Jacob arrived two weeks early. Suzi’s baby, Madeline, hit her due date precisely. Or so I heard from Roberta, who would not be dissuaded by our lack of interest in meeting each other. A few weeks after Maddy was born, Roberta invited Suzi and me and our newborn infants to her apartment for brunch.
Suzi and I hit it off immediately, after she told me she’d tossed my number in the trash as well, and we spent not only most of our maternity leaves together, but the next 23 years. We started a music playgroup for our kids, because who wants to pay to have someone else sing “Baby Beluga” to a baby? If you know C, D, G, E minor, A, and D7, you can pretty much play any baby song ever written.
For five years, playgroup took place every Monday after work in the basement playroom of my building. After playgroup, Suzi, her husband, Franklin, Maddy, and eventually Maddy’s baby brother, Alex, would come upstairs to my apartment, where I would make us all dinner. Nothing fancy, just kid fare: mac and cheese, chicken, and one time linguine with shrimp, to the delight of Maddy, who liked to wander into the kitchen, compliment my bland cooking, and ask questions. Lots of them.
Why was the kitchen floor, in the summer, too hot for bare feet? (Because our first-floor kitchen was above a parking garage, which would overheat every July.) Could she take out the watercolors and paint? (Yes. Of course.) Could you use a toaster oven to cook chicken? (Theoretically, yes. Let’s try it and see.) Where was my husband? (At work.) But you work, and you’re here. Why? (It’s complicated, sweetheart. When you’re old enough, we’ll talk about patriarchal power structures and the plight of working mothers.)
Read: The secret life of grief
After my separation from my husband, when Maddy was starting her last year of boarding school, where she’d become a master at the pottery wheel, and Jacob was starting his first year of college—my son was born on May 28th, making him one of the youngest in his class; Maddy was born on July 14th, making her one of the oldest in hers—Suzi and I met for lunch at Whole Foods, and she held me as I disintegrated into pieces. “How do I even do this?” I sobbed.
“One step at a time,” she said.
I was reminded of the time Maddy and Jacob were both turning 3, or maybe it was their fourth birthday, who knows, but what I do recall is that we took the kids to the Central Park Zoo to celebrate. As we meandered our way there, the way Olmsted intended, Maddy insisted on climbing every rock along the way. Jacob stood a safe distance below, delighting in Maddy’s courage but firmly grounded by his lack of it.
“Come up! Climb with me, Jacob!” she said. When he did not budge, she climbed back down and said, “It’s not scary. I promise. Here, I’ll help you.” She grabbed his hand and led him up, one step at a time, to the top of a tall rock, showing him the beauty of life’s vista from her fearless vantage point. Maddy was that kid. The kid who drank up the world on her own terms. The kid with the unusually mature inner calm and a constant smile, as if she understood the absurdity of it all from toddlerhood on. The kid who was never on time, because why rush life when you can stop and not only smell the roses but feel the softness of their petals against your skin and then turn them into an ephemeral art project? The kid who refused to wear a coat in the winter not because she was stubborn but because she liked the feeling of cold air on her skin.