We move through our time on this earth doing a million and ten things, with a thousand and one goals, and tens of hundreds of to-do lists. But in our minds are bigger thoughts: I want to turn my kids into good people, I want to leave the world a little better than I found it, I want to touch someone’s life. And often – in the cosmic humor that surrounds us – we raise amazing people, make things better, touch people in amazing ways but don’t know, or never see.
Sarah is one of my oldest and best friends. Kay, her mom, has cancer. A really bad kind. A hope-with-all-your-might-for-the-best-while-the-practical-part-of-your-brain-that-you-hate-makes-the-inevetable-plan kind.
And while holding Sarah close while she cries in anger and fear, I have thought about her mom whom I have known since I was sixteen, and it’s simply incomprehensible to me to have a world without her in it.
My adolescence was…poor. Poor is a word, so let’s use it. I don’t care to discuss it much now, because through forces both positive and negative, that is not my life any more and I am grateful. And I feel that dwelling on it diminishes the sincerity of my gratitude. But in this case it is relevant, so I must mention it. My adolescence was poor and I spent a fair amount of energy coordinating escapes. And once I had my driver’s license and a vehicle, escape I did. Often. Often to Sarah’s.
And although I did not talk much about my motivations for finding an elsewhere, it was evident that that was what I was doing. I was there a lot, and I often stayed longer than planned. Thinking back on it, I know now that there is no way Sarah’s parents could have extended the generosity it took to tolerate an extra teenager in their bathroom and refrigerator as often as they did without an awareness of why I was there.
It was time to leave for college. Sarah, who was a year behind me in school, did her best to be excited for me while clearly dreading the day when I would pack up my car and drive away. So both in my efforts to find a safe haven and to spend as much time with Sarah as I could before the final launch, I was at their house with an utterly predictable regularity.
The weekend before I was scheduled to leave, lounging on Sarah’s couch while reading a book, Kay announced she had a going away present for me. In her hands was a small white box tied with a ribbon. I was startled, and touched, and took the box and untied the bow.
Inside the box, wrapped in tissue, were three pairs of outrageously red undies. I looked up at Kay who said simply, “No woman should go off to college without red underwear.”
I stared at the bold, saucy underthings and suddenly… I was worldly. I was sophisticated. I was ready, in as complete a way as I was capable of as an eighteen-year-old, for whatever the world might throw at me. And that, obviously, is what Kay really wanted to me to have.
I think so often these days about the time I spent safe at Kay’s house and of how many things about that time shaped the me that is here now.
From Kay I learned that food tastes better when served from heavy, earthenware bowls than it ever will from dainty, delicate, china.
I learned that dancing with abandon is infinitely more joyous than dancing with style.
I learned that bread is really only a delivery mechanism for real, creamy butter.
And I learned that the me that is true and unfiltered will always be more interesting and more lovable than the one I put on on purpose.
I have told the story of the red underwear many times since it happened, and many more times in recent months as people in my life have been made aware of what’s happening with Kay. But it only occurred to me recently that maybe Kay didn’t know the story from my point of view. Or that she didn’t know how precious the comfort of her home was to me as a lonely teen-ager. And I don’t want this to be one of those moments that gets lost in the universe’s odd design where someone might never know how deeply they touched a life. I want her to know.
I want her to know that way back in the 80’s, her gift of a safe, warm house helped make my present livable, and that her gift of racy lingerie helped make my future attainable.
If you don’t have any red knickers in your lingerie drawer right now, go get some. If there’s a woman in your life who needs some bolstering, go buy her some. Every woman needs red underwear. Because there’s not much we can’t face if we’re properly armored in a pair of audacious, scarlet undies.
I wrote this earlier this year, to make sure Kay got to read it, which she did. But Kay let go of her tether to this earth on October 8th 2010, safe in the loving circle of her daughters and granddaughter.
The only specific task that Sarah asked of me was to go to Victoria’s Secret and select a pair of outrageous red underwear for Kay to wear into the afterlife, which I was honored to do. I love you, Kay. My world is better because you were in it.
Edited to add: If you’d like to see 200 people, 100 kazoos, and a sing-a-long celebration of Kay’s life, you are welcome to watch this video. And yes, that’s me.