Can I tell you a secret? It’s ridiculous but I didn’t even know it was a secret until I heard Lady GaGa’s “Hair” this morning and then I realized that I’d kept it even from myself. In my ears, it’s a record where I always find you. “I’ve had enough, this is my prayer / That I’ll die livin’ just as free as my hair.” Those are the first song lyrics I’ve heard since “My clothes don’t fit me no more” in “Streets of Philadelphia” that capture what you
dealt with in those long, brief months you fought your illness.
Now, Gaga’s not as cool as you. She worries too much about being cool. You never worried about that—not as far as I could tell, and I was watching pretty closely. Why would you? You walked into a room and cool had arrived.
Nobody who remembers you could forget your glorious hair—blonde or strawberry, somewhere down around your shoulders or a little past, shimmering in motion, a glorious sight on a sunny winter’s day like this one. It looked as free as you always seemed to be feeling. Not free of worry or obligation. Free to be.
I know for a fact that cancer didn’t take much from the life you lived. But once you started the all-but-useless
chemotherapy, it took your hair. All your hair—not the way they do it in the movies and on TV, where they let the eyebrows stay. Chemo and cancer aren’t that kind.
Even if I hadn’t been caught up in the teenage hair wars of the ‘60s, I’d know that hair is a key to identity. I’d
know even if I hadn’t lost almost all my hair to age. What I remember, better than my own stringy locks, is the first time I saw a chemotherapy patient after you died. They looked just like you and I had to turn away. I’ve never turned away since then, that I promise you. Because I would never, even symbolically, turn away from your memory twice.
You lived beautifully without hair. We have pictures to prove it. The spirit shone more brightly from your eyes, your whole face was consumed with your conviction that life, not death, was what mattered.
Every time I write you, it always comes back to this same thing: The contradiction between the failure of your fight for life, and the reality that your life cannot be described in any terms I know of, except duration, as anything but a monumental success. You loved, and you were loved, for that matter you are still loved. You wrote, you danced, you sang, you worked, you slept late, you stayed up all night, you traveled, you had a home and a family and a man who loved you. When there was a fight, you figured out the right side to take, and you fought. When there were questions, you sought answers. When you saw that other people hurt, you tried to make them feel better.
As in anybody’s life, there were fights that couldn’t be won, consolation that didn’t change anything, important questions that lacked sensible answers, flat-out disappointments in some of your ambitions. Eventually there was even betrayal by your own body. Yet you had the courage and the grace to let it go, to move on, to come back to a center point that was fundamentally cheerful, accepting, open. You were a child of Manhattan, without a doubt, tough enough to cope with the worst and smart enough to try to outwit fate without ever denying who held the cards. If you could be cynical (and, boy, could you), you were the most optimistic cynic I ever met.
One reason I’m talking about this now is that I am watching that spirit rise again. It never made itself entirely
absent from my life, of course. Like everybody, you were a product of the family you grew up in, and if there’s anything that defines Barbara, Sasha and me, it is absolutely an optimistic cynicism. We assume the worst and look for the best. I’d say that we have done it better over the past nineteen years because of the example you set, but then again, the example you set was only the most extreme version of that family trait.
To me, the entire wonder of human life, its majesty and its mystery, are bound up in this ability to share aspects of our personality and yet arrive at a remarkably original individual synthesis—billions of times over. You and Sasha, sleeping literally within a few feet of one another most of the nights of your lives, are the paradigm, a similarity for every difference, a contradiction for every convergence. One of the luckiest
aspects of my own existence was to watch the two of you emerge. One of the happiest moments was when Sasha returned from abroad and the two of you harmonized so effortlessly those last few weeks. And one of the most painful was watching Sasha have to learn the painful process of living a complete life without her sister.
This year, she reached a new peak. She became a mother. Her son’s name is Weston Kristof Carr. He looks almost exactly like her, and yet, they must be substantially different, because when she holds him and they look into each other’s eyes, they are complete. You can imagine what happens when Barbara and I hold him.
At Christmas dinner, Sasha watched Wes at the table. He was doing what kids do, just immersed in his essential joy of life. He must have been doing something particular, but the details really aren’t important. What matters is what Sasha said: “Sometimes, you remind me an awful lot of your aunt.”
After all this time, we all want and need that reminder, Kristen. You are so far away, though you are always
close to mind. And heart.
I’d no sooner typed those words than Sasha and Wes came into the house. (They live next door.) Wes gave me his huge smile—it’ll show all his teeth, just like yours did, once he has all his teeth. I walked over and picked him from his momma’s arms. “Are you writing?” Sasha asked me after I’d held him for a few minutes. “Do you want me to take him?” I didn’t say anything. “Yes and no, huh?” she said.
The heart is a muscle. It has an amazing ability to expand—you may feel like your heart will burst with joy and
love but it never does. And when it contracts, it finds a way to fill itself again. Each breath, in and out, a little different, a lot the same. If we’re smart, we treasure them all, deep and small. And while my breaths continue, that is the flat out truth, the one that really matters.
Not a lesson you ever seemed to need. But I surely did. Thank you for teaching me the things that kids teach
their parents (and grandparents). We are so lucky to have Sasha and Wes in our lives. We are—to this very second—so lucky to have you.
love from your Pop,