The Authenticity Experiment, the unexpected edition. We recently experienced an unanticipated death in our chosen family. The brother of one of the Coffee Girls’ died suddenly. The Coffee Girls, you may remember, are a group of five of us who used to drink coffee together every Thursday afternoon. Back when you could do that, sneak away for a cup of coffee in the late afternoon. Back when coffee after one o’clock wasn’t a problem. Back when gendered language like that didn’t make my skin crawl.
Surprisingly, it doesn’t now, make my skin crawl to refer to myself as a Coffee Girl. I don’t really react when one of them texts and says, “Coffee Girls need to get together.” Mary, one of the Coffee Girls said, “How come that doesn’t bother you, to be a Coffee Girl?” I shrugged. The more I write about gender, the less I understand it. But I think, in this case, or, at least the answer I gave Mary in January, was, “Because it started so long ago and it’s our group. It’s who I am.” Which makes no sense, really, but there you have it.
The funeral for this brother was a few weeks ago and I served as the eulogy whisperer—which this Coffee Girl didn’t really need, except psychologically. She kept saying, “I have an award-winning secret weapon.” The morning of the funeral, she sat heavy in my heart as I rested my arms on the oak kitchen table at 6:00 am and drank my coffee. I know that long walk up to the lectern—and this service occurred in an Anglican church, so I imagined heels clicking across a stone floor, and then ascending a set of curving wooden steps to an ornately carved pulpit.
This Coffee Girl practiced her eulogy multiple times, until she could read it without crying. (Which no doubt happened when she read it in church, but still, I made her believe this little trick works, and it does mostly. You see what trips you up and then feel prepared until during the service some other sentence sideswipes. Believe me, I know from eulogies.) She practiced reading in the shoes she planned to wear during the service—another good tip, so you ground your feet and body—and pinned her elbows to her ribcage so her inevitably shaking hands wouldn’t rattle the paper. The email I received at 3:13 am, time zones and all that, said, “Plant my feet, squeeze my elbows to my side, hold the podium right, Kate?” About 12 hours later, she emailed again to say she read well and felt so happy she’d done it. Many emojis conveyed the story.
Tonight, I thought about what persists after death. Surprising things—not what you ever expect. I was washing dishes and running the disposal. I heard something stuck down there. I killed the power, pulled the gasket, and rummaged my hand around in the disposal (keeping my eye on the switch as if it would somehow automagically turn on). I pulled out the string to two tea bags. I laughed and said, “Oh, Mom, you always told me to never throw those down.” That was her standard refrain, “Don’t throw those down, honey, they’ll clog the disposal.”
The phrase, “throw it down,” comes from my mother’s childhood, from my grandmother, actually. My grandmother’s house had a laundry chute that took clothes from the second and first floors down to the basement laundry room. You opened a white, single paneled door with a faceted crystal knob and threw down your clothes—literally. (Trust the DeGuti sisters when we tell you that you can throw down laundry through the chute much more easily than a rainbow striped beach ball. You can also trust that the older sister knows a Columbia Unabridged Paperback Encyclopedia weighs enough to force a beach ball all the way to the basement after the middle sister makes a panicked confession and begs for help.)
I laughed in my own kitchen, though, at the thought of a phrase two generations old still being repeated in a house without a laundry chute. Whenever a towel is dirty, or jeans, or any clothing item, I say, “Oh, just throw that down.” It’s what my mother said. It’s what her mother said. It’s what my sisters say. “Just throw it down.” Apparently it extends to tea bags in the garbage disposal, as well.
It’s nice, though, this persistence. I texted my ex-wife to ask her if she says “throw it down” in regards to laundry. She said, “Sometimes because the laundry is in the basement. But you always say it.” So, it persists there, in a way, too. I guess what I’m saying is, we never know how someone’s life is going to be remembered, is going to affect us—whether they die suddenly or of old age, whether they end a relationship with us because the timing is wrong or whether they ghost us, whether they just fall off the path by circumstance or through the passage of time, we change and are changed by others.
∞ ∞ ∞
My friend Chris and I fell off the path. It happened naturally when she moved to San Francisco for graduate school. We’d been friends in college and seen plays together in Ashland, most notably, Noel Coward’s Hay Fever. A ridiculous line from that play has stuck with us for 35 years and we used to greet each other with the line—simply a woman shrieking out “Richarrrrdddd!”—each time we saw the other. Chris and I reconnected (thank you, Facebook) in 2013 and when spied the other across the room, probably for the first time in 20 years, both of us now approaching middle age and supposed respectability, we both shouted, “Richarrrdddd!” and ran together, arms open, to hug. Persistence.
∞ ∞ ∞
Who knows what will persist from this Coffee Girl’s brother. The eulogy mentioned Legos and music, but it could be something not even yet imagined. One day, four years from now, this Coffee Girl might be vacuuming her rec room and, out of the blue, think of her brother and say, “Oh, David, who knew I’d remember…” Because just like my grandmother and my mother, just like your father or your beloved grandmother, just like Chris or your friend, Elizabeth, or Tim, or Pete, love and memory persist.