Untangling Knots

A few weeks ago, my daughter Tallulah found one of her favorite necklaces, a sweet silver angel with a rhinestone heart, in a jumbled tangle under the passenger seat of my car. She asked me to fix it. “Sure, yeah, just stick it on the dashboard.” I may have a habit of saying “sure, yeah, later” to my kids and their 47 daily requests for me to do something for them.

Days went by, and I made no effort to fix it. Driving to and from work, grocery shopping, picking up girls from soccer practice, I would look at the small lump in the corner of my dash and push it out of my mind. It took me a few days to realize that I wasn’t merely putting off a mundane task.  I was actively avoiding it. Why was that little thing taunting me? Why did the sight of it fill me with something like dread?

A few more days went by before I realized it was because of Ann.

* * *

Ann and I met when I was 13 and she 14. Immediately, I realized that she was basically good at everything. She knew how to ride horses, and taught me how as well. She got better grades than I did (than nearly everyone did), and helped me in my classes. She trained me at the deli where we both worked, and where we first met. She was confident and humble, and I looked up to her, even as we became good friends.

A couple of years later, she had her driver’s license, a brown diesel Volkswagon Rabbit, and a sense of adventure bigger than mine. Powered by Ann, we went to the Sonoma Coast, on hillside hikes, and to exotic San Francisco, always exploring. I followed her everywhere, literally and figuratively, and I relied on her for many things, large and small.

Among her many talents, she was particularly good at fixing tangled necklaces. Such necklaces would have gone to the top of my dresser to die if not for Ann. Lacking as I did the patience to fix them myself, I would save them up for her, my more patient and optimistic friend.

Ann’ll do that for me,” I’d half think to myself before tossing them aside. And she would, always. She never seemed irritated or bothered. She went about the work of untangling knots as if she had all the time in the world and no more important thing to give her attention to. She is the reason my necklaces survived my teenage years.

In many ways, she is the reason I survived my teenage years, my college years, my 20s and 30s and 40s. As one of my closest friends, she eased my fears and insecurities for decades. When I needed to study, she helped me buckle down and focus. Ever the caretaker, she knew that I didn’t eat much when I was stressed, so she’d show up at my house with apple fritters drowning in butter. Later, as a doctor, she helped me understand the medical issues faced by my children as they grew and my parents as they aged; I would often call her after leaving a doctor’s office to get The Ann Translation, because I knew she would tell me what I needed to know, with the perfect metaphor to help me understand, and that she would ease my anxieties over the health and well being of my family.

She even once pulled a tick out of two-year-old Lola’s neck, because I was just too completely freaked out to do it myself. Never mind that she was all dressed up for her own daughter’s baptism, never mind that she had a house full of people to host. She responded to my plaintive “Aaaaaannnnn!” by whisking my child up to the bathroom and applying her tweezers and surgical skills to the nape of Lola’s neck. In no time, that tick was surfing down the toilet drain, giving rise to yet another opportunity for me to say: “Thank God for Ann.

Ann died of cancer in July of 2017. I can’t call her anymore to ask what some weird medical thing means. We won’t be going on any more jaunts to Goat Rock beach. I can’t indulge with her in chocolate chip cookie dough or apple fritters. She will not be talking me down from any more social-anxiety ledges.

And I can no longer save up tangled knots for her to fix.

* * *

Last week, I found myself at a soccer field, waiting for a notoriously over-time coach to finally call the end of practice. As I sat there simmering in mild annoyance and thinking uncharitable thoughts about the coach, my eye fell upon Tallulah’s necklace. This time, I didn’t push it out of my mind. Instead, I pulled it and so many memories of Ann towards me.

OK, dammit, I can fix this stupid thing,” I thought as I tackled the job of picking the knots apart. With no small measure of bitterness, I looped pieces this way and that, followed dead-end paths, and stubbornly tried again. I stared at clots of chain, willing my eyes to pierce the mysteries of which lengths went where. More than once, I chastised Ann for leaving me to deal with this mess without her.

After countless fruitless tugs this way and that, one loop finally got a little bigger and pieces started sliding through. As I worked, I found myself warming to the task, and concentrating more willingly and hopefully on my goal. More spaces opened up, knots resolved one by one until at last the angel was free. It probably took no more than 20 minutes, but I lived a lifetime in those minutes, a lifetime of thinking about all ways I miss having Ann in my life.

Something else happened too: I caught a glimpse of her spirit, of the way she did a job with purpose and single-mindedness -- and without self-interest or complaint. It seems too flippant to say I was channeling her, but I was bringing her to life for myself once more, by doing a task the way she would do it. As I worked at the tangles, I grew calmer and less bitter. Knowing how happy my daughter would be made me experience something like joy in the process. Realizing that Ann once did these things for me, and now I would need to do them myself, made me want to do this job and do it well.

This is is how she will live on for me: not merely by my remembering her or thinking about the things we did together, but by embodying her way of being in the world and making her present in the actions I take each day.

Hopping in the car after practice, Tallulah noticed her newly liberated angel swinging back and forth from the rearview mirror and happily exclaimed: “My necklace! Thank you! You’re so good at fixing tangled chains, mom!” With her words, I realized that I have adopted a little bit of Ann to take with me into the years ahead. Tallulah will probably save up her jumbled necklaces and shove them in my direction for the next several decades, and I will welcome them. Each one will bring with it another chance to have Ann by my side.

She once helped me smooth every tangle and resolve every knot; now I know that she will do that forever, from deep in my heart.


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