A week or so before Dad and I left for our trip to Steamboat Springs, you climbed up next to me on the couch and asked a question I didn’t know how to answer.
“Mommy? What do we do when we die?”
(You say “we” a lot when I don’t really think you mean to include yourself, or when you mean "I". This is something you’ve picked up at school. It’s pretty cute. You also say things like “Sometimes little girls need to go to the playground every day,” and “Sometimes Mommies have to buy little girls new sunglasses.”)
I was flummoxed. Do you even know what “die” means? More importantly, how do I answer a question I still struggle with myself? And also? You’re two. Ask if you can have a popsicle. So, I said what I imagine godless heathens everywhere say.
“What do you think happens?”
You seemed ready for this question, as if the answer were the simplest thing in the world.
This exchange bothered me for days. What made you ask this? Why now? For crying out loud, your father and I are about to get on a plane. Four planes, actually. Two there, two back. That’s a lot of opportunity for mishap. We’re still struggling with important decisions, like who raises you if something happens to us (it’s complicated). We don’t have a will (Upside? We also don’t have assets. We have student loans instead.) Who will explain what happened, if something happens? Will you understand? Anxiety. Borrowed trouble. Sleeplessness. I get nervous when I fly, I’m used to walking with my feet. Turbulence is like a sigh that I can’t help but overthink. Sometimes, Jack says it best.
Of course, we arrived in Steamboat Springs safely. Your untimely question was just a question. It wasn’t informed by some kind of weird Toddler’s Intuition. I knew that . . . but like my mother (like everyone’s mother?), I worry. Like I get paid to. Like it’s my job.
Our first day on the mountain was exhausting. I know it’s stupid to travel to Colorado to snowboard and then complain about all the snow, but really, it was a lot. Dad and I had never seen anything like it. We’d be zipping down the slope one minute, and then stuck in snow up to our thighs the next. I can’t wait until you’re old enough to understand how heavy a snowboard is when it’s buried under several feet of snow, but still attached to your feet.
Around lunchtime the second day, we were fed up. Grumpy. Steamboat was the wrong choice for us. We weren’t finding the kinds of runs we liked, we wished we had gone to Breckenridge, we wished there was a little less snow, we wished, we wished, we whined. We locked our boards to the rack and trudged in for lunch.
“We’ve got to find a way to make the best of this,” I said to your dad. “Otherwise, our vacation is a bust.”
I dropped into a chair, ordered a grilled cheese sandwich, pulled out my iPhone, opened Facebook. I’m beginning to think that things can only get worse once you’ve opened Facebook.
I scrolled through the usual litany of political snark, shit-my-kid-said, watch-me-embarrass-myself-by-being-passive-aggressive, hey-I’ll-be-deliberately-vauge-in-an-attempt-to-get-people-to-pay-attention-to-me, here’s-a-picture-of-my-nasty-feet. Oh Facebook.
“Life is short, and delicate. Handle carefully.” Oh dear. That doesn’t sound good. And then: “I am in complete shock that Susan Eitelman Dean is gone.”
No. No way. She can’t be. Not really. No. Really? No. No. No.
I met Susan her first week at Carnegie Mellon. She came to the Kappa Delta Rho house with Adam, who I think was rushing at the time. She was the happiest person I’d ever met. Have you ever heard that cliché about someone having a smile that lights up a room? That one was tailor-made to describe Susan. She was aggressively cheerful, and I half expected singing birds, a rabble of butterflies and maybe a few helpful mice to follow her wherever she went.
I, on the other hand, was a drama queen, and maybe (okay, definitely) a bit of a trouble-maker. I had plenty to say at any given moment, and a fair amount of it wasn’t that nice. Susan was one of the few people who could make me bite it back. It’s hard to be bitchy when you’re talking to the sunniest person on the planet. When I was around her, I was nicer. Everyone was.
We were pregnant together, so her son is around your age. We traded messages about sleep deprivation, commented on each other’s funny parenting stories, smiled over pictures of our little ones. Facebook isn’t all bad. From time to time, it brings you closer to someone you haven’t seen in a while, and makes you remember what you were missing. She asked me once whether I’d be interested in selling my photos, because she’d like to hang one in her house. I meant to print and frame one for her, and send it as a surprise, but life got in the way, and I never got around to it. Now I suppose I never will.
I couldn’t eat my grilled cheese sandwich. All I wanted to do was go back to the condo and call you, just to hear your voice. I was 1,586 miles away and at that moment, the distance was unbearable. But for my friend Susan, the distance between she and her husband, between she and her son, was insurmountable. Unfathomable. And so, so unfair.
Your chirpy little phone voice put a smile on my face, but when I hung up, I was gutted. I stared out the window at the falling snow, at the gondola whisking carefree snowboarders to the top of the mountain looming in the distance, shrouded in somber grey clouds. I didn’t bother to wipe away my tears.
You were right, Daphne. We cry.
That afternoon, your father and I figured out how to navigate through all of that (as it turns out, awesome!) powder. We stopped complaining. We rose to the challenge. We had fun. And when the sun broke through the clouds and the valley below caught fire with the light reflecting from the snow, I thought of Susan. And I smiled. From ear to ear, like my face would split in two. For the rest of the day, and the next one too, I hurled myself down a mountain, grinning like a fool, still not bothering to wipe the tears from my goggles.
On Susan’s Facebook, in the space labeled “About Me”, there’s a quote:
“For those who fight for it, life has a flavor the sheltered will never know.” – Sucker Punch
Fight for it, Daphne. Fight as hard as you can. Smile. Oh, and nurse your babies unabashedly in public. Susan would love that.