Originally published: October 3, 2000
As we strolled down the crowded sidewalk, I surveyed the people coming toward us, running my eye over the al fresco diners who were already digging into their garlicky entrées, a mere fork's length from where we were walking. I'd had one of those intuitions that we were going to run into someone we knew.
It was not entirely unlikely that we'd run into an acquaintance, as we were walking around Shirlington on a Saturday night. Shirlington is the hippest part of Arlington, by a fair margin. While there may be many attractive adjectives I could use to describe Arlington, "hip" is not one of them. So Shirlington often falls on our radar screen as a local destination on a dinner-and-a-movie night out. It's a single packed block (soon to be expanded and exploited by eager developers who promise ample parking- finally plenty of space for those Navigators and Suburbans!), chock-a-block with restaurants (Spanish, Japanese, Southwest, nouvelle, pub-style...), small shops, a Russian theater company, and the best movie theater in the area. My friend Caroline had told us about Shirlington. "You all don't know about Shirlington ?", she'd intoned in her soft North Carolina drawl. A quizzical look, a mixture of pity and a kind of what-planet-are-you-from stare)
But now we're in with the "in" crowd, and we go where the "in" crowd goes. We had, by Saturday night, visited Shirlington many times, and now strolled confidently along the bustling walkways. I grinned, remembering that I'd recently had the opportunity to enlighten some friends about Shirlington. The what-planet-are-you-from stare is a wonderful, cleansing thing to dish out.
Our film, "East is East", didn't start until after 9, so Adolfo and I decided to eat at one of our favorites, the Carlyle Grand. On Saturdays it is a seething mass of hip humanity, most of whom are packed in at the bar because the wait is rarely less than an hour. Everyone is clutching their drinks in one hand, and their over-sized "pager" in the other. The pager, a thick square of gray, industrial plastic, flashes like a movie marquee when your table is ready. It is quite visible through clothing, as one embarrassed gentleman to our left found out - the hostess smiled and pointed openly at his pants. The red flashing lights through the chino gave some kind of cartoon equivalent of, "Is that a pager in your pocket or are you just happy to be dining with us this evening?" The plump man with the light-up pants grinned sheepishly.
Somehow, Adolfo and I squeaked into a table in just under half-an-hour, probably because we were willing to settle for the not-so-hip downstairs seating area. I find that the hip factor is often over-ruled by the hunger factor.
I still hadn't seen anyone I knew. Which was great - in a way. But, admitting it guiltily to myself, I wanted to see someone, someone who knew me outside of my association with my kids or neighborhood, perhaps even someone who knew me in context with my writing. The sad, lonely fact is, as a freelancer, I just don't come into contact with a whole lot of people. I don't know a whole lot of people. Which is great - in a way. Except that you don't get a lot of feedback. Validation? Is that what I was looking for as I glanced around at the surrounding tables? Someone to wave at across a crowded room, someone who could give me a quick pat on the back and remind me that I am known to someone on my own merits? How pathetic! How utterly superficial and loathsome! I reigned my attention in to our own table and concentrated on what Adolfo was saying. Soon I was thoroughly absorbed in our own conversation - luckily he is a great conversationalist. We ordered our food, laughing at the fact that we seemed to have not one, but two waiters, sometimes working at odds with each other - one bringing forks, the other taking them away, one swooping in with a water refill, the other hovering with Adolfo's diet Coke.
Somewhere after the appetizer and before the main course, I caught a glimpse behind Adolfo's shoulder, of a father holding a thin boy in his arms. The boy was supported by the father's expert hands, but I could see that his arms and legs hung down passively and his head lolled slightly as the father moved. The boys face turned partly toward me. I knew those enormous green eyes at once, the dreamy lashes languidly closing and opening. It was Jonah.
Jonah Gilman has cerebral palsy. I wrote an article for the Washington Post Magazine almost two years ago about Jonah and his mother, Margie Levant, about her determination to make him as independent as possible, to have him walk, talk, and go to school in the regular public system. She had formed an association for an alternative method of therapy for children with cerebral palsy, she was a tireless, driven person with a delightful laugh. When I began interviewing her, she was pregnant with her second child. The day before the article appeared in the Post, Margie's water broke. Michael realized she was in distress, and immediately called 911. By the time he returned to the bedroom she was dead. It was later determined she's had an amniotic embolism, a very rare and almost invariably fatal occurrence. The baby lived for a day or so, but had been deprived of oxygen so long, there was virtually no brain activity. He was buried next to Margie.
Later that night, after dinner, after the movie, after Adolfo's breathing had become very regular next to me in bed and the house was terribly quiet, I stared through our skylight at the scruffy pine branch that swayed far above the house. I thought, if I were dead, I'd like to know about my family, how they were getting along, especially if it was good news. That would go a long way toward setting my mind at ease.
Just wanted to let you know I saw Jonah and Michael last night. Jonah is as beautiful as ever. He looks taller, but otherwise unchanged. Michael looks thin, but calm. He remembered me when I went over to say hello, which is amazing that he can remember anything from that time two years ago. I was very worried about intruding, but I had to say hi to Jonah. I asked him how first grade was going. He cracked that big, rascally smile he gives. Michael tells me he's at Taylor, which means he's in the same team of 4 schools with Julian, Gabriel and Sebastian. Jonah didn't feel much like talking, but Michael said that they were doing some work on the house to accommodate Jonah's motorized wheelchair, and that we should come see it when it's finished. He looks like he's doing OK, Margie. Tired, though.
I think about you a lot, probably more than is strictly good for me. Your death still shakes me to my core and makes me wonder, when I'm feeling particularly low, how anyone can have faith in anything. And then, I remember all you accomplished in your short life, especially when the chips were down, and think, well, maybe there's hope after all. I kind of go both ways on that.
Hope all's well with you and that death isn't treating you too badly. Did you see the turnout at your funeral? Did you see our mutual pediatrician Lynne Myers and the wonderful nurse Marita there? Did you know that you were on the front page of the Washington Post? Those were just a few things. There were many more. You were important to so many people. And they remember you. It's obvious Michael and Jonah do, and always will.
So I was right. I did see someone I knew. And it did have to do with my writing, not the fact that I'm a mother. And it did validate me, after all. But the person who wrote that letter to a dead mother was more mother herself than writer, or it would never have been written.