Last night, Memorial Day night, I was lying between my son and daughter, whispering with them as if a grown up were going to come in and yell at us. We were laughing about a girl who had terrorized the playground all weekend, scandalized the mothers by refusing to get off the “spinner” and let their children have a turn. Dashiell called her the “Sassy Grump” and followed his imagination through scenarios of the Sassy Grump taking over playgrounds all over the city, locking mothers out and extorting money, while my heart trailed off to thoughts of Karen Walsh Rullman.
I remembered her imitating my eighteen month old daughter, dramatizing her diva-esque hand motion, laughing, and in that moment I saw what a good actress she was, how alive and funny to watch.
I remembered her in the school yard at pick up, talking about a show, trying to get me to meet a friend of hers, always wanting to put artists together, always that laugh like we’re all in this together, we all know how tough it is, let’s just put on our best face and walk out onto the stage of life.
When our kids were in kindergarten I wrote a musical with them, Karen’s daughter was so cute, like a fairy, eyes like a fawn, brown and gazing mirthfully at everyone, expecting us to break into song and dance at any moment, waiting for it. Karen must have been like that to her. And then after weeks of writing with the children, and them really knowing the songs, the music, Karen came in to the classroom to choreograph. That was the first time I’d ever seen her serious. Because it was a show. And a show was the real deal, you can’t laugh through this, not like life, it has to be, you know, as close to Broadway as you can be on Seventy Eighth Street.
One year Karen and I did Broadway night at the school. She sang, “You’ve got a friend”, and I listened in the wings thinking, ‘She is that friend. She lives these lyrics.’ I went out and sang an original song, feeling uncomfortably self-promoting, and wishing I had sang the duet with her. Later, she sat in a child chair in the first grade classroom talking with her performing partner like she were back stage at a gala. Again, I felt so willowy watching her, admiring the seasoned pro, and yet, I hadn’t a clue that very soon I’d never see her again.
Today, thinking about how to bring up Karen’s death with Dashiell, I asked him what he thought about dying. ‘What do you mean?’ He asked. ‘In the book you’re reading, Magnus Chase, is there stuff about death?’ ‘Yes. If you die bravely with a weapon or a tool in your hand you go to Vanaheim, which is a peaceful paradise with good dinners.’ ‘So death is an extension of life?’ ‘How you live determines how you live after death.’
A few blocks later I told him Karen had died last night and he was startled, hit by real sadness, empathy for his classmate and her brother. No Odin, Gods, afterlife. ‘It’s so sad’, he said, ‘to never see the person you’ve been so close with, you’ve seen every day, again.’
That’s what is so tough about living. Making loss bearable. Breaking into song, into dance, tickling each other late at night in the face of imminent heartbreak, and fear. That’s what was in Karen’s laugh.
Memorial Day. We remember our brothers and sisters in arms, and we are all soldiers. But when a family is putting up such a fight, being so brave, exuding spirit and life in the face of such odds, it humbles us. If I were dying, I often thought. If I were dying, I would only be concerned with my children. Whether they were being loved, respected, cared for, treated fairly, empowered to design their lives, and if I felt my children had support, lots of generous support, maybe I could go to Vanaheim in peace.