(For Dolly)All loss brings with it every loss before it. Did I tell you about Kevin? I can’t remember. Kevin lived two houses down from us, on the block in Kings Point where my brothers and I were born. Being Ian’s age, he was officially Ian’s friend, but Kevin and I had a deep and secret connection.
The get-go: There was this woman named Thea who often came to watch us. She was ancient—from another era, with red, Betty-Boop lips, a white-pancake face, and wavy hair like frosting. She was a seamstress. I remember her laughing and recalling a day when she was out walking with me in a baby carriage. Kevin, apparently, was walking beside her. She said, “Kevin, do you want to go for a ride in the carriage?” And he said, “No, I’m too big of a man to ride in a carriage.” Anyway, that’s how far we go back.
Kevin, who was a small, gentle redhead—not at all a big man, or even a macho boy—taught me how to ride a bike. He dug an old, black, boys’ stingray bike with a banana seat and ape-hanger handlebars out of his garage, and would run behind me, his straight bowl-cut hair flying. (Kevin’s much-older sister, Joanie, was engaged to Wes Farrell, who wrote “Hang on, Sloopy,” and Kevin, unlike a lot of boys—including Ian—was allowed to wear his hair like a Beatle.) He knew me; why else would he choose that bike to teach me, rather than the pink one in my garage?
Once, when my family came home from having been away for several months, Kevin, who was probably seven at the time, was waiting for us by the kitchen door. As soon as we were all out of the car, and the house key was in the lock, Kevin let loose two fistfuls of confetti, which flew around our heads like tiny, red, white, and blue welcome birds. How does a boy get like that?
On the day that my father died, and my brothers and I were sent over to Kevin’s house for a few hours, Kevin told me, from across the dinner table, that there was a strategy for dealing with grief. (He was eleven at this point.) He said that I could cry ninety-nine times, but after that, I had to stop. (This was very much like the advise he’d given me when I was four or five and couldn’t sleep—he’d said that if I hit my head on my pillow three times and then spun the pillow around my head, I’d soon be out like a light.) I took that to heart. Though I never counted the number of times I cried for my father, I knew I had both permission and leeway.
By the time we were junior high school, Kevin had begun suffering over the war. He always wore a green army jacket, and he alone sold pretzels from big bins at the end of the school day, raising money for people starving in Bangladesh (no, wait—Bangladesh came later; this was for Biafra). I was twelve and he was fourteen. My family had left the neighborhood, and we didn’t have much contact anymore. But I still loved him in the same way I had when I was a little girl. That is, I loved him, period—pure and simple.
Anyway, that same year, the year of the pretzels, when I was twelve and he was fourteen, there was a terrible snowstorm. The schools were closed, the roads were closed, the world shut down. Kevin, someone told my mother over the phone that day, had somehow shut himself into his father’s car in the garage, and was in a coma. They said he had been warming the car up for his mother, and hadn’t realized that the garage had been sealed off by the snow.
I don’t know.
They air-lifted Kevin from his house on our old block to a nearby hospital. He lived for a few more days, and then he died.
It was strange. I’d gotten a whole new set of friends after I’d left the old block, and none of my new friends knew Kevin. I guess they didn’t know me either. So I took the morning off to go to his funeral with my family, and when I came back, I remember sitting in the cafeteria, with this heavy, heavy sadness storming, raging in my chest, and this bewilderment that I experience often still—what is this?—while kids around me, completely unaware of the fact that I’d even been gone, did their goofy kid thing.
Because Kevin was Ian’s friend, officially, was he my friend? He was the boy next door. He was the kid who taught me how to ride a bike. He was the boy who cured my insomnia and showered my family with confetti. He was the one person on this planet who gave me a prescription for my grief when my father died. He was, I believe, the first real bodhisattva I ever met on this planet, at least in this lifetime.
I think of Kevin a lot. The thought of him, running behind the bike that he knew would be my perfect steed, instantly creates a fire in my heart, a genuine living experience of true love. For me, from him. People teach us how to love without ever knowing it. They are our little secret heroes.