This year has been a year, a bigger year than most or all of them, and it tempts me to pick the moment that describes the whole thing as a way of drawing you in. Or a metaphor I can present or an exposition of why and how I ended up here, but I keep coming back to a blunt truth that seems to put the message across simply enough. It’s what I would call wisdom if I felt I had that right: love is the reason to live, and here is my attempt to explain why I know this is true.
In 2001 my new friend Scott brought me with him to his mom’s car. We were starting freshman year of high school and Scott and I had study hall together; we got close, fast. I was walking to and from school then so Scott asked his mom if they could give me a ride. Carrie obliged and drove me home over light pleasantries. Not too long after that, we repeated this, but Carrie said — right as Scott and I got in the car, ”I’ve had a long day and I’m hungry. Ciao Bella?” And we bonded over a bad chicken caesar salads and eggplant parm.
There were a lot of moments in the car in the early days. The time Carrie drove me home with her father (Dziadek) on the morning of Christmas Eve after we had Scott’s 16th birthday. To this day, still one of the best parties in my young life. Or later that year, when we both poked fun at the digital voice on the weather band, and made up a pretend identity for her.
Being in the car sticks out to me, because it was the only time in those early days when we were alone. Picking me up in Worcester to take me home with her, and to Scott, on a handful of Saturday afternoons and driving me home again on Sunday after church. She wanted me singing in the church choir, standing next to Scott and an older gent named Harry Pape as we prosecuted our hymns.
But the car was a minor stage; the main stage was always the house. Carrie’s house is thoroughly Carrie’s — she’d poured outsized detail into every part of it, a sprawling place on the side of a mountain with tall ceilings and beautiful cherry floors, centered around a generous kitchen that looked straight to Boston on clear days, 55 miles away, direct enough that we could see the fireworks on the Fourth of July. It was the main stage for parties, which drew crowds of Carrie’s friends and other people that weren’t always friends but succumbed to her graces. There were so, so many parties: Stephanie’s wedding, the party celebrating the people she felt bad about not inviting to Stephanie’s wedding, New Years bonfires for most of the 2000s, concerts in the living room.
And Stephanie’s engagement party. Together Carrie and I spent three days gathering the ingredients for the meal, a planned seven-course, 25 person dinner, from most of eastern Massachusetts. We went to two Walmarts to find enough champagne flutes, and three farms to find the right peaches. The two of us made fresh pasta by hand for everyone; I went to a party rental store in Worcester to get precisely 26 chivari chairs — the limit of what her car would fit. I opened a jeroboam of a well-aged Amador County zinfandel she’d been keeping and poured it into a punch bowl and ladled it out to everyone in wine glasses of odd varieties. Carrie didn’t have any money then — that time was “peak Voldemort,” when her in-the-process-of-becoming-ex-husband was trying hardest to be a prick. Nonetheless, we did the whole thing, down to the last berry on the lemon tart and the last dollar she had. For Carrie no expense was ever spared from love, and no labor was either.
But the parties were minutes among years, and for such big events, they don’t equate the raw perfection of the rest: Saturday spent at the kitchen table, drinking a pot of coffee each between the two of us, reading the papers, maybe doing the crossword — though she’d have hated admitting this, she preferred doing the crossword alone. Eventually I’d make us eggs — she taught me to cut up a bit a cream cheese and stick it in the scramble — or a breakfast sandwich. Most mornings the summer I lived with her, we’d start our days on the terrace, a recent and later deeply problematic addition to the house built in time for Stephanie’s wedding. We’d drink hot coffee, a pot each between us, even when the heat slowed us from doing much anything else that day. We’d drink riesling with dinner — seared scallops or chicken salad or something green when we bothered; we’d watch the sky get dark and curse the tall, bright light on Justice Hill across the way blemishing the view of the night horizon; we’d scheme about going to the light and unplugging it or shooting it; we’d laugh; we’d go in and watch Bravo or the Game Show Network, and only those two. She’s still the only person I know liked Lingo.
Meals of varying quality, under starry or rainy or snowy skies, under the aggressively manicured and coffered ceilings of stuffy converted townhouse-cum-steakhouses or chandeliers of Tibetan prayer flags in strip mall Thai restaurants, but mostly over candlelight in her house; talks of her adventures had — biking the length of Alaska, stealing neighbors’ Romney signs — and not had. Hosting half the town of Princeton, Massachusetts in her living room. Saying we should pray for people who cut us off driving. Befriending groups of total strangers on bike trips and feeding them. Driving other strangers to the airport.
For the last year I’ve had a hard time explaining my relationship to Carrie. Shortly following her death, my grandfather died and my brother died. In both cases, my friends’ and colleagues’ and co-workers’ effusive sympathies flowed. But explaining my relationship to Carrie requires piercing a few basic but deep abstractions about what family means. Many people would say that, as children or as teenagers or as college students or as young adults, they’ve become close to adults who are not their parents. Mentors, or wise friends, or second moms.
But in many cases these seem to be conditional relationships, conditioned on the timing they occupy. These relationships are based on true, pure affection and they occupy meaning in our lives and in our love, but these relationships don’t necessarily speak to needs unfulfilled.
To be clear: the love I received from my family was, is a lot, more than a lot — but a complicated lot. Sometimes I thought we were actively engaged in writing our own sadness together, and as a kid with a foolishly big desire to love — or with a foolishly big appetite for attention, whatever your read — I was looking for a life beyond this. I needed a life that showed love could be about joy, not just an instinct of dark obligation, or proof that love could serve as the basis for happiness rather than a safeguard against loss. This isn’t my family’s way of looking at it, and even as a young kid I started hunting for a way out of our collective sadness.
This instinct to bear out this unfulfilled need misfired, frequently. I conditioned myself to begging disappointment when I would find a new friend, a new adult friend, only to see them disappear. It turns out adults aren’t always dying to kill time with kids outside their family. Turns out your teachers don’t want to take you home with them, even when they like you. Your mom’s friends think you’re fine but three hours is probably too much, so God help your mom’s friends if they don’t have a plan to unload you by then.
By the time I met Carrie, I imagine I felt worn down. But here, Carrie was tenacious. It wasn’t just that she asserted herself in my life, it was that she reasserted herself. It wasn’t just that she told me I was her son, it was that she said it again and again and again. It was that she said “my three kids” and she meant Scott, Stephanie, and me. It was that space I took in her obituary. It was her insistence that I stay with her whenever I came home to Massachusetts, and her insistence that she stay with me when she came to New York. It was our gleeful mispronunciations of fancy cheeses and late night rants about politics and trips to the airport to catch a flight that you were certain she or I would miss until she sweet-talked the airline check-in counter attendant and absolutely every other thing she did to make sure that we would, as she was fond of saying, “Always walk toward the light.”
I believe that she saw that sad kid in me, she knew him. She grabbed his hand and pulled him to the light. She saw me on many levels, meeting my sadnesses at each, and reassuring me that I can stake my claim for some part on this earth. In this way, love, as it turns out, is the reason to live. This would seem like an embarrassment of riches enough, but her pulling me close also consecrated Scott as my brother and Stephanie as my sister. To win siblings — there could not be a more direct way of proving the incalculable size of love as a foundation for life.
I’m dealing with the jaggedness of still-raw grief one year on, and I have to impress that upon myself. What a beautiful life this is, a life that has Carrie. It’s diminished, I hope not forever, by her leaving it. But what a beautiful life it is that gets her as a part of it.