Finding a Way Through an Unspeakable Loss

Maddy’s mother and I became friends right after our children were born. Now Maddy’s gone, and so is the world we lived in.

Deborah Copaken

I can’t write this story. I must write this story. My brain can’t process this story, though this story has been my brain’s main occupant since the morning of December 14th, when I heard the news.

Where to begin? With the accident itself? With the sludge of hours and days that followed? With the snow, the patch of ice, the oncoming headlights, none of which I saw in real life but all of which I now see at least once a day, in painful slow motion?

No, let’s back it up further. Way back, to the beginning, when my colleague Roberta walked into my office in Rockefeller Center and said, “I have a friend I think you should meet. She’s due right around the time you are. You guys can hang out on maternity leave!” This was 1995, when I was pregnant with my first child. We had no cellphones, no email. Just phone numbers stored in Filofaxes or in our head. “Here,” said Roberta, handing me a scrap of paper with the word Suzi on it followed by a phone number.

I feigned interest. Why would I want to hang out with a friend of a friend, just because our babies were due within weeks of each other? I smiled at Roberta and thanked her. The minute she walked out of my office, I threw the scrap away. I was busy, trying to tie up loose ends before my baby was born.

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.)

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.

Suzi and Franklin, to their credit, never forced her to be anyone she wasn’t. They knew if she got cold enough, she’d put on a coat. That if they insisted she be on time, she would never have time to notice everything and then translate that into solid form.

Jacob recently ran into her at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) while visiting a friend. “We had such a nice time,” he said. “She’s so cool.” Maddy was studying painting, having turned her love of pottery into a mixed-medium form of two-dimensional representation. I guess you’d call it 2-D 3-D, since she used a 3-D printer to create tiny images on tiles of, say, Halloween scenes or faces, which she would then mix in with more abstract tiles and turn them into mosaics. In other words, Maddy was still being Maddy, unable to pin down with even the normal nomenclature of art.

This past September, she fell in love. She and her girlfriend insisted that both of their families have Thanksgiving dinner together, which they did, to the delight of all present. Maddy was finishing up her thesis, but the two had decided that she would stay at RISD for another year and a half so they could live together while her girlfriend, still a junior, finished up.

When I spoke to Suzi on the morning of December 14th, a few days after Maddy had finished her senior thesis, the organ harvesters had just arrived. The previous night, Maddy and her girlfriend had been driving from New York to Bennington to help Franklin pick up Alex from college. Franklin had been in the car ahead. At some point he realized that he no longer saw his daughter’s car behind him, and, growing concerned, he turned around. He found Maddy trapped in the driver’s seat. He held her in his arms, alive but unconscious, until the ambulance arrived. Her wheels had slipped on a patch of ice, sending her car into an oncoming truck. Her girlfriend walked away bruised but otherwise physically unscathed. Maddy died at the hospital on the operating table a few hours later.

“I’m going to need help getting through this,” Suzi said to me. I told her I’d be there as fast as I could. We’d take it one step at a time. Three hours later, I walked into their house in Hillsdale, New York. The first person I saw was Selma, Suzi’s mother, her head hung unusually low. “It’s unreal,” she said. “Unnatural.” I agreed. The fabric of the universe is irreversibly torn when a granddaughter leaves this earth before her grandmother. Franklin was slumped on a couch in the living room, staring out at the four empty chairs on the patio and to the mountains beyond. Everything in me wanted to run outside and remove one of the chairs from view, as if carting off a physical metaphor for their loss could ever ease the forever pain of it.

Our friend Helen walked in, crying, followed by Suzi and Alex, who’d been on a hike after arriving home from the hospital. I hugged Suzi, who, still in shock, spoke of the eerie calmness in the hospital room the night prior, as if Maddy were still there, sprinkling her never-in-a-rush essence over them. “I’ve always joked,” she said, “that the only time Maddy was ever on time was her due date. Now, for the first time, she’s early.” Alex hugged a family friend and wailed, a long, guttural moan of such pain and endurance that it will haunt all of us who heard it for years to come.

Selma, with all of her aged wisdom, kept looking for some meaning to make sense of it. “It must have been bashert,” she said, using the Yiddish word for destiny. As if it were God’s plan to take Maddy from us too soon. “I can’t believe that,” I said, having long ago decided that life is random chaos and pain, from which beauty must be sought out and appreciated every day to make it less so.

The last time I saw Maddy was this past July, when I was seated across from her at a large and lively dinner around her family’s table. Between the main course and dessert, my WeCroak app dinged, as it does every day, five times a day, with a friendly, “Don’t forget, you’re going to die.” The app was created out of a Bhutanese maxim, which asserts that contemplating death five times a day brings happiness. I downloaded it onto my phone after a near-death experience the previous summer. Maddy laughed when I explained all of this to her. “I don’t need an app to remind myself I’m going to die,” she said. “I’m aware of it every second.” She’d also made her peace with it, she said. She recently told her family that she had a premonition she would die young. She wanted them to understand that she was not scared of this, should it come to pass. “Tell Jacob I said hi,” she said, as she got in her car that night. “We had a really nice talk recently.”

“I heard,” I said. “I’ll tell him.”

Jacob and I stopped for lunch at a diner on the way to Maddy’s funeral, where a hawk would stream across the sky, in full view of the mourners, at the moment the rabbi read a prayer about flight. My son told me about Heidegger’s views on death and the importance of understanding nonexistence as an integral part of existence, and in that moment, taking a bite of my food and a sip of water, which is what living people must do to keep going, I had two radically conflicting, albeit Heideggerian, thoughts: I’m enjoying this moment of conversation and sustenance with my grown child so much, and I feel guilty for enjoying this moment of conversation and sustenance with my grown child so much.

The other mothers from our playgroup were at the funeral as well, all of us with the same guilty thoughts: Why did we still have our children when Suzi did not? It felt wrong, obscene. “It’s incomprehensible,” we kept saying to one another, for lack of better words. Roberta, of course, was there as well. I hadn’t seen her in years, as she moved away long ago, but we clung to each other and sobbed. “Thank you,” I belatedly said, “for introducing me to Suzi.” Had she never done so, I would have missed out on 23 years of having the privilege of knowing Maddy Parrasch.

Maddy’s ashes, true to her corporeal form, were late to arrive, so we didn’t get to scatter them at the funeral. I went back up to Hillsdale three days later, on Suzi’s birthday, to help her try to celebrate amidst her grief. While Franklin prepared his wife’s birthday feast—as great an act of love as I’ve ever witnessed—Suzi, Alex, a family friend, and I embarked on an hour-long hike up a Berkshire mountain, arriving at the top exactly a week after Maddy’s death. We hadn’t planned on this coincidence of timing. In fact, we were a few hours late getting started and worried about it growing dark during our descent, but we were determined to get Suzi out of the house and into nature. Knowing Maddy and her love of Central Park rock climbing and vista gazing, knowing her acceptance of her own mortality, even at 23, she would have loved (we decided for her in absentia, standing there at the summit) the synchronicity of celebrating her mother’s birth and her last breath at the top of a mountain named Monument.

L’chaim,” Suzi said, blowing out her candles later that night—to life. Because what other choice do we humans, still with breath, have? We can’t go on. We must go on. We can’t process the death of a child. We must speak of it anyway.