It was when we were driving through the flats of Ohio, brushing up against Lake Erie, that Sarah said, “Let’s pull over. I remember this place. ”
She didn’t have to tell me—her hands were slick against the steering wheel as she maneuvered the car onto a lip of gravel by the interstate. I took my elbow off the window. Late August bloomed like a rising horizon of dust, grass brittle under the white sky, the asphalt that yawned before us shimmering. What looked like a tree from this distance blinked in and out of view.
Sarah got out of the car. Her flip-flops were soundless against the gravel as she said, “I used to stop here all the time. Both ways.” The closing door punctuated her words.
“There’s a little stream over there—we’ll pass it soon. It’s not really a stream, just a tendril of the lake that dips down south. I’ve always wanted to stop there and put my feet in it and imagine the water had once been at the bottom of the lake or maybe had touched someone’s feet in Buffalo.”
“We should stop there,” I said, and squinted towards where I thought Buffalo might be.
“No.” She shook her head at the lake. “It’ll take too much time, and my mom’s waiting for us.” She turned back to the car. “Let’s go, Rachel.”
When I met Sarah in college, she had already been making the pilgrimage from New York to Minnesota for years, a pendulum between her father, who had found himself a new family after the divorce, and her mother, who had been teaching Chinese literature at the University of Minnesota since Sarah’s birth. I remembered the aftermath of the news that Sarah had decided to move to New Jersey, where she’d been hired by a pharmaceutical company, after graduation. I remembered Sarah’s thinned lips for days, the square set of her shoulders around Jake, whom she would later marry. “She said,” Sarah told me afterwards, her hands tight around the strap of her purse, “It was obvious which parent I’d chosen. She said she was sorry for not having met my standards of being a good parent.”
It had been more than a decade since, though as far as I knew, they’d only spoken a handful of times over the years. Tomorrow there would be something of a reunion, and I would bear witness, like the third party at a contract signing. As Sarah started the engine, I glanced over at her. The same straight, black hair curtained around her ears, the same sweet dimples she used to sink her fingers into when uncontrollably smiling. The years since college had been light on her—a few more wrinkles, maybe, around the eyes, the lips. But the real difference was only evident to me because I had known her so long: a plane of exhaustion underlay every feature of her face, the newly tense column of her neck, the way her hand clawed the gearshift. It was two months to the day that Sarah’s seven-year-old son, Isaac, had died at the hands of a hit-and-run driver.
Jake had arranged the entire funeral, the memorial, the wake. He had met the morticians and ordered the flowers, typical white funerary lilies that grew even paler when contrasted with Isaac’s skin. He had delivered the eulogy while Sarah stood behind him at the podium, head down, the side of her cardigan riding up her left hip.
“Thank you all for coming today.”
Jake was not a natural public speaker. His words fell to the script he’d prepared before him, and he paused too long while staring at Isaac’s first grade classmates, squirming arms and legs swathed in black, hot in the church at late June, uncomprehending as their parents and teachers listened on.
“Isaac would’ve been happy to know how much all of you cared for him,” Jake said. Someone in front of me coughed.
“Today would’ve been the kind of day he liked best: sunny, warm, making people happy. Just like him.”
He adjusted his cufflinks and, lowering his arms, knocked the metal against the podium. It clanged, and people winced. Sarah tugged the hem of his jacket, and his lapels strained suddenly over his chest, gaping at the button like fruit split open. He glanced at her. Then at the pews.
“Isaac was a good kid, even though his,” Jake cleared his throat, “condition made him difficult. But we’d like to thank you, Sarah and me, for your patience and your kindness. Your understanding. Your caring.”
He looked again at the children and parents who had made his son a pariah, the teachers who endlessly protested that someone like Isaac, a child with autism, shouldn’t be allowed in a public school.
“Thank you for making our Isaac’s seven sweet, short years here so good. We hope that he’s happy in heaven now, and that you all will remember what you meant to him.”
He half turned away from us to take Sarah’s hand. We could see his face was mottled with emotion, his sentences nearly breathless with it. He took her hand, and they walked together to the casket where their dark backs stood like two pillars of solidarity.
We in the pews waited, looked on. A few rows in front of me, a little blond head turned and asked, “Mommy, why wasn’t she crying?”
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Harvard Today: September 11, 2014