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The Same Woman (Donna Again)

October 2021.

Andrew is seventy-three and a widower now for two and a half months. Having eaten little since Luisa’s death, he is thinner than he has ever been, his gray hair full of white.

He sits on the sofa in the cozy one-room studio where Donna, tall and buxom with short red hair and also seventy-three, conducts her business as rabbi and psychotherapist.

“Look at me, sweetheart,” says Donna, sitting in an armchair facing Andrew, her accent Los Angeles Jewish.

Andrew looks at his friend and counselor of the last twenty years and for a moment sees Luisa’s face instead of Donna’s.

“Talk to me,” she says softly. “Say anything.”

They have been sitting quietly for twenty minutes.

Did Cal drive me here? No. Cal lives in Hawaii now. Diana brought me.

“Tell me how you met Luisa,” says Donna, speaking of Andrew’s wife of thirty-four years, her suicide a terrible shock to everyone who knew her.

“Kindergarten,” says Andrew, remembering the first time he saw Luisa’s daughter Lily swinging high on the swings at the Montessori. “Owen and Lily…” He stops speaking, his language center shutting down.

“She brought Lily to your house for a play date with Owen,” says Donna, knowing the story well. “And you liked each other instantly.”

Andrew nods and begins to cry, which is what Donna was hoping for, to break the dam holding back his tears.

Donna has been a widow for five years. Her husband Howard was twelve years older than she. After suffering with increasing dementia for two years, he blessedly succumbed to pneumonia. Donna is currently dating a youngster in his sixties named Herschel, and is in the midst of passing the reins of the shul to another feminist rabbi. 

When Andrew stops crying, Donna says, “You need to tell a part of Luisa’s story every day. That’s how you’ll heal. Trust me.”

“Maybe I don’t want to heal,” he says, glaring at her. “Maybe I want to die, too.”

“Maybe you do,” says Donna, nodding. “But I don’t think so. I think you want to be alive for your children and grandchildren, and for your friends and for yourself.”

“I killed her,” he says, bowing his head. “Taking on Teo and Rosa was too much to ask of her.”

“That’s not true. You both wanted Teo and Rosa. And Jalecia. Luisa’s granddaughter. She asked of you what you asked of her. Am I wrong? I don’t think so. She confided in me for twenty years. She was adamant the children stay with you and not go with Adrianna.”

“But Teo and Rosa wouldn’t have existed,” he says, crushed by his grief, “if I hadn’t stupidly mated with Adrianna. Stupid animal me.”

“Beautiful animal you,” says Donna, calmly. “God gives us life in mysterious ways. You were a vehicle for God’s desire to bring your children into the world. And you and Luisa did a fabulous job bringing them up, and you will complete the job.”

“Or die trying,” says Andrew, who always eventually reverts to his Jewish self when he spends time with Donna.

“Watch out, bubalah,” she says, grinning at him. “We might start laughing and then how will we grieve?”

“Grieve schmeeve,” he says, laughing through his tears. “I need some good deli.”

“I thought you’d never ask,” she says, getting up. “Come on. I’ll drive us to Max’s.”

Donna pilots her electric car through the lunchtime traffic of Vancouver, the coronavirus pandemic ongoing, many of the pedestrians masked, though Vancouver and Canada have not been much affected compared to the catastrophe in the United States.

They sit by an open window in the deli and split an order of fries and a hot pastrami sandwich on rye with sauerkraut.

“I was starving,” says Andrew, hailing their masked waitress. “Could I get a cup of coffee, please?”

“Two,” says Donna, raising her hand. “I never think I want coffee until after, and then midway through the sandwich I crave the bitter.”

“My mother always said, ‘Save the coffee for the cookies,’” says Andrew, his eyes filing with tears as he thinks of his long-departed mother, “but I just can’t wait.”

The waitress brings two mugs of black stuff and says to Andrew, “You probably don’t recognize me with my mask on. Delilah Bernstein. I was in Moon In Leo. The deli scene. You are such a good director. In fact, I got this job because I was in that movie. Max is a huge fan. He saw the movie seven times in the theatre and watches the video all the time.”

“I see you now,” says Andrew, imagining her face without the mask. “You were great.”

“I hear Character Driven is gearing up to make another movie,” she says, nodding hopefully. “Can I give you my card?”

“Yeah, sure, but you should call my son,” says Andrew, starting to cry. “You know Owen. He’ll remember you.”

“Okay, I will,” she says, touched by his tears. “I’ll tell him you told me to. Thanks.”

Andrew weeps for what seems like a long time to him, but is only a minute or so.

“Good to cry,” says Donna, crying a little with him. “Why don’t you come again tomorrow? At eleven. Then we’ll do lunch again. This is good.”

Chauffeured home by Diana, Andrew gets out of the trusty red Prius and gazes at the house he built forty-five years ago, the place feeling lifeless to him with Luisa gone and the kids at school—Teo and Rosa fourteen, Jalecia eleven.

“I have to make some calls before I go to the store and get the kids,” says Diana, stretching her arms to the sky. “You need anything before I go?”

Diana is a beautiful Eurasian, fifty-three, British, with raven black hair, a poet and artist and inveterate wearer of T-shirts and blue jeans. She has lived in the other house on the property for ten years, helping with the kids and housework and cooking.

Andrew gazes at her, having forgotten in these last few months how much he loves watching her and listening to her speak.

“What?” she asks, blushing at being so intensely observed. “Something unzipped?”

“No, I was just…” He laughs self-consciously. “I guess I could use a hug before you go.”

“Always,” she says, coming to embrace him.

“I can’t ever thank you enough,” he says, relaxing in her embrace. “Couldn’t survive without you.”

“Yes you could,” she says, giving him a good squeeze. “But you don’t have to.”

Waiting for Diana to get home with the kids, Andrew wanders into the living room and sits down at the piano, an exquisite teak upright he and Luisa bought twenty years ago to celebrate the success of a movie they wrote—this his first time at the piano since Luisa died.

He plays the first notes of the tune he was composing when Luisa died and the music makes him cry, but he goes on playing until the phone rings and he hurries to the kitchen to answer.

The caller is his son Owen who is thirty-nine now and lives in Vancouver with his wife Miyoshi and their seven-year-old daughter Mimi.

“Papa?” he says, sounding like a little boy to Andrew.

“Hey O,” says Andrew, his son’s voice bringing up more tears—the session with Donna having obliterated his floodgates.

“Just spoke to Diana,” says Owen, who is also still grieving Luisa. “We were thinking of bringing pizza over there for supper tonight. Diana said I should check with you and see what you think.”

“Yeah, great,” says Andrew, making a supreme effort to sound positive. “I may not last long tonight, O. Haven’t slept much lately, but I’d love to see you and Yosh and Mimi.”

“Good. I’ll call Diana,” says Owen, thrilled by this first Yes from Andrew since Luisa died.

Andrew hangs up and has a good long cry, and on his way back to the piano, the phone rings again—Lily, Luisa’s daughter, calling from Los Angeles.

 “Hey Papa,” says Lily, who is the same age as Owen. “How you holding up?”

“Okay,” he says, clearing his throat. “Had a good session with Donna today.”

“Donna,” says Lily, the name not registering. “Tell me again who that is?”

“The rabbi.”

“Oh yeah, the rabbi therapist,” says Lily, sounding hurried. “Good. Great. I’ve been going to my therapist every day. Can’t believe Mama’s gone. Just can’t believe it. I feel so bad I didn’t get up there more often these last few years, but I’ve been so crazy busy with the new show and the new house and… still I should have come before the fucking virus ruined everything. I’m a terrible daughter and a rotten mother.” She waits a moment. “You still there?”

“I’m here,” says Andrew, startled to realize he has never fully forgiven Lily for leaving her baby with them eleven years ago so she could pursue her acting career unencumbered. “Please don’t think of yourself as a terrible daughter or a rotten mother. If I ever made you feel that way, I apologize.”

You apologize?” says Lily, stunned. “I’m the one who fucked up, not you.”

“Oh Lily, don’t think that,” he says, wishing he could hold her on his lap as he did when she was little and would come to him seeking solace. “You’re an adventurer. An artist. You gave us Jalecia who is the great joy of my life and was your mother’s joy.”

“Oh Papa,” says Lily, crying, “I want to come visit you and Owen and the kids, but the virus is still out of control here and if I came to Canada I’d have to quarantine in some hotel for ten days before I could even start my visit and I’m so busy with…”

“I know,” he says, seeing now that holding the vision of Lily as a defiant teenager helped her stay stuck in that idea of herself. “We’ll be together again. All in good time. We will.”

The next morning, Donna settles into her armchair, studies Andrew for a moment and says, “You look better today. How are you feeling?”

“I actually slept for a few hours last night,” he says, giving her a sleepy smile. “Owen and Miyoshi and Mimi brought pizza for supper and Diana and Rosa made a big salad. Root beer for the kids, wine for the grownups. Quite the shindig. We rioted until nine.”

“Did you dream?”

“I did, but I only remember a fragment. Owen was in the living room. He was maybe ten, searching for something. He looked under the sofa cushions and then he frowned at me. That’s all I remember.”

“Tell it again,” says Donna, knowing what the dream is about. “Present tense.”

Andrew closes his eyes and sees young Owen moving around the living room, searching for something. “He’s wearing shorts and a T-shirt. Must be summer. He looks under the cushions, looks around the room, and now he sees me and gives me a questioning look.”

“What’s his question, do you think?”

“Where is she?”

Donna considers this. “Why do you think he’s a boy in the dream and not a man?”

“He seems like a boy to me now,” says Andrew, fighting his tears. “A boy who lost his mother.”

“So maybe he knows where she is. Maybe that’s not his question.”

“You think he wants to know why she killed herself?”

“Of course he does. Wouldn’t you if you didn’t know?”

“I don’t know,” says Andrew, shaking his head.

“Okay,” she says, nodding slowly. “Tell me about the last three years of Luisa’s life.”

“I don’t know if I can today,” he says, bowing his head. “I don’t feel well.”

“What are your symptoms?”

“Anxious. Achy. Dizzy. Miserable.”

“What was going on at your house three years ago?”

“The twins were eleven, Jalecia was eight, Luisa and I just turned seventy, Cal and Terry just moved to Hawaii, and Owen and Miyoshi were getting their company going with Moon In Leo and…” He grimaces. “It was all too much for Luisa. Too much to ask of her.”

“What do you mean?”

“Too much work. Too much going on. She was overwhelmed.”

“Were you overwhelmed?”

“Yes,” he snaps. “Of course I was.”

“I don’t remember you being overwhelmed. I remember you loved working on the movie and being energized by the experience.”

“At Luisa’s expense,” he says bitterly. “I was off playing at being a movie director while she was all alone dealing with the kids.”

“Alone? What about Diana?”

“Okay, yes, Diana was there, but I wasn’t. And it was too much for her.”

“You mean for the few weeks you worked on the movie?”

“What are you trying to say?” He feels like he’s about to break in half. “That it wasn’t too much for her?”

“I’m not trying to say anything.” She waits a moment. “I want you to tell me the story of the last three years of Luisa’s life. Which is your story, too. I want you to tell me what you remember, not what you think you did wrong. Just the story of those years.”

He sits up straight and rolls his shoulders to loosen the grip of his demons. “I had an amazing four months working with Sakura. And directing those scenes in Moon In Leo was one of the most exciting and fulfilling experiences of my life. And after Sakura went back to Japan, the plays and stories and songs just came pouring out of me and I was in heaven writing them.”

“You were reborn.”

“I was reborn.”

“And Luisa?”

“She was not.”

“Did she resent you?”

“No,” he says, remembering the trip they took after Sukara went back to Japan, the glorious train ride through the Rockies to Banff, their elegant suite in the Banff Inn, their long walks in the wilderness.

“Where did you go just now, Andrew?”

“To Lake Louise,” he says, seeing Luisa reflected in the ethereal blue of the lake. “Ten days without the kids. Just lolling around and taking walks and…”

“And what?”

“She said she didn’t want to go home. Said she was tired of raising children, tired of not having time for anything else. ‘Can’t we just keep going? Stay in Montreal for a few weeks and then fly to Europe. Please?’”

“What did you say?”

“I said we’d redesign our lives to travel more and I’d do more with the kids and she could do less, but I didn’t want to just abandon them.”

“So did you travel more?”

“Before the pandemic I tried, but she wouldn’t go.”

“So from then on you and Diana were the parents.”

“Pretty much, yeah.”

“Were the kids confused by Luisa withdrawing?”

“Yes. Especially Jalecia. She was so attached to Luisa.”

“So Luisa withdrew. What did she do all day?”

“At first she read and watered the garden and went on long drives and…” He strains to remember. “Then she’d suddenly re-engage with the kids and start cooking again and going to soccer games and say, ‘I’m back. I just needed a break. I’m fine now.’ And that would last a week or two and then she’d withdraw again. And every time she withdrew, she seemed to go further into her aloneness.” He looks at Donna. “Then you referred her to the psychiatrist who prescribed the anti-depressants, which seemed to help at first, but then she started forgetting things. She’d leave something cooking on the stove and wander out into the garden or she’d leave the hose running and flood the garden or she’d come into a room and say, ‘Why did I come in here? I knew a few seconds ago, but now I have no idea.’ So she stopped taking the meds and withdrew again.”

“And you were writing and composing and taking care of the kids,” says Donna, nodding. “Shouldering on without her.”

“Not without her,” he says, seeing Luisa in the garden lost in thought. “I spent lots of time with her during the day when the kids were at school and at night.”

“What did you do together?”

“We talked when she was willing to talk. I played the piano for her. We went to the beach. We worked in the garden. Or I worked and she daydreamed. I’d make us lunch.”

“Was she still going on long drives?”

“No, she stopped driving. She said it was too confusing. And by then we were staying home because of the virus, so…”

“So for a year she mostly kept to herself?”

“Mostly,” he says, nodding. “And she just got more and more depressed, so I arranged for her to have a thorough medical exam and they concluded she was clinically depressed and should be on meds. And when the doctor told us that, Luisa said, ‘Then I might as well be dead.’”

“How long ago was that?”

“Eight months? Seven months? Seems like years ago.”

“Did she ask you to help her die?”

“Yes,” he says, closing his eyes. “But I couldn’t.”

“You thought she’d get better.”

“I wanted her to, but I didn’t think she would.”

“Why not?”

Silence.

“Why didn’t you think she would get better?”

“She seemed more ghost than alive.”

“Then what happened?” asks Donna, moving from her chair to sit with Andrew on the sofa.

“She stayed in bed for a month and then she got up and made a valiant effort to be part of the family again, though it was incredibly difficult for her. And then one day she got very upset with the kids and threw a glass at Teo that shattered all over the kitchen and she said horrible things to Rosa and screamed at Jalecia, and she felt so terrible about what she’d done that she went on the meds, and for some weeks she seemed better and we had some nice suppers, the whole family, and some good days at the beach and then…”

“She took the car and drove fifty miles north and lay down on the sand and cut her wrists and died.”

Andrew weeps and Donna holds him.

When his tears abate, Andrew says, “She left a note that said burn my unfinished stories and tell the children and Diana I love them. You know I love you.” 

They have lunch in Donna’s kitchen—chicken soup and bread and cheese—neither speaking as they eat.

Donna makes coffee to go with their after-lunch cookies, and as she pushes down the plunger on her French Press she says, “I may have said this to you before, but it’s worth repeating. Many of us are prone to feeling we are responsible for the other’s happiness or for their suffering or both. We know intellectually this isn’t true, but as my great teacher Rabbi Orenstein used to say, ‘Our mighty unconscious laughs at our pipsqueak intellect and carries on as per usual.’ Unless we break free of our early programming, which very few people ever do, then that early programming will always be our default response.”

“I think the hardest thing for me,” says Andrew, who feels nearly weightless from shedding so many tears, “is… well, two things. First, I had thirty years with Luisa without a day of her being anything but happy to be alive, happy to be engaged in our writing and music and loving our children, so I wasn’t prepared for how suddenly she changed.”

“What’s the other thing?” asks Donna, pouring him a cup of coffee.

“I keep thinking I should do something to make things better for the kids,” he says, smiling sadly. “To ease their pain.”

“This is the illusion, Andrew. You are not responsible for their happiness or their suffering.” She looks at him for a long moment. “You were responsible when they were babies and little children, but they are who they are now, and they must suffer the loss of Luisa in their own ways. Of course you can help them deal with their sorrow. You can love them and listen to them and let them know you’re there for them. But you can’t keep them from suffering. And the best thing you can do for them now is to embrace life and follow your heart and know that Teo and Rosa and Jalecia and Owen and Miyoshi and Mimi and Lily are all watching you and learning from you. Because if you can lovingly embrace life, you who lost the love of your life, so will they. And so will I.”

Every day Andrew feels a little less numb, a little less hopeless, and better able to hear and respond to what Teo and Rosa and Jalecia and Diana say to him.

On a rainy afternoon in November, Andrew and Diana and Jalecia and Teo stand on the sidelines of a soccer field, cheering wildly as Rosa outruns everyone and brilliantly jukes the goalie and scores the winning goal—Andrew falling to his knees and kissing the muddy earth.

A few weeks before Christmas, the kids at school, Diana finishes washing the breakfast dishes and carries her tea and notebook into the living room where she sits and listens to Andrew composing a piano piece, his search for what comes next inspiring Diana to write her first poem since Luisa died.

Five months later, in April of 2022, the first truly effective vaccine against the virus plaguing humanity is deployed around the world, and Diana and Andrew and Teo and Rosa and Jalecia are among the first to be inoculated.

On a sunny morning in June, Canada having successfully vaccinated seventy per cent of her population, the other thirty per cent soon to follow, Diana finds Andrew in the garden and tells him that Simon, her boyfriend of six years, has left her for another woman.

“He’s a fool,” says Andrew, giving her a comforting hug. “I’m so sorry.”

“I’ll be okay,” she says, lingering in his embrace. “I’m mostly worried about how to tell the kids. They love Simon.”

“Do you want me to tell them?”

“No,” she says, stepping back from him and smiling radiantly. “Thanks for offering, but I need to do it so they can ask me their ten thousand questions.”

Andrew laughs. “May it only be ten thousand.”

In July, after a good session in Donna’s studio, Andrew and Donna go to lunch at Max’s, the wait staff still masked, the virus not yet entirely eradicated in Canada and still going strong in the United States.

They split an order of fries and a Reuben sandwich and Donna talks about how relieved she is to be free of her rabbi duties and how much fun she’s having creating her book of mini-sermons.

“I’ve been reading through my old sermons,” she says, her cheeks reddening. “Hundreds of them. And I am both awed and chagrined at how confidently I spouted such well-meaning nonsense and so often missed the deeper truth. So this is my chance to not only be more succinct, but to right the wrongs of my erroneous clichés.”

“I can’t wait to read them,” says Andrew, who has recently entered a sorrowful phase as the one-year anniversary of Luisa’s death approaches.

“If you will be my editor,” says Donna, smiling hopefully, “you can read them very soon.”

“I would be honored,” he says, immeasurably grateful to her.

“Speaking of honor,” says Donna, gesturing to their waitress for the bill, “I would like to have a ceremony for Luisa on the one-year anniversary of her death. Nothing elaborate. Just lighting a candle and saying a prayer and asking everyone to share a memory of her. Just you and I and Diana and Owen and Miyoshi and the kids and any friends you’d like to invite.”

“Could be hundreds,” says Andrew, his eyes filling with tears. “She was greatly loved.”

“Up to you, dear,” she says, crying with him. “You tell me who to invite.”

In August, twenty people gather in the garden at Andrew’s house to remember Luisa.

Donna lights a candle and says, “We have gathered here to kiss Luisa’s spirit with our memories of her. I will begin by sharing my favorite Luisa memory, which is that every time I came here to have a meal, I would find Luisa in the kitchen and she would give me a smile that meant, ‘Come here and taste this,’ and I would go to her and she would feed me as a mother feeds her child, something delicious she’d made, and then we would look into each other’s eyes and be one with each other in our joy.”

In October, the kids gone to bed, Andrew and Diana are saying goodnight when Diana surprises Andrew by saying, “How about we spend the night together? You and me. Just because.”

“You mean… share a bed?” says Andrew, who has lately been enjoying speaking with a Jewish accent.

“Yeah. Sleep together.”

“My bed or yours?” he says, trying to be funny.

“Either one. They’re both nice beds.”

“I would be afraid to do that,” he says, dearly loving Diana but considering her taboo.

“We don’t have to have sex,” she says, her tone suggesting she wouldn’t mind if they did. “I just want to be close to you. I’m tired of sleeping alone knowing you’re sleeping alone and we could be keeping each other warm.”

“If we got in bed together,” says Andrew, his heart pounding, “despite the fact, or because of the fact I haven’t had sex in forever, we would probably have sex. Or we would try. Or I would. Because… how could I not? And if for some reason whatever happened made you unhappy or uneasy or caused you to leave… I just… I don’t ever want that to happen. Not that I haven’t thought about making love with you. I have. I do. I’ve always thought you were… luscious. But I’m seventy-four. You’re fifty-four. We’re best friends. We raised the kids together. I don’t want to lose you.”

“It is a gamble,” she says, looking into his eyes. “A big gamble. But I still want to.”

“I’m amazed,” he says, fighting the momentum of his desire. “And flattered, but…”

“Come on, Andrew,” she says softly, knowing he would never initiate their first kiss, and therefore the initiation is up to her. “Gamble with me.”

fin

Tender Mystery

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