I found out today that my friend Sue in England died.
The details are not yet in, but from what I know it goes something like this: It’s a Tuesday in early June, and at 6 AM the edges of the misty grass knolls of Kent are suddenly lit with chartreuse morning light. A big, old stone house sits in the middle of a pasture, in a little valley, and as we peer inside, a pleasant-looking fiftyish schoolteacher is just getting up. She’s wearing an oversized T-shirt with a red and blue media company logo on it, and pulls herself up to gather her wits about her.
Her husband Ian curls up next to her, snoring lightly. He has a great head of gray curls. She shoves him playfully and he rolls away from her. She tosses a pillow onto his head. He grabs the pillow and relishes the feeling of his head sandwiched between the crisp, cotton-covered down pillows. He’s a video engineer who works long shifts half the week and is off the other half, so Tuesday morning Sue lets him sleep.
She relaxes for awhile in her quiet married king-sized bed with a cup of coffee made fresh from a bedside alarm clock/coffee maker; there’s even a small fridge below, in the nightstand, so she’s got milk in it and everything. Ian has always loved installing convenient gadgets and filling their house with comfortable toys.
Soon, Sue is up and dressed in a sleeveless red cotton frock with light blue flowers. Clip-clopping around the house in low-heeled but stylish brown sandals, she’s preparing her own children, Rupert, 13, and Phoebe, 10, for school. A flurry of clothes and books and cereal bowls later, and they’re all outside, sliding open the squeaky doors of their navy blue Land Rover, then slamming them shut.
Sue has always been energetic. Tall and tanned, with a low center of gravity, she moves with a bounce that belies her middle age. She’s got a classic East End accent full of dropped aitches; final consonants almost all become effs, and she’s even prone to rhyming slang. She’s oddly demonstrative for an Englishwoman—this is why the kids love her.
And then, at around ten after ten, Sue collapses in front of a classroom full of young children, just as she’s about to lead them out to the old slate courtyard for Morning Tea (or whatever they call their mid-morning snack). Everyone’s trying to wriggle to the front of the line to see what’s happened to Ms. Mullings, who seems to have fainted.
From what the email from Laura, her sister-in-law, said, Sue died soon after, and they still don’t know why, though heart trouble is suspected.
I was just gearing myself up to work on a couple of logos that are overdue; I have a trouble keeping up some days, and it’s just been busy lately. People add on endless additional tasks, and it is up to me to schedule them somewhere. I have allowed one incredibly needy client to take up time that should have been spent on other jobs, and my other clients are starting to notice.
In the middle of it I get an email from my sister in New York about how we need to talk about my parents’ finances. Then she says, and of course it was so awful to hear the news from Laura in England.
Oh my God, I think, what news? I think, oh God, something’s happened to one of Laura and Roger’s kids, or Ian and Sue’s kids. Or someone has cancer. It’s probably nothing, whispers that voice in my head that always says it’s probably nothing. Ian once had Guillaume-Barré Syndrome, I remember vaguely, and that was pretty weird, but it’s history now. Maybe it was really Lou Gherig’s Disease after all. Maybe it’s something that I have too. It’s probably nothing, goes the voice.
I met Ian when I was 18 years old, and he was a counselor for a program called Camp America. He worked at the same summer camp as me, Camp Delaware. I remember little about it, except that I met Ian, who was the first real English Person I ever knew, and I thought he sounded like George Harrison, which was really naive because George was from Liverpool and Ian is from Bexley. All summer Ian kept reciting Monty Python routines to me. The following year when my friend Wendy and I made our debut trip to Europe, we stayed with Ian and Laura’s family. Ian and Wendy and I were hippies, and I remember Disco Queen Laura, who preferred Disco to Joni Mitchell, out in the back yard sunning herself on a chaise lounge with one of those metallic cardboard sun reflectors.
We thought everything was terribly charming and their family was so nice to us; after that we sent people to them and they sent people to us on a regular basis. Since that first visit, I visited many other times, with my husband and my subsequent boyfriend and sometimes alone. Laura married Roger and Ian married Sue and we all had children and Laura has even grown out of her Disco stage, though she’s still quite the party girl. I have taken pictures of them and I have done paintings and pastels from those snapshots. They are my British family, and I will always be here to welcome them and their friends and family. I am a person with just a few very special friends and relatives that fan out around the globe. I have fun with them when we’re together. They are gracious hosts. We will always be there for one another.
Until today, when I found out that Sue died. I can’t concentrate on logos. I went into a vacuuming—Hoovering?—mania and ingeniously cleaned out the vacuum’s filter with a fork; then I vacuumed my heart out, with my iPod on. I finally burst into tears when I heard “The Things We Do For Love” by 10CC. I was thinking about how we all sent telegrams when Ian and Sue got married, because that’s what you did. For their wedding I sent a reproduction vegetable dish from the Santa Fe Railway china that I love, very American. And when they had their babies, we sent baby clothes or fuzzy toys. They have sent us my favorite clock, Noddy, Postman Pat, Absolutely Fabulous. Now I guess I’m supposed to send flowers. Just like, that’s the next thing you do? It seems so meaningless. Telegrams, baby clothes, cool media, flowers. Next! Is this just the first of a lengthening chain of funerals now that I’m middle-aged?
I must call Ian tomorrow and break the chain. I must bring meaning to the chain; I must honor Sue by making the rest of my life count, and do all my logos on time so I can make my life better and go to England and be with my friends and not just send flowers.
I ended up digging up a digital file of an old pastel painting I did of Sue and me in their garden when they lived in Greenwich, and fixing it up. I’m wondering if it’d be okay to send the digital image to England, since it’s not really that flattering, and doesn’t really resemble her. But it reflects, to me, the sunniness of Sue’s personality. All day I can hear her distinctive voice clanging “don’t get your knickers in a twist,” followed by her maniacal laugh, as if, somehow, if I fill my head up with all of her chattering, it will somehow balance out the horrible silence of her absence.