Chairs and Birds

There are times when you can sit and listen to a song and be wholly transported in time. This has not happened to me in a while, until one night a few weeks ago.

I was two wines in, listening to Bob Marley, thinking about my dear friend Rebecca. I have not written about her death until now — some seven months later — because there simply aren’t enough words, or maybe just not the right words. And that is daunting in front of a blinking cursor. There was some sense of knowing, at various points in her battle against metastatic breast cancer, that the day would come when we would lose her. But it also somehow always seemed equally impossible that such a bright light and big presence would leave us behind. You always hear about the exceptions — someone has to defy the odds and be the medical miracle story. It was never out of the realm of possibility that it would be her.

But when the end came, it came so quickly. I was not prepared, even though I was aware of how much her condition had worsened. I had texted with her on a Sunday about coming up to see her that week, and heard from her family on Thursday that she was hospitalized and they were saying their goodbyes. It was incomprehensible.

On the morning following her wake where 1,000 people had waited in a winding line for hours to pay their respects, I found myself sitting in a distinctly familiar yet long-forsaken chair in our college chapel, just five days before Christmas. And because Reb drew people in, standing there in the chapel was the lead singer of The Wailers — who, months earlier, had met her just once to perform at her annual Cancer Couch Foundation fundraiser. She made such an impact on him that he flew in just to sing at her funeral mass — one that had its own overflow room with a remote video feed to accommodate the crowds of people coming to say goodbye.

If you also attended college in the early to mid-nineties, maybe your dorm friends had the Bob Marley & The Wailers Legend CD as required listening like we did. Reb lived down the hall from me freshman year when we played Legend on a repeat loop. I can remember her singing with us as it played incessantly in the background, before or after Pearl Jam or Eric Clapton, or maybe James Taylor or U2. I knew her when she was a shower-challenged college freshman, a study abroad roommate, a grad student, a bride, a mother, a bridesmaid, a godmother, a therapist, a patient, and an activist. All of those moments in time were riddled with music, with a relentless pursuit of laughter, and often with a tendency to be the very last to leave an event of any kind.

Reb’s life was lived fiercely. She was endlessly ambitious — about her career, about parenting, about her advocacy in the metastatic breast cancer community, about party planning, and about friendship. There was not really an in between with her — no real moments of her merely considering something for future thought. If she was in, she was all the way in.  In the last years of her life, after leaving behind her successful career as a leading neuropsychologist who had worked with everyone from post-9/11 trauma victims to Sandy Hook survivors, she founded and ran The Cancer Couch Foundation and raised millions of dollars specifically for the long-overlooked metastatic breast cancer research community. She also decided to become a stand up comic and taught herself quantum physics on the side to better understand how her cells could be retrained to heal themselves. She never missed anyone’s birthday, and was the most thoughtful of gift givers. And even as she was laser focused every day on staying alive as long as possible for her family — physically, spiritually, and mentally — she never stopped listening, despite the millions of pursuits she always had cooking and her ability to capitalize on every single second. She remained one of the very few people on this planet who understood everything I had to say and told me when I was right, and also when I was way off.

The last time I saw her alive was at her Cancer Couch fundraiser in October, and there were The Wailers — because she was just able to secure a band like this to entertain us — and I was in awe of how true to the original songs they sounded all these years later. There was a suspension in time hearing those songs, so true to how they remained in my memory.

When she died two months after that fundraiser, I was in utter disbelief that we had lost her. I sat in that chapel where I had mumbled through hundreds of Catholic masses in college 25 years earlier, and the singer from The Wailers started playing Three Little Birds, right there in front of us — as if everyone has a renowned voice of reggae drop by to sing at their funeral. It was a completely surreal morning on so many levels, and I remember being acutely aware of how I would never forget all of its details.

“Don’t worry about a thing. Cause every little thing gonna be alright.”

No.

This was my undoing, my muted ugly-crying, my acknowledgement that she was gone and that, everything would not remotely be alright in a world without her.

* * *

Ninety miles away, at that same moment, my mom was under general anesthesia at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center for surgery — the very same hospital where Rebecca had endured so much over the last four years.

And then a mentally numbing Christmas came and went. And a new year started with bringing my mom to the ER on January 1. She has since spent several hospital stints at Sloan Kettering this year — where we have met oncologists, pulmonologists, hematologists, gastroenterologists, and infectious disease specialists. It’s a very complicated case, they all continue to tell us. As I worked to absorb the constantly evolving details of her situation, I wondered frequently if we were sitting in a room where Rebecca had been or if we were speaking with a nurse who had treated her at some point in her multiple hospital stays.

And it was those chairs in Sloan Kettering that marked the beginning of 2020 for me, always thinking so much about my mom while also trying to begin to come to grips with Rebecca being gone.

It was all so suffocating, and — funnily enough — I remember repeatedly thinking that 2020 really couldn’t get any worse.

[CUE GLOBAL PANDEMIC]

* * *

Seemingly overnight, we were all sent home to social distance indefinitely and, possibly, also ponder a complete and total reset. After an initially unmotivated start to our stay at home order, I eventually cleaned out rooms and gutted closets. Part of this process dictated that it was finally time to give up the ugly glider chair where I had spent multiple hundreds of hours nursing three babies.  That chair taught me several things:

1) Never choose a furniture fabric ever again from a thumb-sized swatch (greens can be very deceiving).

2) The full recline feature is worth the cost.

3) Yes, you will someday sleep again, but it will take years.

That chair was where I equally lamented and loved being the only one awake in the dead of night with a baby. That chair was fucking hard to give away. I had dreaded the moment it was carried out of our front door, out of our lives, and closing that chapter of parenthood. Off it went.

* * *

After too much news intake, I recently went back to playing more music to think about better days, about crowds and energy and live bands that will have no place in our near or even medium term future as it is reshaped by face masks and antibody research. I listened to my beloved U2 and thought about the chairs I never sat in at their last concert because I was up singing the entire time.

Most days now, I sit in the same chair in my kitchen while I work from home amidst the pandemic new normal.  I noticed in the last few weeks that red cardinals not only drop by often on my back porch, but linger almost insistently to make their presence known, much like someone I miss so much.

Maybe because my first part of 2020 was so consumed by hospitals and aftermaths, I hadn’t had a chance to even begin to process Reb’s death until the world stood still.

After multiple COVID-related and other postponements, my mom finally got the additional surgery she needed. Nobody was able to go with her, and nobody could visit. The chairs for visitors were empty this time, as they remain for all of her ongoing treatments and follow-up visits in world of public health emergency restrictions. My mom is very strong and presses on, and hopefully soon I can sit beside her during her appointments again.

* * *

These chairs — in the hospital, in my college chapel, in my mind’s eye nursing my kids, in better days of concerts and gatherings — they are all so tangible to me, as if I can visualize their ugly yet supportive backs and haggard fabrics from years of wear, of memories.

And that brought me to the moment of sitting in my kitchen chair again — my pandemic work station where I can see the cardinals visit, and where I had those two glasses of wine and thought of Rebecca. That night, I figured I’d just shuffle Bob Marley songs on Alexa. The first one played at random was Three Little Birds.

This time, all these months later, the song was still a gut punch, but not my undoing as it was in the chapel in December. Maybe because we are all the wiser by this point in 2020 not to dare think that every little thing is gonna be alright. Maybe the familiarity of the song was what I needed to transport me in time before all of these chairs came and went. Or maybe singing along during visits from the cardinals might just be healing in some strange, full circle sort of way.

I’m not sure, but I do think about maybe buying some new lawn chairs for these summer days in the strangest of times. While the view is both the same and very different in 2020, I know from Rebecca that it is always still something to behold.

 

 

pandemic work station

 


 

“This is the beginning of a new day. You have been given this day to use as you will. You can waste it or use it for good. What you do today is important because you are exchanging a day of your life for it. When tomorrow comes, this day will be gone forever; in its place is something you have left behind. Let it be something good.” 

Rebecca Timlin-Scalera

August 20, 1972 – December 14, 2019

 

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