The morning after the lady next door dies in the middle of the night, I go inside my house to tell my mother. “Ronnie is dead,” I say to an empty foyer. I return to the front sidewalk where I had been standing, already warm on my summer bare feet. There is a stillness that I have never, ever felt before as I watch the silent blinking lights of the ambulance parked along the curb. Ronnie’s front door is pushed open by a firefighter walking backwards, then the stretcher, a black cloth over her body, and another firefighter. A patch of thick, dark, curly hair sticks out of one end. I have walked the short distance between the townhouses many times, but today I only go half way. I had come out early, to get out of my own house and to wait for the neighborhood pool to open; I was not expecting death. There is a small crowd: Ronnie’s husband, her two small children, and me. I stand in my cut-off shorts and t-shirt with my bathing suit on underneath, still damp from the day before.
I am not a good swimmer like my younger sister and my best friend. While they swim laps of breast stroke and butterfly, and jump off the diving board like canon balls and swans, I lower myself into the shallow end, slide against the pool wall until my head is under, then push off with my legs and move through the water, close to the bottom. I only use my arms when I have to; otherwise they are close to my sides and I am a mermaid gliding through the night sea for long stretches of time, coming up for air, then returning quickly to the wonderful silent world that I long for where I am forever and ever and ever alone.
It is 1977, the year of Roots, Star Wars, and Saturday Night Fever (which I am not allowed to see, but have heard every detail), and I am twelve. We live in a suburb of Baltimore that is called a “new” town and supposed to be “progressive.” We are Jewish and Catholic and atheist. We are rich and poor, black and white. We are part of an experiment put into place by a man who believed that this kind of place could actually exist. We are learning some of this in my eighth grade Social Studies class. All of the streets have names from lines of great literature. We live on Winter Rose Path, but when I ask, no one that I know has any interest in what poem or story it comes from. I think it sounds beautiful when I say: I live on Winter Rose Path.
Ronnie was not beautiful, but seems romantic and exotic to me at first. She has a man’s name (I wouldn’t know until much later that her given name was Veronica). She is a Jewish single mother and we are a Roman Catholic nuclear family (I am learning about this in Social Studies too). She has two small children and a husband, but they don’t live with her anymore. “Are they divorced?” I ask my mother. She says she doesn’t know. The gossip is that her husband left when she refused to have “an operation,” as my mother puts it, an operation that might have saved her life. Shortly after that she got too ill to take care of her son and daughter, so they went to live with their father. Then she was the sick, troubled woman who came out of her house with a scarf on her head and got into the cab that was waiting to take her to her doctors’ appointments.
What little I know about Ronnie is from being in her house when she wasn’t there. Before her children had to go live with their father, I babysat for her. I walked in her rooms, smelled her smell, answered her phone, touched the beads and candles and incense on her dresser, put the hot dogs on the rolls, cleared her table, gave her children baths, tucked them into bed. I had no idea where she went; she never told me or left a phone number. When she got home she would sit down and watch the rest of Saturday Night Live with me. Sometimes I thought she forgot that I was there, and I would look over at her, sitting on the edge of a chair, leaning toward the television, pale and always cold, her hair just like Gilda Radner’s.
One of the last nights that I babysat I walked into her bedroom after putting the kids to bed I saw a sheer white tunic with embroidery around the open neck hanging on a hanger. Next to the tunic was a pair of jeans folded over another hanger, and on the floor a pair of flat satin slippers that looked brand new. It was the kind of outfit Ronnie would wear, only Ronnie was always a little bit rumpled, not neatly pressed like the clothes displayed in her room. This was an outfit that you would wear for a very special occasion. I sat on her bed taking in the scent of her perfume (something so different from my mother’s Jean Nate), the clothes floating in the moonlight, and I could see my own bedroom next door. We both had end-of-group townhouses. Between our houses was a narrow space, a strip of grass and mud that didn’t belong to either of us and was never used unless a group of us kids were playing tag or statue. I would look out from my window and make this space full of witches flying on brooms or giant hollyhocks swaying in the wind or the wobbly notes from my flute. Our houses were so close that sometimes when I couldn’t sleep I’d think about trying to reach my arm across and touch the bricks of Ronnie’s house or her bedroom window, or throwing a rope and crossing over that space somehow, like a tightrope walker in the circus.
Like on the night that I had my window open and I heard Ronnie crying. Before that night I had never heard a grown woman cry like that; it was not a weep, but an agonizing moan, so I went downstairs and told my mother. She went over to Ronnie’s house. I saw the light go on in her room and the shape of my mother move around the bed. I couldn’t see very clearly, but then the crying stopped. My mother told me the next morning that Ronnie had needed her pain medicine and was too weak to get it. She told me that she rubbed her back. I couldn’t picture this; they were not close. She told me that the outfit hanging on the closet door was what Ronnie wanted to be buried in.
That summer morning as Ronnie’s body is carried out on a stretcher no one cries and nothing is said at all. There is the sound of summer locusts and a dog barking, the smell of cut grass and the chlorine in my hair. Then, I am standing there alone. Ronnie’s children get into a car with their father. The ambulance pulled away and I watch it drive out of sight. I did go inside to tell my mother that Ronnie was dead (dead?). I know I said the words (quietly or loudly?), but who had heard me? Maybe on that morning, when I went back in my mother was just in the kitchen or in the living room watching Good Morning America. Maybe she had gone back upstairs to lie down. Maybe she was talking on the telephone in the dining room and I just hadn’t heard.
It is your whole body that swims underwater, the part that does not yet know grief but is beginning to understand pain and suffering, the part that moves towards the shards of light beneath the surface of the water, that aches because of the darkness, that is only now beginning to see that to cry over a death is to cry over a life—remembered or forgotten.
I walk to the swimming pool, as I had planned all along, to meet my sister and my best friend who were already there for swim team practice. When I get there I slide into the shallow end and swim under water the length of the pool, pushing the water out of my way with all of the strength in my skinny arms, and screaming at the top of my lungs, someone has died today, someone has died today. I climb up the metal ladder and walk toward my sister and my best friend who have laid down a beach towel under the shade of a tree and have saved a spot for me.