and Aunt Eloise eventually shrugged off the noise. She was a voracious reader, cigarette smoker, white-bread eater, and Coke drinker. And, boy, could she talk. You could find my father in the kitchen and hear Aunt Eloise in the living room, chattering away, and ask him, “Who is she talking to?” and he would say, “Me.”
The spring Cecily died, Aunt Eloise’s prattling also ceased, and every story I might have heard—had I listened when it mattered—got swallowed in a lonely, hollow silence.
* * *
I lost my mother’s mother, my abuelita, a year after Aunt Eloise died. I was 18 by then and about to leave for college. I had never been close to my abuelita since I lived in Ohio and was a bubble-gum chewing, sneaker-wearing, boy-crazy American girl, and she was six decades older, spoke little English, and lived in a pastel house on a Mexico City street. I knew things about her, mostly from my mother and tias: that she had a twin who died at birth; that before she married my grandfather, an American had loved her, and she, him; that having endured the effects of the Great Depression, she could not throw out anything, not even a single dinged-up pot. Growing up, I had refused to learn Spanish, so only in eighth grade did I begin classes to learn a language I am ashamed now I did not know earlier. By the time I was 16 and 17, I understood some Spanish, but never enough: not to catch up with what my abuelita and I might have shared had I spoken with her all along.
Only many years after her death, and Aunt Eloise’s death, did I realize I could lose a person before I had the chance to ask her all the things I would want to know.
* * *
Tsafi is the friend to whom I confess things I do not want to confess to myself: like the moments when, despite my being in my 40s, I am jealous of my sister for getting more of my parents’ attention, or the times when I’ve made a petty or selfish remark to Preston, the kind I immediately regret, the kind that makes me wince. She is the friend who asks me to read my writing to her over the phone. She tells me the truth when I ask how I look, and she always wants to hear how I am doing, and what I did over the weekend, even though she is dying and whatever I tell her we both know will not be nearly as important as what she is facing.
But today, she does not ask about my weekend. “I’m definitely turning yellow,” she says. It is September 22. Ever since my move to Tennessee, she and I have talked weekly, sometimes every few days, but I have not seen Tsafi for six months—since March at that Whole Foods. Just knowing she is jaundiced makes me blanch. The tumors have invaded her liver, leaving little space for time.
* * *
Tsafi strains the words, “It isn’t good,” into the phone as soon as I pick up. It is September 26, and she has just finished her appointment with her oncologist. She is sitting in her parked car in the hospital lot, unsure if she can drive home without crying. She tells me the doctor does not know if she will survive the eleven and half weeks until her daughter, still single, gives birth to Tsafi’s first grandchild, a boy.
“I didn’t want to hear that,” she says. She is determined to stay alive for the birth. But in the next breath, she says the doctor told her that her three siblings—two in the Middle East and one in South America—need to start booking flights now to come and say goodbye.
She weeps into the phone, and I say I am so sorry, and I sit on the floor in my bedroom holding the receiver. I stare straight ahead, focusing on the white light through my window, then the swirls of brown colors in the oriental rug, trying to remain stone-faced so I can hold it together.
“I’m not afraid of never seeing the trees and butterflies again,” she says. But she does not want to leave her daughter at such a vulnerable time, on the cusp of becoming a mother, alone. When the doctors were sure Tsafi’s cancer had returned, and she had decided not to seek treatment, her daughter was not yet pregnant, or didn’t realize she was. Would Tsafi have decided differently had they known, had she known? I do not ask.
“I’m so sorry,” is all I say. Again these words: so small.
* * *
At 17 and 18, I did not cry when Aunt Eloise or my abuelita died; their deaths felt far away. I saw neither one in a casket. My father made the trip alone to Aunt Eloise’s funeral, and my abuelita had no ceremony, no service, no official goodbye. Their deaths turned into great losses, I see now, but seemed back then like small losses to a girl who did not often see either relative, who was focused on finishing high school, getting into college, leaving home. Moving out of the shelter of my parents’ love seemed the deepest loss back then.
My first autumn in college, I fell for a man who fell right back for me. A few weeks later, he fell for my friend who lived down the dorm hall. That loss—not that of my great aunt, or my abuelita—caused tears, diminished appetite, insomnia. All over a boy I realize now I hardly knew. Perhaps it was the first time I saw I could misplace things I felt incapable of surviving without: pride, trust, a heart freely given. Stumbling, I clung to my family, especially my parents, calling them on their Mexico vacation to whimper long-distance about the breakup, each tear costing more than the weeks-long relationship’s value. My mother told me she loved me, and he was not worth the pain. Still, my agony over the breakup propelled me down a darker road: I returned home for the winter holidays with my clothes hanging off my thin frame, and I crumpled into my papasan chair for hours in front of our wood stove, unable to get warm. The flames flickered toward my body, and still I pulled the chair closer.
That December, I did what I would then do for decades every Christmas: I lay awake in the bedroom I had grown up in and asked how many were left. How many Christmases would my parents and sister and I be together? How many before I would lose someone—or worse, everyone?
* * *
It is not until now that I realize marrying an undertaker was an odd choice for someone who fears loss. Or maybe a perfect one.
I did not think about Preston’s profession much when we started dating. Once we married, I began learning what it means to usher a family through the first bleak stages of grief. It means calmness when woken in the middle of the night to pick up the deceased, and steady hands to carry and care for the body of someone’s parent, child, beloved friend. It means helping families navigate not only the maze of death but its legal and funerary companions: obituaries, caskets, urns, vaults, grave liners, death certificates. It means standing still at the graveside in a best suit, even when the temperatures soar or sink, or a storm slices open the sky.
I have heard Preston talk on the phone to the one who is left, the survivor. His voice is slow and even. “Don’t worry,” he says. “I’ll help you figure that out. That’s what I’m here for.”
* * *
Preston and I are walking in the cool morning of autumn. It is September 27, and the dogwood leaves have already started burning to red.
So many things I don’t want to ask Tsafi but want to know, like if she has made plans for what will happen after she dies. “I don’t know if she has pre-arranged her funeral,” I say to Preston.
“Does she want to be cremated or buried?”
“I assume cremated, but I don’t know.”
He and I turn west on Woodmont, the way we always do halfway through our walks. We tread the same streets in the same order every morning, taking comfort in our routines, as if they can keep the world steady.
“What happens if she doesn’t plan ahead of time?” I ask. “Who makes the decisions?”
He explains how the decisions belong first to the spouse of the deceased, then the children, the parents, the siblings, then other family. This is the order of the list, and the order must be followed until someone is found, someone able to make decisions on behalf of the one who has died.
Tsafi has no spouse. “So this will fall on her daughter’s shoulders if she does not plan ahead?”
Yes, he says. Unless durable power of attorney has been given ahead of time to someone else. And the paperwork must mention that the power of attorney also covers the disposition of the body.
“So how do I ask her about this? What should I say?”
“Just ask her if she has made arrangements for her care and disposition after she dies.”
I try these words on in my mind. I stop on our walk, on Lynnwood Drive, in front of the brick ranch houses that are a part of the landscape of our lives as much as the hill from which fog rises on chilly mornings, as much as the mountain ridge jutting like a skyscraper into the sky.
Preston stops, too. I put my head in my hands, and he puts an arm around me and pulls me close.
“I’m sorry,” he says, kissing my hair.
* * *
So few people, especially among the young and middle-aged, make plans for the disposition of their body; for the service, if they want one; for the music, readings, and who will give the eulogy; for what funeral home to use; for the cost and who will pay.
I did not think about these things until I married Preston and started hearing stories: the sleeping couple in their 50s who accidentally inhale carbon monoxide leaking into their home; the child in the backseat of the car, unbelted, his angry mother chasing her lover down the highway; the daughter in her 40s who, with no apparent warning, takes her own life.
Preston and I have a will that reminds me of a decision tree, all its branches reaching unappealing conclusions: if Preston goes before I do, then X; if I go first, then Y; if we go together, then Z.
Which letter will be our story’s end? Which branch will be the one to break?
* * *
One of the reasons Preston’s profession fits him so well is that he does not dwell on what might have been. He is good with the now, whatever it is. When he did not get into his first choice of colleges, he welcomed attending his second. When he was young, and the weekend work schedule of his chosen profession made dating nearly impossible, he did not regret following his grandfather’s footsteps into the funeral business; he focused on his job, assumed romance would come later.
When a person dies, Preston accepts this as the reality of the day, works with people to move forward within this reality, not the one they wished for.
This trait is why he was okay not having children with me when he in fact had wanted them. To marry me, he gave that up; I gave up the idea of living in the town I wanted to live in to instead move to his city, not just for a few years, but permanently. We each set aside part of our visions of the future because being together was more important. But I had to learn from him not to look back. I am a person who mourns what might have been, holds onto it, makes it more painful than it needs to be.
When I ask him if married life has turned out the way he thought it would, he always says, “I didn’t know what it’d be like. I didn’t think about it.”
I, on the other hand, thought about exactly what my life would be like. When I was 18, I expected to be married by 26, to write beautiful novels, to remain in my hometown in Ohio, and to be happy—this last thing, most of all, I assumed, as if happiness were a human right, or at least an inheritance.
When I was young and at the beginning, I believed for far too long that nothing difficult would happen to me.
* * *
When I was 27, I found a lump that felt like a bead, near my armpit. My mother met me at the doctor’s office, and she sat up straight as he rubbed his fingers across the lump, as he pressed his fingers around my breasts before asking me some questions. The only one I remember is the one that mattered most: Have you been stung by a bee in the last few months? Weeks earlier, a yellow jacket had landed on my bikini top and pierced right through the fabric. The cyst eventually disappeared, but my fingers touched my chest every month, searching for the next knot, which came a few years later, this time in my breast. No sting this time, but fortunately, again, benign. Since then, cysts have inflated then flattened. Each one swells with my worry. Sometimes doctors say it’s nothing; sometimes only after a surgical or core needle biopsy do the doctors say it’s nothing.
I pray for nothing, but it always feels like everything.
* * *
I am driving to see Tsafi. It is October 3. Despite being fall, North Carolina is particularly warm—mid-80s—so I’ve packed Bermuda shorts for this trip instead of the jeans I’d dug out a couple of weeks ago during chillier Tennessee weather.
In the early afternoon, when I arrive at Tsafi’s apartment complex, I climb the stairs to her door, which is wide open to let in the light and so she can see the pansies she has planted in a barrel pot on the landing.
“Where is my buttercup?” I tease her through the open door because she has warned me so many times how yellow she is.
She laughs and pushes herself up from her chair, slowly, shuffling toward me as I stride to her and put my arms around her. She is much shorter than I am, only coming up to my shoulder, and she is the frailest I have ever seen her.
I take a long look at her. “You don’t look that yellow to me.”
“Come on out here,” she says, and I follow her to her little balcony. Outside, her skin darkens to a greenish-yellow, and the whites of her eyes are tinged with gold.
“Okay, yeah, you’re yellow.”
“Yes I am.”
I follow her back inside, and she sinks into her waiting recliner.
Tsafi spends most of the afternoon lying on her couch. She says it helps her breathe, that something is pressing against her lungs—the tumors, we both guess, are bumping up against everything. Her belly has bulged. Touching it is like touching stone.
While she stretches out, I lie on the floor a few feet away. We talk, we flip through old photos, I make her a sandwich and help her take the right medicine at the right time.
In the early evening, we amble around the parking lot so she can get some fresh air. We talk about the afterlife. I say, “I want you to tell me you’re still there, if you’re able to.” What I mean by “there” is somewhere, even if not here, exactly where I am. I will want to know she still exists.
“Okay,” she says.
Tsafi walks slowly, and though I typically hurry, and she typically ambles—I have always needed to decelerate not to outpace her—we settle into a plod unlike any we have known before.
“But I want something definite,” I say. “I don’t want to hear or see something and wonder if it was you.”
She laughs. “Sure.”
We have had this conversation many times before but never made a plan. We try and make one now as the hours dwindle.
“Well, what’s the first thing you think of when you think of me?” she asks.
“Light,” I say without hesitation. Tsafi loves a bright day, a sky stretching wide.
We decide she will turn on my office lamp, the one on my desk with the pink shade and clear finial shaped like a giant marble. We laugh at our scheme, realizing its silliness. Or at least I do, but I want her to try anyway.
We pass the complex’s empty pool. As we approach her apartment, we step off the sidewalk and onto the road.
“You know what I love?” she says. “It’s something most people don’t even notice.” She points to the road. “The sparkle in the pavement.”
I look down, and I glimpse it, a glint of silver in the asphalt here and there, a thing I had not noticed but now will see all the time, everywhere.
* * *
When Tsafi is too tired for conversation, we click on the TV and avoid news of the government shutdown by watching an HGTV program of a young couple rehabilitating an old house. During the commercials, we critique whether they made the right decision in buying the house and whether their relationship seems strong and stable. We have always done this: analyze relationships, mostly ones in our lives, but now that I am married, and she is no longer dating, this couple’s will have to do.
We can’t halt it, and the evening reaches its final hours.
Tsafi sits up on one end of the couch, and I move from the floor and sink into the couch’s other end.
“Are we going to see each other again?” she asks.
“Yes, of course,” I say, then think, are we? “I assume we will.” I reach over and take her hand.
“Look, I don’t need you to see me right before I die,” she says. “I’m glad you saw me like this, in case this is the last time. We don’t have to plan anything right now. If we do see each other, we do; if we don’t, we don’t.”
“Okay,” I nod.
We do not turn from each other.
“Is there any last thing I can do for you?” I ask.
Tsafi looks at me the way she used to at contra dances when I stood on tiptoe, scanned the crowd of dancers for the face I knew, and found her in another line.
Her small hand squeezes mine: “Don’t let fear get in your way.”
Then we say our goodbye the only way we know how to: without saying it. Tsafi hands me her camera phone, and I hold it out in front of us. She fusses with my hair without my asking, then faces forward, puts her hand to her chest. We lean in close, and I press the button once, then let go.