Her legs were so swollen and weak that she couldn’t walk. She weighed less than 80 pounds at the time of our final visit, which made it possible for her un-muscular husband to carry her emaciated body around the house. I, in stark contrast, had gained 25 pounds; at five months pregnant, my body was an ever-expanding, weighty orgy of life.
Complications from childhood cancer left Gayle’s torso caved in at the right side. Even in the best of health, she walked with a slight sideways gait, all the while carrying an unknown embryo of future cancer from ancient radiation.
Indeed, cancer made its second sneaky appearance in her breast at age 53. While she beat it into remission, a side effect of chemotherapy was a bizarre form of diabetes that stole the nutrients out of her blood and nearly killed her.
“I look soooo much better,” she told me cheerfully in that sing-song way of hers, reclined like a queen on her living room couch. It took physical effort to look at her without a horrified hand flying over my mouth. This was better? Her hair, once with Linda Rondstadt-esque waves, was limp and straight; her skin flaking and puckered up against her skull. She was bloated at the middle, but her limbs were spindly.
We didn’t discuss why it had been two years since my last visit. Though “it” was there in the form of my godfather, Jeff, slinking through the room like a shadow. He and I did not make eye contact. We didn’t apologize. When we finally spoke, we hewed to our safe zone of books we’d read.
After years of tolerating his line-crossing, alcoholic behavior, I’d answered Jeff’s inability to make amends to me during his brief sobriety with a scathing essay, published in the St. Petersburg Times. It’s an angry one that begins by predicting his death. He responded by insulting me with words so heady I had to look them up (“mendacious synecdoche,” anyone?). We stopped speaking, and in the fallout, I lost touch with the woman who had always been there for me, unconditionally.
I didn’t believe Gayle would live another six months. Through my mother – her best friend – I’d sent messages of love, thanks for her surrogate parenting (she’d never borne children of her own), and anchoring my mother through years of addiction. But each time I tried to say those words myself during my final visit, Jeff’s black-hole presence choked them back.
Gayle lived seven more years, but that was the last time we saw each other. My mother shuttled messages between us, but the specter of my godfather, and then the birth of my son, condensed time into a bullet.
Still, when I received the tear-stained call from my mother this March informing me that Gayle had been dead for six months, an explosive surprise knocked me dizzy, confirming the absurdity of “closure.” Shock and grief exert a fierce gravity, like an undertow. Jeff had not so much as slipped a word to anyone, not via his Facebook page, not even to her oldest friend. My mother sleuthed out Gayle’s death through intuition (too long since their last call) and their shared dentist. She learned Jeff sold the house by visiting its emptied halls; she followed her gut to discover that he buried Gayle in the same local plot as her father, but held no funeral, then he slunk off to another state and away from all of our attempts to contact him.
I became prickly with people after learning of her loss—waves of forgotten memories pummeling me with guilt, beset by dreams in which I railed violently at Jeff. In lieu of an apology, I wanted answers.
My small comfort has come in the form of remembering: I put up photos of Gayle, wore a ring she gave me, and wrote about her. My mother and I held our own memorial on Gayle’s birthday this past September, a year since her death. There, her oldest friends cried, sang and laughed, telling stories of her at her best. It can’t completely warm the cold and lonely gusts of loss but I felt that if I turned my head, she would be there on the chair behind me, arms open, saying, “Come here, baby, give me a hug.”
Jordan E. Rosenfeld is author of the suspense novel “Forged in Grace,” and three other books. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in: Brain, Child, The Nervous Breakdown, ReWire Me, Role/Reboot, The New York Times, The Rumpus, San Francisco Chronicle, and more. Her website is jordanrosenfeld.net.