"Betty Wood lives in the woods."
My own inclination at this point is to find a hollow log in which to install myself until end-time, but instead I slip Betty some sisterly ammunition.
They stop. Turn to me in unison. "What?"
"Laura Ellis lives in a trellis."
The ladies find me incandescently hilarious in any case, but this—this brilliant riposte—oh, this takes the whole cake. They throw back their heads, haw-hawing like horses till they have to stop, take in some wheezing breaths, hang on to their quaking knees.
The rest of the walk—why did I not see this coming?—consists of a mind-numbing call and response:
"Laura Ellis lives in a trellis!"
"Betty Wood lives in the woods!"
In a few weeks' time, Laura Ellis lives not in a trellis but in a hospital bed moved back into the Ellis parlor. Betty is one of the last people Laura still knows. They hold hands. Do the woods-and-trellis joke. Cement the next day's weather forecast. Say goodbye.
Late that night, before Laura slips all the way under, she tells her mother, "Daddy's coming to get me. Can I go?"
"Yes," her mother says. "You can go."
"You won't cry?"
"I'll cry, but it's all right for you to go."
"It's going to be hard on the kids."
Her mother pauses, confused. "What kids?"
She's right. It's hard on Betty Wood. Her grief is deep and old and full of memory. We make a tiny trellis out of sticks to hang on the Christmas tree. Ten times a day, Betty checks to make sure it's still there. We walk through the layering snow, her bony, mittened hand in mine. I say to her quietly, "Betty Wood lives in the woods."
She stops, shakes her bird-fluff head, looks into the unseeable distance, her smile wistful, and there it is again—that glimpse of her what-if life, the brilliant "normal" life she might have lived.
But what of this life? What do I think I'm seeing, at these moments, that doesn't already exist? This is Betty: here, now, her eyes filled with sympathy and understanding. And yes, a kind of brilliance. The intellectual chasm between us divides, and I'm on the wrong side. From here, she looks like the kindly, durable person she has always been: the big sister shoring up in sorrow, charging ahead to the unknown and unknowable, showing her little sister how it's done.
Monica Wood is the author of four works of fiction, most recently Any Bitter Thing (Ballantine). Betty appears in Wood's family memoir, When We Were the Kennedys: A Memoir from Mexico, Maine, forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2012.
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