I don’t remember exactly when I met Roberta, just that it must have been in Joyce Sweeney’s Thursday night writing critique group in Ft. Lauderdale.
Roberta was blond and had cancer. I knew about the big C before we ever said hello because she’d clearly had a mastectomy. She didn’t have reconstruction or even a fake cloth breast to stuff in her bra like my grandmother wore. Her t-shirt, a bright color I’m sure because nothing makes me think of Roberta more than a happy shirt, was flat on one side.
Roberta attended the same workshops and conferences I did. We saw a lot of each other over what probably spans more than a decade.
In 2014, when I inherited Joyce’s Thursday group, Roberta continued to come and read from her middle grade novel in progress, a quirky and moving story of a boy who sneaks a ride in a pudding mobile to track down his run-away mother in New York. Roberta wrote slowly, often coming to group with only two pages. She always apologized before reading about how crappy her work was. We told her not to do that so many times because her book wasn’t crap. It was delightful, full of humor and emotional truth, and well, Roberta.
Roberta’s cancer came out of remission every so often. She would get more chemo or more shots and be fine for awhile. Again. She never complained. Instead, she cracked jokes at her own expense.
On the last Thursday that Roberta attended the Thursday group, it was her birthday. Sara, another group member, had thoughtfully arranged for us to have a small celebration. We ate chocolate cake and laughed together. We stopped laughing when she told us that her latest numbers weren’t good. In fact, they were very bad. At the end of the night, she hugged me good bye because she was going to her home in New York for the summer.
She never made it. The next day she was hospitalized. A little over a week later, I got a call from her sister, Sherri. It was bad. Very bad. Fast and aggressive and in the bones now. Roberta would not be going home again.
I rushed to the hospital, abandoning a friend staying with us for the weekend, and thankfully, luckily, meeting up with another of our group members, Irene, in the hospital lobby. We found Roberta’s room together.
There were already people visiting, on their way out as it happened. Roberta was in bed, a strange yellowy-orange color the result of the cancer being in her liver and giving her jaundice. She knew we were there. She didn’t know we were there. She squeezed my hand and said, “Hey girl, what’re you doing here?” and I just cried.
There’s more that I can’t yet type about, but after awhile I went home. Resumed my life. And Roberta died a few hours later.
I’ve had losses before—beloved pets, grandparents, and the hardest one of all, my mom. What I’ve noticed is that every loss brings back the others, that each lost loved one evokes all the others, and the grief is for Roberta, absolutely, and for Travis and Nell, her characters who will never get to New York now (or not—she never was sure how she wanted to end the book), but I feel the weight of all the grief.
Something new that Roberta’s loss brought to me is that grief holds within itself an element of rage. At least for me. So instead of working on my writing or catching up on some things for school that need doing or really talking to anyone about how I feel except to say, “I’m sad,” I started a demolition project.
When we moved into our house a year and a half ago, we vowed to undo some of the more atrocious redesign elements that had been done to it in the decades since its glory days in the early ‘60s. One such thing was hideous wood paneling on the wall between the dining room and kitchen. We’ve been talking about ripping it down to see what’s underneath for over a year.
Four days ago, I found out. With a crowbar and a lot of rage-fueled grief, I ripped those giant panels off. Something about the sound of nails ripping out of the wall felt good. When the panels fell on me, and I had to yell to my husband for help, I liked it. When I tossed the old wood into a heap in the front yard to be carted away, I was ecstatic.
The rest of it—patching the very normal underneath and painting—was good, but not grief-relief good.
Now, I’m peeling up the linoleum tiles in the kitchen, one at a time. I’ve been at it for three days and still have 107 to go. It’s time consuming and detail-oriented. The adhesive is no joke, and I’ve been through three different kids of adhesive remover and still am not completely happy with the results. It’ll be another trip back to Home Depot, for sure, but that’s okay. Today is Roberta’s memorial service, and without this project, I don’t know how I’d get through such a difficult day.
Apparently, demolition is how I grieve. And Roberta, I’m grieving for you.