It takes me a minute to figure out who she is. Not much context in the neighborhood Peet’s Coffee and Tea. She’s a parent of one of the kid’s friends, that much I know. A positive association. The barista shouts a name. It’s her mocha latte, flat, no whip. Sarah Something—from a soccer family. Is she still an engineer for the big transportation utility? What did the husband do?
She turns, holds the sleeved drink, scans the wall for a two-seater. I already know there’s nothing; all the retired guys, the officeless remote workers, and Pilates ladies have snagged every table now that we can return to life as we knew it a year ago. She sees me. It’s the kind of smile that allows me to pretend I’m not sure I know her, or maybe it’s a “we must know each other, so let’s say hi” smile. She was easy on the sidelines all those game-days ago. At least I can replicate her smile. She has now made it impossible for me to walk past her to get to the door without stopping to say hello.
Right. Her husband was Kurt. It was glioblastoma. At the time, a quick browser dive had left me with a vision of ninja stars. A cleaving army migrating toward his frontal lobe to devour mission control. When he was diagnosed, Kurt quit his architect job and went to all the soccer practices. After the chemo, his hair grew back in chicken feather tufts. He dyed it, then shaved his head, leaving only a fluffy pink Mohawk. Massive shoulders built like the tree of life, he wilted as the season ended. My daughter told me the team petted his head for good luck. All the under-fourteens and their parents paid their respects at the Presbyterian Church for his memorial. Even then, I was glad they hadn’t called it that stick-a-needle-in-your-eye “Celebration of Life.”
She looks good. Ten years hasn’t worked her over, Covid notwithstanding. She must still live nearby in the Oakland hills, coming back to this Peet’s. We haven’t moved away either. I feel the memory cloud part enough for small talk, should it come to that.
She approaches me with the hot drink; it’s a bulwark between us. I ask about her daughters. One is in medical school in Atlanta. Her oldest is an archeologist. Mine is a newly minted lawyer. Hotshots. Soccer daughters are running the world. Ha-ha. A pause.
“I heard about your son,” she says. Her voice has dropped two decibels. “I can’t imagine what it would be like to lose a child.”
I am transported to the rim of a vast canyon as her words echo back, bouncing off my chest again and again.
When will people stop saying they can’t imagine? They say that, but I know they don’t do it. Really imagine. Sometimes, I want to ask why they would want to. Often, they follow with, “I don’t know how you do it. You’re amazing.” I want to say, “Better me than you. I bear up so well.” Sarcasm flows in the moments I’m really down, blaming myself for the butterfly effect of my beautiful son’s being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
I manage to gin up a smile. No, she hasn’t lost a child, only a husband; I figure she’s had her own moments at the abyss. She looks down at her petite flats. I reach for her hand. When she looks up, we are clasped in our mutual sorrow.