With Us, Still

Originally published at Her View From Home, August 2021. 

I miss her in  a visceral way. I want to brush her hair back from in front of her eyes, rub my hand down the inside of her arm and feel the soft skin that was her. I want to stand close, smell her breath as she speaks. This was not an intimacy we shared when she lived, but I long for it now. 

We met on the school playground when our sons were in kindergarten: Judy straight from the office, skirt and heels with a phone to her ear, me in a t-shirt and jeans, toddler in tow. As we waited for the dismissal bell, we talked about spelling tests and book reports.  We’d marvel at the friendship that my Russell and her Luke had formed in such a short time and wonder if they’d always be so close. When the bell rang, the boys would run to the playground, while we stood together, lost in our thoughts, hope for the future and content in the now, warm days, hot pavement and the sound of children laughing. 

Judy and I were fellow travelers on the path of parenting, deeply connected in the ups and downs of our children. I never knew her birth date or wedding anniversary. I cannot recount her best girlhood memory or tease about high school crushes. We did not plan trips together or have deep conversations about politics and religion. During the 15 years we knew each other, it was the joy in our offspring that defined our relationship.

I wish, selfishly, that if her early passing was inevitable, we could share a long farewell. Rather than her sudden death from an aneurysm, I would visit as she lay in her bed, dying of some completely painless yet incurable disease. We could chuckle about the tiny sliver of life we shared. I’d dig up photos of our sons together, when they were very young, in big straw hats for some class project, mugging for the camera. I’d thank her for loving my Russell and she’d ask me to keep an eye on her kids, not just the son who connected us, but her daughters, too. I’d nod, doubting I could do enough or be enough. I’d vow to try. 

Her husband recounted on the day that she died, Judy asked for her phone as they loaded her into the ambulance. I imagine her furiously texting farewells to family and friends. She didn’t, of course, but I am confident her intent was there; she liked to button things up, end well. When I rise above my selfishness, remove myself from the shock of her passing, I am grateful her goodbye was not a long one. It is better, I think, to be taken by surprise, to leave the world without knowing. It is what I wish for any mother who has held her child in a deep embrace, unable to let go. I believe it was best for Judy, too, our Judy, the Judy who belonged to so many of us. 

I’ve met lots of mothers through my sons; the group of moms connected through Russell is unique in the sheer number of us. As our boys added friends to their crew, we added their moms to ours. Together we  navigated elementary school, with second grade playdates and third grade sleepovers, bounce house birthdays, sledding at the local hill. Judy’s annual taco party was a highlight of my Russell’s childhood. Each year for winter break our own family would travel to Florida, but the taco party could not be planned until Judy knew we’d be home. “How about the Saturday before school starts again?” she’d ask. I’d anticipate my exhaustion at the end of a “working” vacation with three young boys. 

“Sure, but I won’t be able to send him with anything,” I’d wearily reply, hoping she’d do it without Russell one year, let him spend the post-Florida weekend lazy and in pajamas. 

“It’s not a party unless Luke’s favorite brother is there,” I’d hear back and smile, refocus on what was important. 

There was the fifth grade rite of passage when we let our band of boys walk the half mile to the town ballfield, without parental supervision. Judy sent Luke with a pack of after-school snacks and a stern warning that they behave. “The moms,” she told our sons, “are everywhere.” 

As middle school ushered in a more hands-off approach to parenting, our  crew of moms began regular meet-ups at a local restaurant, right next to the YMCA. It started when we dropped the boys for their weekly basketball practice, but continued long after the team dissolved. Every now and then, I’d get a text or an email and feel the excitement of seeing the old elementary school moms. 

“Who are you meeting?” my husband would ask, wondering if the invitation extended to him. 

“The Russell Moms,” I’d reply, giving birth to the nickname I used for the mothers who loved our middle son. 

 As the boys became teenagers, their constant companionship moved in and out. Eddie started private school, Jack gained a new group of friends. Harry focused on baseball, Russell took up tennis. Luke got a girlfriend; Jason followed suit. But the Russell Moms remained, with hugs and laughter whenever our paths crossed, sharing in the amazement of the almost-men our little boys were becoming.    

We started a book club when the boys finished high school. No longer managing curfews or homework assignments, we have more time on our hands and it’s an easy way to catch up. We’ve got about a 50% read rate, but it was never about the book anyway. We gather together around a backyard fire pit or at a kitchen table, with too much wine and not enough cookies. We retell stories of then, share news of now.

Judy died between book club meetings and right after the boys returned home from college for Thanksgiving. I don’t remember the last thing I said to her, but I tripped over some old texts, stored on my laptop. I am not sure why or how but now I have them forever. 

The first is a photo of a Celtics hat. “Russell’s?” her text reads. 

“Nope,” mine replies. 

Then a photo of our two sons, Luke clean shaven and Russell just scruffy. 

“BFFs,” Judy writes. 

” from me. 

I hover over the last text I have from her.  

“Horn broken. Here.” 

I imagine her through the windshield of an idling car, pressing a car horn that won’t make a sound. Dressed in her long rain coat, hair tucked behind her ears, I’m sure she was ready to drive to a PTO meeting, a basketball game, or some sort of mom-centered journey. 

I am grateful for these texts; they are how I brush her hair from her eyes, sense the softness of her skin, and remember the intimacy we shared in raising our sons. 

We sit closely together at the funeral, the Russell moms and I, the Luke moms, the Will moms, the moms of Liam and those of Connor.  I have to remind myself that we are not waiting for Judy to arrive, rushing in with a bag over her shoulder, a bottle of wine in her free hand. She is here, I murmur. She is here. Not just in that coffin in the front of the church, but she is here, too, piled in closely, with each of us. 

Our boys sit a few rows back. As each arrives, they push in a little further, greet with the casual familiarity of a lifetime of friendship, handshakes unnecessary. 

Do they feel the emptiness as we do, we moms without our Judy? 

“I’m not sure what I feel,” Russell tells me on the way to the funeral home. “Sort of lost and not real.”  

Do their eyes move around the church, hunting for Luke? They spot him up front, I assume, worn out and fidgeting in an ill-fitted suit borrowed from the back of Russell’s closet. 

How will they be, these boys, as time marches on and the pain of today fades? Together, I think. Forever, I hope. They’ll toast our Judy at graduations and weddings and spontaneous taco parties. 

I glance back at them, these sons of ours, all of ours. They smile hello, their Bud Light smiles, their poker playing, frat joining, college-aged smiles. It is toothless grins I see, fire trucks, kickball, manhunt in the dark. Also, it is Judy, alive on each of those little boy faces, I see my friend, with us still.

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