Kate Flora: A year ago, in March, my sister-in-law, Emily, who more like a sister and was a close friend, was diagnosed with acute leukemia. After many months, most of them spent in the hospital, they were unable to find a bone marrow donor, so she opted to try a cord blood transfer instead. It didn’t work, and last September, Emily died. At her memorial service, I read this piece Mark Twain wrote wrote about loss and grief:
The mind has a dim sense of vast loss–that is all. It will take mind and memory months and possibly years to gather the details and thus learn and know the whole extent of the loss. A man’s house burns down. The smoking wreckage represents only a ruined home that was dear through years of use and pleasant associations. By and by, as the days and weeks go on, first he missed this, then that, then the other thing. And when he casts about for it, he finds that it was in that house. Always it is an essential–there was but one of its kind. It cannot be replaced. It was in that house. It is irrevocably lost. He did not realize it was essential when he had it; he only discovers it now when he finds himself balked, hampered by its absence. It will be years before the tale of lost essentials is complete, and not till then can he truly know the magnitude of his disaster.
That piece has stayed with me through the months. There was cooking for Christmas, which we always did together. And the many, many times I was doing my holiday shopping and thought, “That would be perfect for Emily,” and had to leave the store. As her best friend Molly said, “Emily gave great presents.” This year, there were none of Emily’s perfect gifts, wrapped in amazing paper, under the tree. And every time I tied on the hilarious “sexy cops” apron she made for me, I mentally sent her thanks even as I realized that it would be my last Emily apron.
Then the New Year’s Eve party. She and I have decades of planning and making that dinner together. The days of poring over cookbooks, picking out the menu. The three cheese and wild mushroom lasagna? Sweet potato and corn soup with smoked oysters? Her mother’s recipe for World’s Fair Chicken? The trip to the grocery store for the ingredients somehow always became a hilarious expedition, maybe because being together was one of the few times we actually laughed our way through the day. Then there were the hours together in the kitchen, chopping and stirring, and consulting. Then the arrival of house guests and other friends, and everyone emerging glamorous for the pleasure of an evening most of us have share since before our babies were born. There was a moment, just before midnight, for Emily.
Mark Twain was so right. The loss is both immediate, and long lasting. The months are filled with aspects of her loss and memories of the years together. March, because she was always with us in Florida. June and July, when she and I would sometimes sneak away for a “girls only” vacation week at a spa in Mexico where we laughed our way through a week of hiking and dancing and fitness classes and aerobic bingo. August and September, when she would come to Maine, and we would go antiquing, or on photography expeditions. September, when we would celebrate her birthday.
We called each other “twin,” because although I was actually born in July, we were both supposed to be born in September.
I always said that she was my “signing bonus” when I married her brother. I didn’t just get a husband and a great new family, I got a sister. Since I lost my own sister more than twenty years ago, having that special “extra” sister has been very important.
It might seem crass to remember a person through things, but when someone has been a part of life for more than four decades, their gifts, and the things purchased on shared vacations, shopping expeditions, or while antiquing, accumulate and become part of everyday life.
When I sharpen a knife with knife sharpener Emily gave me, I am reminded of how very particular she was about sharp knives. When I do a book event, I will be using one of the novelty tablecloths that she made. Right now I have library cats, handcuffs, and sexy cats. My co-writer, Roger Gray, has the one with yellow, chocolate, and black labs. At home, we have blueberries.
I wear her favorite necklace because every time I put it on, I feel closer to her.
I believe that it is important for the people we’ve lost to be remembered often.
Today, as you are reading this, Ken and I are in New York, dedicating a bench in Washington Square Park, her favorite park in New York. The people who sit there won’t have known Emily, but I hope they’ll read the plaque, and think about who she was.