The Pact

November 4, 2017. Last night, Alex, Ben, and I flew down to say our goodbyes to you. Doug has been here for over a week, and his going back and forth since September has become a part of our marital rhythm. N, of course, has been helpful: she drove up from Alabama a few days ago to be with you and, earlier today, picked us up at our hotel in Atlanta.

We’ve been in your house for a half hour and haven’t seen you yet. The boys have caught up with their father, but now he’s in your room, helping you out of bed. We’re in the kitchen where N is keeping the feeling light while we wait for you.

Y’all like Candy Land? she says and smiles. She cocks her head to the side. Can you believe all these games I found downstairs?

Ben stretches out his arms and yawns. We can play, he says, but I’ll beat everyone.  

Of course, that game’s right at your level, Alex tells him.

Hey, I love Candy Land, N says. And I’m pretty darn good at it. There’s Trouble, too. Y’all like Trouble more? Another smile. (You know how beautiful her smile is.)

Alex and Ben get along with her, always have, but they haven’t seen her in over a decade. Yes, they’re twenty-four already, only a few years younger than she is. She’s grown into a lovely young woman, an artist who works as a nanny, and she’s told me about her boyfriend, how he’s the one. They live together in Alabama. Sometimes you’re hard on her and criticize her for what she might not know, but it’s clear how much you love her. In your eyes, she’s your only child. I can’t remember the last time you called her your stepdaughter.

We sit at the small kitchen table and start to play Trouble, and after a few turns, just as Ben is about to pop the dice inside the plastic bubble, Doug brings you into the kitchen in a wheelchair.

My family’s here, you say, with a burst of energy and a wag of the head. I apologize for how I look. You glance down at the floor.

It’s so good to see you, I tell you, and we all rise from the kitchen table. I hug you, Alex and Ben do, too, and N pecks you on the cheek.

Your eyes are about all that I recognize. They’re big, a silver blue in this room. In another light, the color shifts into the shade of shallow seawater. You used to be fifteen pounds overweight, with a slight belly, and your hair was thick and black. It’s all grey now, and your skin clings to your bones like smoke. You never did bear any resemblance to Ken and Doug. Hard to tell apart, your identical twin brothers. They’re over six feet tall, several inches taller than you, and they’re slim, their hair silken and straight, their eyes green. Being a twin makes for a sticky bond. I see that with Alex and Ben, who, although fraternal, look disarmingly alike.

I turn away from you, thinking I’m too late. I’ve lost the brother-in-law I had in my memory, and I don’t know what to say to who you are now. I race through topics in my head, can’t settle on one. How can anything matter?

I talk about Stockbridge, your home. I’ve only been here twice, I say, for your wedding and when you moved in. So it’s been twenty years or more?

You nod.

The last time I saw you was in Manhattan, I realize, three years ago, for your grandmother’s one hundredth birthday party. You’d see Doug, Ken, and your father often, twice a year, at a resort in Ojai, California. A father/son tradition. You were there this past summer. A few months later, in early October, you were diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus.


Shortly after Thanksgiving, I called you, something I rarely did. It was the longest conversation I ever had with you. You were scheduled for chemo and radiation in the first week of January.

A friend of mine was treated the same week he was diagnosed. I would think every day counts. I don’t mean to be critical of your doctors, but—why do you have to wait until January?

There’s a hell of a lot of coordinating going on. One doctor is at the hospital in Stockbridge and another’s at Emory, but my oncologist is top in the field. That’s what I’m told. Have you heard of this medical center in Texas, the MD Anderson Center?


That’s the place in the country for cancer, and my doctor consults with them all the time. He’s recommending I have an esophagectomy. You know what that is?

They cut out the tumor.

Yep, and the part of the esophagus that’s affected by the tumor, sometimes all of the esophagus, and then they connect it to your stomach. But they can’t promise that’ll help, so I’m gonna take my chances with chemo and radiation.

Can’t you be put on a waiting list?

I really think they’re giving me the first opening they have. I guess I could find a doctor, someone the family knows, who has enough pull to get me an earlier appointment, but it doesn’t sit right with me. You should see these cancer centers, Lori. They’re so crowded. It’s unbelievable. These people are so sick.

I can imagine. Have you been able to eat a little more?

I can’t keep anything down. I’m supposed to drink a lot, water especially, but that’s tough, too.

Have you tried using a straw? You can keep a glass of water nearby and sip it often.

That’s a great idea! I’ll do that. That’s a very good idea.

I can come down this week. I want you to know that, and I’ll stay in a hotel nearby, so I’m not in your way, but I can be helpful.

I appreciate that, Lor, but hold off. I’ll let you know when. Not yet. I’ll let you know. I really appreciate you talking this over with me. I’ve got nothing else to do but think about this, and I’m scared shitless. I have a few friends here who are religious, and they’re praying up the kazoo for me. What do you think of that?

Their faith gives them comfort, I suppose. Praying also makes some people feel less alone, especially if they’re facing something difficult. I pray sometimes. I don’t believe in God, not really, but when I’m distressed or worried, praying clears my head.  It’s a petition of sorts, and I guess it helps me prioritize what counts. Anyway, they say it helps to be hopeful, you know, it helps your state of mind.

Listen, sweetheart, I’m going to get off. You’re just a doll to call. Thanks for everything.  

I’ll check in with you very soon. In the meantime, try the straw.

Why didn’t I tell you I had already prayed for you? For several nights in a row, I recited a silly rhyme I’d learned as a child, have no idea from where, maybe from the back of a cereal box or Sunday school. I fired a kid’s plea out into the darkness like a load of buckshot: God, thank you for the world so sweet, thank you for the food we eat, thank you for the birds that sing, thank you, God, for everything. Words so familiar that they slipped out like a whistle. Then I added: Please help him get through this. Let the chemo work. Let him go into remission.

After your six-week treatment, the tumor appeared to be gone. Relief floated through our house, and one evening, I lay awake, aware of my good health, and thought about a scene from Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair, one that has always moved me because of its sacrificial nature. The lovers, Sarah and Maurice, are in bed during an air raid when Maurice steps out of the room. Suddenly the flat is rocked by an explosion, and Sarah goes to look for Maurice. She sees a hand under a door, thinks it’s his, and returns to the room, where she kneels down to pray: I said, I will believe. Let him be alive, and I will believe… But that wasn’t enough. It doesn’t hurt to believe. So I said, I love him and I’ll do anything if you’ll make him alive, I said very slowly, I’ll give him up for ever.…And then Maurice opens the door, and she must, well, you see where the story is headed.

I pressed my hands together under the covers, interlocked my fingers—it’s like putting on a costume, this gesture, it builds confidence—and I said, Please God, if you let him go into remission, I won’t try to get my book published. I’ll let it go.

I’m not sure which novel I actually put up for grabs, the old one I hadn’t been able to sell, or the new I’d just finished, but what a paltry petition. I’m embarrassed by this memory, you should know. If I had offered to give up writing, would my prayer have been more noble? Is the love between two people equal to the love between a writer and her writing?

Had I lost my mind?

Yep, I can hear you say, that’s fucking nuts. You’ve got to be kidding me.


In the den, football is on television and a gas fireplace is lit. It’s 78 degrees outside. A blanket, pillow, and sweater are scattered on the tweed couch. Next to a box of tissues and several vials of pills, there’s a stack of newspapers on the coffee table, and on a side table, a glass of water with a straw.

When you first moved here with N’s mother, into this five-bedroom house, you hired an interior designer to decorate, and the living room reminds me of an Ethan Allen showroom from the 1990s. After the divorce, you didn’t downsize. You never cook, evidenced by the absence of spices, boxes of tea or cookies, oils and vinegars, and paper napkins from the quaint napkin holder on the counter.

I hope we’re not making you miss your game, I say.

Don’t worry. There are games on all day.

Alex and Ben comment on a play from yesterday’s game, which makes you smile. You can tell them apart, I think, because you grew up with twin brothers. You’ve always been fond of my sons, and they feel the same about you. You make them laugh, and you’ve been generous with them; you often show your affection with gifts.

You ask Doug for your painkillers. He gives you what you need, helps you to the couch, and covers you with a blanket. You only want N, Doug, and Ken around you. With the exception of the occasional shower or necessary supplies provided by a hospice nurse, you’ve refused the help of any other professional aide as well as the company of your friends. You weren’t even sure about having me and the boys visit, but you also didn’t stop us.

Look how Doug has changed. Your brother is not, by nature, a caregiver or caretaker, not by any measure. I make just about all his meals, do his laundry, clean up after him, while he looks after our finances—now that’s a throwback to our parents’ time, another kind of crazy if I let myself consider it for long—but in every other way he and I are on equal footing. And we’re rarely apart. Since he has been here, he has been living on take-out. He runs out to fetch you a milkshake, a cinnamon bun, whatever you think you can keep down, and he even lights your cigarette for you, not in his mouth, as a smoker would, but in yours. Although he believes smoking is the last thing you should be doing, he carries out your wishes.

Your illness has quieted him, and he is not a quiet man. When he’s with you, we try to talk on the phone every night. Once, he told me, you got up in the middle of the night and fell. You called out for him, and after he helped you up, you couldn’t wait to get to the bathroom, and peed. You then said you had to lie down, which you did, on the carpet. You fell asleep. He covered you up, and, from then on, he slept on the den couch, closer to you.

Whenever he can, he spends his time on your fifteen-year-old-old computer, combing through the odds of the football games, and then calls the bookie that you have known since you were eighteen. Doug’s bets are never big; it’s the hedging of bets that excites him, much like playing the stock market. After rehab, you weren’t supposed to gamble, and you didn’t for some time, but then you began asking Doug to put in your bets for you. As much as you loved watching sports and gambling on them, I think you loved even more talking to Doug about the games. The thrill of possibly winning was sweetened if the two of you were somehow in it together.

There’s no doubt you adore both your brothers. You’ve always admired their athleticism. You’re accepting of their closeness—how one minute they can act as if they hate each other and in the next be laughing—but, I imagine, you’ve been jealous of their bond from time to time, which isn’t to say I think of you as having been lonely all these years.

You made it clear for some time that you wouldn’t marry again. Your first wife left you because of your drug use, and N’s mother left you because you had slept with someone. After two failed marriages, you’re sensitive to the layers of emotions that build up between spouses. You’re aware of how close Doug and I are, how much we talk and rely on each other.


So here I am in your home, feelinguseless. I feel like a fool. I might as well be dressed in a jester’s costume, mute, with bells and ribbons dangling from my fingers and toes. I feel as if I don’t really know you, or what I know about your life in Stockbridge seems insufficient, a mere outline: For almost twenty years you were a drug supervisor at a rehab clinic, but you haven’t worked in the past eighteen months. You loved what you did, were good at it, but you gave bus fare to a few clients, which is against the rules, and you were fired. You have friends down here, lots of them, and a few took you to your doctor appointments before your brothers became involved. I know you love the development where you live, Eagle’s Landing, and you used to play golf and tennis at the country club with your buddies.

When I first met you, I was thirty-one, six years younger than you, and I knew you smoked pot, maybe did some coke. I’d heard you were a reckless teenager —my kind of rebel—the boy who had sex in the bathroom with his girlfriend. I liked your taste in music: the Stones; Crosby, Stills, and Nash; Bowie. Your brothers were not like you; they were athletic stars who studied hard.

You lived on your maternal grandmother’s property, a family compound, in essence, in the house where you and your brothers, when you were all in your twenties, used to spend so much time. The house, due to your neglect, was beginning to fall apart. Doug and I, when we were first dating, would come out on weekends to spend a night with you and then visityour grandmother who lived next door. You rarely saw her, and I soon learned how adept you were at hiding. You’d retreat into your room for hours. You’d get up in the morning and drive to your favorite bakery to bring back fresh coffee and a meltaway for us.

You had a cocker spaniel you took everywhere. A dog-lover, an animal-lover in general, you were obsessed with the antivivisectionist, Hans Ruesch, well-known in certain activist circles. You called him in Switzerland, donated money to his cause, and bought hundreds of his books with the intention of giving them away to your friends, but the boxes remained in your house. When you found out I shared your love for animals, you gave me several books and told me, with a feverish excitement, about all the senseless experiments that were conducted under the guise of medical research. At the time, you were working as an insurance salesman, a job you didn’t care about.

That year, you lost a lot of weight and often seemed wired. Once, at a family gathering, you jumped up during dinner and excused yourself, after which your grandmother, who was not at all open minded, said she thought you were as high as a kite.

Ever since you were a teenager, you had struggled with drugs. Doug and Ken, at times, looked down on your absence of willpower. They intellectually understood you weren’t to blame but had trouble empathizing with the damage you inflicted on yourself and others. Your father finally forced you to seek help. Your mother—you were her first-born, her favorite, no second-guessing there—had told him to stop giving you any money. Although they were divorced, they worked together to save you. So when you called your father one day to ask for enough money to buy a sandwich, he said no, unless you promised to admit yourself into a clinic.

1996—you were forty-two. The clinic was in Atlanta. It was expensive and you stayed for many months, longer than anyone expected. After so many therapy sessions, you learned a lot about yourself, but even in rehab, you broke the rules by having a relationship with another patient, N’s mother. After you and she were married, you chose to live near Atlanta and found a job helping addicts recover, many of them without money or family, nothing like the clinic you’d gone to, and I remember thinking you had found your mission.

You gained weight, and, as a new husband and father, you became a louder, stronger presence in the family. You had your moments when you could be grating, when you felt the need to captain the hour. You’d choose the restaurant, order for everyone, steer the conversation, get irritated when one of your nephews interrupted you, but you were also smart and informed. You were a Democrat, unlike your mother, with whom you could argue without reservation. You were passionate about reform but had left behind anyone or anything associated with your days of getting high, including Ruesch and his books.

As for how you treated me, whenever I moved ahead in my writing—beginning a new project, getting my work published—you were happy for me, at times delighted, although I’m not sure you ever read anything I wrote.

N had a nickname for you: she added “bear” to the end of your name, as if you had no choice but to stomp through a room and knock this person out of the way while trying to protect another.

Some in the immediate family saw you as damaging; others saw you as kind and generous. You didn’t care what anyone thought of you. I happened to like who you were—I think, I hope, you’ve always known that.


We’re still playing Trouble, and now I have things I want to say to the you I do know: I love how sweet you’ve been to my sons, how you care about politics, how you enjoy reading novels, how you’re a Luddite at heart and still use a flip phone, how you don’t back down… And I’ve failed, that’s what I also want to tell you. After our long conversation, I failed to call you as I’d promised, and I’m ashamed of myself. Is that why, when it was clear that the cancer had spread, you pushed me away? I’m shy, try to be truthful, and when I can’t be truthful, I tend to be silent. When I realized you were surrendering to your illness at the end of the summer, I couldn’t lie and say I understood. Instead, I researched clinical trials around the country and came across the name of the wife of one of your father’s close friends, a radiologist at Sloan Kettering. I asked Doug if he thought she would be willing to inquire about one of the hospital’s trials for esophageal/gastric cancer I’d read about.

At first, you were interested. That’s the last time you talked to me with some ease. You were amazed that this friend was able to get an appointment with the head doctor of the trial in just two weeks. The plan was for Ken to fly up with you and for both of you to stay in a hotel close to the hospital. You were already taking plenty of pain killers; you were losing more and more weight, and your despair was thick.

One morning, you called and I answered. You told me to tell Doug that you hadn’t heard from the admitting person at Sloan Kettering and then you hung up on me. I understood your anger wasn’t directed at me, but I was shaken by it. Another time, I was talking to Doug while you and Ken were on a conference call, and I heard you say, If Lori would just stop talking, I’d hear you better. I took that as you wanted me to step away and leave you to your brothers. But I didn’t want to leave. Soon enough, before the day of the appointment, Ken informed Doug that he wouldn’t be taking you to New York. You were too sick. Who were we fooling?

Did that decision come as a relief to you?

Within a month, your stomach began filling up with fluid, and a simple aspiration revealed that your cancer cell count had skyrocketed.


Even before the possibility of a clinical trial came up, you had rejected almost all of your doctors’ recommendations. You didn’t want surgery, and when you clearly needed nourishment, you didn’t want a feeding tube, and when it was almost impossible to find a vein, you didn’t want a port for chemo. You seemed scared of every new intrusion. I was surprised. When you were healthy, you never struck me as fearful. After all, you’d overcome your addiction and worked in a field where you encouraged others not to give up.

Perhaps the idea of a trial, of stepping into the unknown alone—with the required good dose of faith—was too unsavory for you. Better to numb yourself. That old habit. At some point, you told Ken about a stash of painkillers you’d hidden in the ceiling of the basement. He found hundreds sealed in a bag. No one asked you why the pills were there.

Alone with N, I ask her how you might have acquired so many pills. There’s this friend—she guesses—who has a prescription and lives in another state and probably needs the money.


We stay with you until around five. That’s it. You’re tired, and we’re leaving the next day. We invite N to join us for dinner in Buckhead, not too far from our hotel, and Doug will stay with you.

You ask N to fetch your wallet. Take them out tonight, you tell her.

Alex and Ben hug you, and you tell them they’re great young men and how proud of them you are. My sons are close to each other, and the idea that their father is about to lose a brother, as well as that they are about to lose you, is weighing on them. They smile, wish you luck on a bet you made, and back away.

I move closer to you and say, Is there anything we can get you?


I’m happy Doug is here with you.

You shake your head and say, You can’t have him. If he isn’t here, I’m gone.

I know that, I say. I’m hurt by your harsh tone and want to tell you I’ve only encouraged Doug to be with you. Instead, I say, I really am glad he’s here.

You look away for a second and then your eyes are on me again. Thanks for coming, Lor. It means a lot.

I kiss you on the forehead. There’s the faint odor of cigarette smoke. I love you, I whisper.

Outside, I find Alex in the street, on the phone, walking in circles, and Ben and N in the car. Doug steps out to say goodbye, and I bury my face in his chest and cry. His arms tighten around me, and my body relaxes.


Days later, back at home, N texts me: G thought you were one of us helping him today. He was like, That’s it, Lori. Referring to how we were moving him on the couch.


November 14, around ten at night. You die in the den, by the fireplace, in a hospital bed that hospice brought in after we left. Your brothers and N are beside you.

Doug and I fly down a month later for your memorial service at your club. We stay at your house. In your bedroom, I look through your books. I knew you read a lot but didn’t think our tastes aligned, yet I find a novel I admire, Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses, a novella I’ve been wanting to read, Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach, and books by authors I’ve yet to know, Graham Swift and Jo Ann Beard. I take the books.

Ken arrives the next day, as does N, and while your brothers are out doing errands and tending to estate matters, she and I sit on the floor of the living room to sort through your boxes.

One box is stuffed with mimeographed sheets from several recovery programs and transitional houses in Atlanta. There are business cards, too, one from a police sergeant, one from an aviation safety inspector for the FAA. There’s a pile of letters and cards.

One greeting card is inscribed with Thanks a bunch! dated November 2015, from your mother’s caregiver to whom you lent $15,000 so her daughter, who lives in Ukraine, could put down a deposit on a house there. The caregiver paid you back some of the money and, after you died, forgot about the rest.

There’s a letter from the principal of a law firm, thanking you for putting his brother in the position to reclaim his life.

There’s one letter after another:

    • Thank you for making me feel like I “BLOOMED” because you “got me.”
    • Thank you for being the angel on top of all my TREES and may God Bless You Abundantly for all the joy you’ve brought my way…
    •  Your generous and loving spirit…is a gift from God. The laughter, with a hint of sarcasm, will never be matched… You remind me of King Darius.
    •  I heard that Jewish people are hard-headed and think they are special, guess what? We think you ARE special!!!       

My back is starting to hurt from sitting so long on the floor. I’m about to get up when I come across an agreement for a vehicle loan made out to your close friend, A, who has multiple sclerosis. You had bought a used van so you could lease it to A. I read that, in the event of A’s death, the van will be returned to you, and, in the event of your death, the note will become null and void with the effect of being paid in full.


That afternoon, we all drive over to A’s house. He looks about ten years younger than you. He’s black, with a serene face, dressed in sweats, and confined to a wheelchair. You worked together at your old job until he became too sick to continue. We meet his mother, brother, and an aide. A’s insurance doesn’t cover weekend help. Every Sunday, you’d go grocery shopping for the family, pick up lunch, come over to watch a game, and then pay the aide for the weekend. A’s mother shows us where you used to sit on the couch. They were the best of friends, the best, she says. Like brothers, A’s brother says. I stare at the spot on the couch.

A tells us how much he will miss your visits and how sorry he is that he can’t make the memorial service. He doesn’t say much more. N then gives him a photograph of you, a headshot, and he thanks her. His mother props it on the fireplace mantel, under an old black-and-white family portrait that spans three generations.


How often do I see you? Too often. But how long can that last? I summon an image of you, probably from a photo I’ve looked at recently, and place it in the setting of my choice, and then I watch you move. When excited, you could wriggle your body like a puppy, a brief and gleeful dance. I see you mostly around food. You’d plan a flight around a buffet brunch and get a kick out of watching your brothers stuff themselves. I hear your voice, a forceful voice. Steak, medium-rare. I want to see some blood. And crispy onion rings, very crispy. Fries, the steak fries, and load ‘em up! And I want a Diet Coke, with lemon. Just bring it all at once. Don’t hold back. I hear you leaving a message on our phone machine. Instead of saying goodbye, you say very fast: I’m out. I see you as you’re stung by a bee on a shuffleboard court while we’re on vacation in West Virginia. You tell me you don’t react well to bee stings, and I give you Benadryl. You’re so appreciative as if I’ve given you so much more. I see your joy after Ken has picked you up at the airport and suddenly stops the car, pretending to have a flat, and pops open the trunk where Doug is hiding. I see you at Disney World wearing a pair of Mickey Mouse ears, and in a banquet room, giving your wedding speech: It’s not that I need my bride, it’s that she completes me. You’re in a tuxedo, wearing a red rose boutonniere, handsome, trim, healthy, sober, and, for the moment, complete.


Why is it so important that I make sense of everything I’ve learned about you? Your silence about your work. Your quiet generosity. Your insistence on having Doug, Ken, and N do everything for you during the most painful stages. Think about it: You would have never taken care of any one of them on your own. You would have insisted on hiring a nurse, citing the need for safety and comfort, both of which you weren’t qualified to provide.

Zadie Smith writes about her father’s death, “The funniest thing about dying is how much we, the living, ask of the dying; how we beg them to make it easy on us.”  


At the memorial service, everyone’s mingling. The room is spacious and paneled in oak, and there’s a wraparound patio, a golf course beyond it. Many stand up to tell their stories about you. One man, a member of your tennis team, says that you recently treated several of your good friends to a luxurious golf resort. You’d think the guy was high the way he gave away his money, he says.

Later, a young woman in her twenties speaks. I met her earlier in the evening, and Doug has spent some time with her in the past few weeks. She’s studying to become a nurse. She introduces herself as the daughter of your long-time housekeeper, a woman with whom, at one point, you had a relationship, until she wanted to marry you. The daughter, dark haired, brown eyed, has a wide smile. She calls you a father figure and says she doesn’t know what she’ll do without your weekly talks. You’ve left this young woman a a substantial amount of money in your will, enough to cover most of her graduate school expenses.

Next, a clean-cut man, in his thirties, stands up. He’s poised yet nervous. He says he knows you through bugs—he’s your pest control technician—and he tells about a feral cat who had kittens in your attic and how you were concerned the cats might be harmed. Every time I came over, we talked, he tells the room. He knew about my children and my home life, and he had a great sense of humor.

This young man is also in your will.


After the memorial service, past eleven. The nurse-to-be and the pest technician join us for a late-night snack at one of the few places that’s still open, Waffle House. The restaurant is small—a counter, a few tables—and bright and empty. After listening to so many stories, we’re all punchy and laughing quite a bit. We’re comfortable around one another, talking nonstop, when the waiter shuffles over. Doug and Ken tell him we’ve just left your service and that it’s been a long day. Suddenly we’re all famished. We order far too much. Fried eggs, hash browns, buttered toasts, pancakes, coffee, milk, juice. After the food comes, the waiter lingers by our table. He’s been promoted to manager, he says, but tonight he was back in the kitchen, cooking for us, and he’s waiting to hear how we like it. 

In this suburb, where fast food chains abound, a landscape I first assessed as soulless, I’m beginning to understand why you loved living here. I’ve been missing the point for too long. You were focused on who lived here, on their stories. You didn’t distance yourself from the people you helped. You sat with them, ate with them, listened to them, joked around with them, and, because you understood that no one is ever that far from distress, you gave what you could to them. They deserved a chance, even a leg up. They were you. 


Some time ago, I woke up at dawn to go to the bathroom and found myself staring at a bright star out the window. I realized it was the planet Venus. I’d identified it as Venus before, yet its presence had never moved me, but, in that moment, it was luminous. Many months later, it still is. Why tell you this? To illustrate how I’ve felt while grieving for you. You’ve been gone for a year, and when I talk about you, you continue to appear new to me. I resist sentimentality and don’t discount your shortcomings, but I praise the wide reach of your embrace. You transformed your strong feeling for others into action. How many times have I wanted to do just that and couldn’t?

Start small, I tell myself. It’s working, too. I’ve been able to express my gratitude, admiration, whatever surge of feeling it might be, to a few people whom I don’t know all that well but who have made a difference in my day-to-day living. I’ve managed to show, in one way or another, that they matter to me, and my interest has surprised them. A gift, a note, an effort to be helpful—a call for action—little endeavors, perhaps, but, for me, such steps have never been easy. I think of this as a pact between you and me.

How does that sound to you?


Photo at the top of the page credit: NASA/Bill Dunford (Bright Venus seen near the crescent Moon on July 15, 2018).


Lori Toppel
Lori Toppel is the author of THREE CHILDREN, a novel, and co-author of STILL HERE THINKING OF YOU, a collaborative memoir. Her fiction and non-fiction have appeared in Atticus Review, Del Sol Review, and The Antioch Review. She is a graduate of the MFA Program at Columbia University.

5 Replies to “The Pact”

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed reading your short story – a sobering look at life’s ups and downs. Your description of people and their behavior strikes a chord. It is obvious that your recollection of events is clear, that the feelings those events elicited come from the heart, and that you are not afraid to share your thoughts whether they were positive, negative or neutral. I think what I liked best about the story is that it was such an easy read and had such a good flow to it – both important for someone (me) who is far from an avid reader!
    Thank you for sharing 🙂 !
    PS. The crescent moon on the cover makes for a warm and welcoming start to a heartfelt story!

  2. Lori,
    I truly loved reading about a nephew I hardly knew.
    When I was 10 he was born and since we lived in the same apartment house it was so easy to visit him. I loved it. He was like my little doll.
    Then he moved away, with his brothers, and my little doll was gone.
    I never really knew him after that. His mother sent him in a different direction from his brothers and I rarely saw him.
    I remember his years living next door to grandma. The house was falling apart and his grandmother wasn’t happy. I don’t think she could fathom his addiction.
    His years in Atlanta were very rewarding to him, as he came thru his addiction and started helping others. But I never knew him!’

    I regret that he chose not to be connected to the family but perhaps it was his way of breaking away and being independent. Your discussion of the people whose lives he touched was heartwarming. So glad he found a life that gave him many rewards and proved so rewarding to so many people whom he helped.

  3. A beautiful tribute with emotions that I can relate to. I really like how this experience has lead you to opening up more to people around you. Your brother-in-law would be happy that you knowing him even a little had this positive impact on you. Truly a fulfillment of the Jewish saying, “may his memory be a blessing.”

  4. Lori Toppel has managed to touch upon a difficult subject with a measure of wonder and unexpected love. Sometimes facades are merely barriers for our vulnerable selves. Beautifully written.

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