Tonight I’m making spaghetti sauce, in spite of not having an onion to chop up in the ground turkey. If we still lived next door, I’d run over and ask if you had an onion you could spare—you probably would have—but we’re not next door neighbors, and I don’t want to go to the grocery store, so: spaghetti sauce with no onion.
The fact that you’re not in this world at all doesn’t stop me from writing to you, from thinking about you, from having conversations with you. I don’t think you’re receiving any of my missives, whether they’re just thoughts or real words on a page. I don’t know if I ever told you that I don’t believe in an afterlife. You’d be bored silly in Heaven if there were such a place, but if there were such a place, that’s where you’d be, not that anyone who ever knew you would call you an angel. You really knew how to kick ass, and I think that would be frowned upon in Heaven, if there were such a place.
I don’t believe in Heaven or Hell, but I do believe in love, all kinds. And I believe that when someone we love dies, that person lives on in us—in our memories, in our hearts, in our random thoughts about onions, for example. I feel closer to your kids than I ever could have done if you were still here. You had to be Number One in my heart, though you were willing to share your husband and your kids now and then. Together we carry you forward, and we get to make you into whoever we choose to remember.
You’ve been gone for almost 10 years. Sometimes I feel angry that you’re not here—not angry at you—it wasn’t your fault you had Stage IV cancer—so I don’t feel blame but I do feel anger when I want to share something wonderful with you or something awful. You were there when Sheila was born. You were there when I blew my life up. You were there when I made huge mistakes and you didn’t coddle me when I whined about them later. You were the one who told me I whined. Wow. That’s some friend! Seriously.
You’ve been on my mind a lot lately—the 10-year anniversary and all. Did you know that on the first anniversary, your son went to your favorite place on the river and took an early-morning photo? I had it printed on canvas and it’s hanging on my living room wall. I look at it and think about you, think about your son and his remarkable talent for capturing joy and sadness with a camera, sometimes both in the same photo. I think about your stories about that place on the river, and Heather’s, who is often very funny. She’s kick-ass too, but you knew that.
Your death took me by surprise. Imagine! Stage IV uterine cancer, an experimental kind of chemo, recurrences of cancer—and when you went into the hospital for the last time, I was surprised. I guess I thought you were invincible, so of course you could beat the odds. You didn’t beat them. You died and I collapsed into a huge anger in my effort to cover my fear and my deep sadness. I had no idea what you meant to me until you were gone. Sure, you were my best friend, I loved you, I counted on you to tell me the truth, to always be there. That’s the clincher: I counted on you to always be there.
Someone we love dies, and we go on. We adjust. We laugh again and think of the loved one without breaking down, sure. It’s been almost 10 years and I still break down, but only now and then, only when I’m alone. We adjust, Mona, and I guess we recover—the way someone recovers from an illness, the kind that leaves scars. We never fill the gaping hole that person left when she died. And if we live long enough, we get to have lots of gaping holes. So we hold hands with the person next to us, a lover or child or dear dear friend. I hold hands with your kids and your husband, all of us getting on with our lives, going days and days without thinking of you, but the hole is there and we know exactly where it is.
If you could read this, you’d feel satisfied to know that—of course!—no one could ever replace you. You were Mona—you are still Mona, that one who walked and talked and scolded me through some of the roughest times in my life. That one who loved me before I loved myself. I know you don’t like mushy stuff, so even though you can’t read this, I’ll stop. I only wrote to tell you I need an onion. That’s all.