My hands trembled as I held the well-worn address book with the dark-blue cover. I took a deep breath and picked up the receiver.
"Hello, Margot? This is Sacha," I said. "I have some bad news. My mom is dead."
I heard the quick intake of air and then wrenching sobs. I was dry-eyed. In fact, I don't remember crying much those first few days. I was too devastated and numb. Crying means you're present in this world, and I could only manage to be present in my absence, in my willingness to exist somewhere else, away from the pain that would threaten to destroy me if I allowed myself to feel it.
There was no need to talk with Margot. I gave her the funeral details and then went to the next one.
My parents were divorced and, being the eldest child, the awful task of notifying my mother's friends fell to me. I was all of 20 years old.
"Do you think that you are exempt from experience?"
The line from the David Mamet movie "House of Games" kept repeating in my head in the first hours after I found out. I had just returned to college after Christmas break. It was a Tuesday and I was thinking about how that night I'd call my mother. I'd last seen her two days before, when she dropped me off after a somewhat listless winter vacation. When I approached my dorm room, there was a note written in blue marker on a white plastic board outside our suite for me to call the dean's office. So I did.
"You better come down here," the secretary said. When I walked into the office, I saw my dad, which made no sense to me. He looked a little ashen and asked me to follow him up the stairs. "It's not Maya, is it?" I asked. Maya is my sister and we are very close.
"No. It's not Maya."
It didn't occur to me to ask my father about my mother because they were entangled in a somewhat unpleasant divorce, both of them trying to start new lives. When we got upstairs inside a private room, I noticed the presence of my siblings and my father's new wife. The whole thing felt surreal.
"Your mother had an asthma attack this morning," he said, "and didn't make it."
"Didn't make it." Those were the words that went right through me. Maybe if they went right through me, and didn't stick, there was still a chance that she would be okay. Did I think I was exempt from experience?
The months leading up to her death were dark. My mother had been battling a deep depression that descended during the divorce, and her despondency seemed to also seep into my bones. As her closest ally, I often felt what my mother was feeling.
It didn't matter if we were thousands of miles apart. I remember one drunken college evening in particular, when I had to be escorted to my room and put to bed. I was raving about how I couldn't live without my mother. When I think about it now, it seems like a strange premonition.
"Ruuuuuudy," she trilled, early one weekend morning when I was home from school. She was the only person who ever called me that.
She wanted me to accompany her on a walk. She loved taking walks along the back country roads of the suburban town where she lived. That was when she told me about a recent asthma attack where she nearly died.
"I could feel my soul packing up. Getting ready to go, " she said, her delivery strangely matter-of-fact. Luckily, my sister was there to save her.
That unfortunately wasn't the case when she was out on another of her walks on a bitter-cold January morning—without her necessary inhaler. There was another attack and she died, alone.
She was taken to the morgue where someone recognized her as my father's ex-wife, and he had to identify the body.
This January will mark 20 years since her passing. I've never been able to talk to my father about that day because I know how much it haunts us both. But I think about her all the time and sometimes even feel her in my bones. It doesn't matter if we are thousands of miles apart.