Since my novel published this summer, I’ve gotten to visit with some book groups as a guest. There has been wine. Lots of wine.
The other day I Skyped with a book group in Dubai (wine for them, tragic morning tea for me). The local ones I’ve gotten to attend in person: a sushi-and-wine gabfest where the drunks discussed everything but my book (just kidding…I had a hoot, ladies!); a potluck notably lacking in wine but not in debate over the role of religion in marriage (correlation might equal causation, I’m thinking); a group that baked a Paula Deen casserole in honor of a joke in my book (only a stick of butter in the recipe…you’re welcome).
All of which made me pine for my own book group of 10 women and two decades. Of course, we hadn’t read a book together in nearly that long because we deteriorated fairly quickly from reading and drinking to just drinking. And we’re scattered around the country now. But our bond remains fierce.
Because we formed at that vivid, chaotic start of adulthood, Book Group always represented something more to me than the name implied. We still call ourselves that, or BG, when we’re hurried, but never Book Club, which sounds like you could just sign up, and once we formed we were ferociously exclusive.
Book Group was margaritas and poetry. Book Group was fifth-floor walk-ups and boys in rock bands. Book Group was alcohol-impaired charades in a cabin in Vermont, fire-impaired barbecuing in the Hamptons.
Then our jobs became careers and the boys we dated became men. Our weekend road trips turned into destination weddings. The photos we shared were not of each other but of our babies, then our children.
Still, in my mind, we will always be young. We will always be free. And we will always be 10.
Even though, now, we are nine.
We gathered last week for the funeral. Our Jackie was at 45 the oldest of us, but also by far the fittest. Just a year ago she told me she’d joined an underwater hockey league, whatever the hell that was. She taught naked yoga and triathloned through Austria and piloted a small plane. That last is less about fitness than fearlessness. She lived like she wasn’t afraid to die.
She also lived like she wasn’t afraid to get old. We met when I hired her as a reporter for a free weekly newspaper in Manhattan. I was 23 and its editor-in-chief, which tells you everything you need to know about the quality of the operation. Jackie was a terrible reporter. She had no idea how to gather news, although “news” was a generous name for our police blotters and Community Board rundowns. Her prose was flowery, poetic, stream-of-consciousness. I had to rewrite every last word.
But she was smart. And cool. And she had this laugh. It exploded out of her like fireworks. I invited her to meet my friends for this thing we were starting, this thing we were calling Book Group. When it works, there’s something hugely satisfying about bringing a new friend into an existing clique. When it doesn’t work, you feel like a schmuck. This time I was a proud yenta.
While the rest of us got serious about our careers and our men, Jackie stayed peripatetic. She remained the only one of us never to marry. She worked for a nonprofit, then an Internet startup, then a matchmaking company. She traveled, she sailed, she painted. Instead of starting a family, she collected them. Her triathlon-training family. Her writing family. Us.
A little over a year ago, she felt a lump in her lady parts. Melanoma, the doctors said. One in a million, the doctors said. “I always knew I was special,” she said, then erupted with that laugh. Skin cancer—where the sun don’t even shine.
By then our Book Group met once a year, on an elaborately planned trip that necessitated plane travel for at least some of us. We gathered in San Francisco, where Jackie then lived. We rented a row house in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood. We ate in Mission restaurants. And we watched Jackie read an essay she wrote in a packed art gallery as part of Lit Crawl, six-feet tall in her heels, resplendent in a tight, gray dress.
She treated her illness in the way we expected but dreaded, eschewing Western medicine for a holistic, natural course. In our rented house, we watched over takeout from Bacon Bacon as she juiced wheatgrass and pea shoots. She gave me a sip. It tasted like dirt.
A few months earlier, Jackie had met the love of her life, a carpenter and avid sailor with a name I plan to use one day in a novel or script. She moved back East to an achingly perfect little town in Massachusetts and into the house he was renovating for her. She signed up for a memoir-writing class. She created yet more families of neighbors, yogis and sailing enthusiasts.
By then she had consented to a medical treatment that left her both drawn and swollen. Or maybe that was the cancer, rampaging unchecked through her organs. It was then all her families drew around her, via a dedicated group on Facebook, where we posted updates, photos, encouragement. Scrolling back through the posts, as I’ve done countless times, I can see our hope building merrily until the day we are jolted by her own acceptance of the coming end. After that, shock and denial (“if anyone can beat the odds…!”). Then, a slow fade to sorrow.
You don’t want a death of a loved one to be about you. But of course in the end it is. What did that person mean to me? What will my life be like without her? David Sedaris wrote this in an essay in the New Yorker about his late sister:
How could anyone purposefully leave us, us, of all people? This is how I thought of it, for though I’ve often lost faith in myself, I’ve never lost it in my family, in my certainty that we are fundamentally better than everyone else. It’s an archaic belief, one that I haven’t seriously reconsidered since my late teens, but still I hold it. Ours is the only club I’d ever wanted to be a member of, so I couldn’t imagine quitting.
Jackie didn’t quit us, of course. She would have liked nothing better than to stay, to keep sailing and reading and laughing. To remain one of our 10, to remain among the rest of her families. As she will, always, in our hearts.