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Chocolate Cake
by Helen Zelon


The trick to chocolate cake, my friend Barbara told me as she fitted the silicon pad into her bathing suit's empty left cup, is a fancy pan. "Bake the plainest cake in a fancy pan," she said, laughing, "and everyone'll want the recipe." She was still grinning as she slipped into the pool to swim her prescribed laps. We swam together on Tuesdays and Thursdays, swapping recipes and gossip in the locker-room aisles. Having survived breast cancer, Barbara found lots to laugh about, in those days. But I never got around to making that cake.

That was before the bruising began, before the bleeding from inside her cell walls gathered into dark reddish-purple puddles under the skin of her arms and legs. The chemo from years before had been good -- too good, it turned out. It destroyed her cancer, but stole with it her bone marrow's power to make new blood. The bruising was the first sign of the stealthy, slow, bleeding-out that, despite surgeries, marrow transplants, and platelet transfusions, eventually took her life.

I can still smell the blood bank that collected donations for her, the acrid, clean-clean smell of always-scrubbed linoleum hallways and stainless steel. She fought hard, and lost. Punished by illness, decimated by "treatments," she died on a damp Friday evening in September.

That diamond-sharp Sunday was her funeral, but the brilliant, early-fall morning was something else, too: It was block-party Sunday to my daughters, the best of all weekends. Neighbors were outside, setting up for a tag sale. My baby son was happily oblivious, content watching the leaves tremble in a gentle breeze. Grief seemed unnatural just then, in the flurry and good humor of the morning. But instead of pulling on jeans and a jersey, I reached for a slip, hose, dark shoes and a skirt. No jewelry, no rouge -- the task ahead was sober and grim. I had a funeral to attend.

I left in a private hurry, trying to be invisible in my black. I drove to the funeral home on familiar streets but saw them with raw, unknowing eyes.

Barbara's friends and all her family were there -- her mother, the sisters who attended her, her husband, their children. The family was sequestered in a side room as mourners poured through the double doors into the chapel; the pews filled. In the tumult, the chapel looked like a roiling sea of brown hair. So many came there a generation too early, to bury a peer. I found a place at the back.

The family filed in. Her husband was first, shepherding his children to the first row, then her mother and sisters. Her teenage daughters were sobbing -- keening, really -- loud and unchecked, wailing "Mommy" with a longing that belied their everyday cool. One buckled at the knees, but her sister braced against the fall and held her steady, until they sat. Their brother, at 10, looked a shell, hollowed out by the loss of his mother and the devastation of all near to him, as if his solitary human anchor had become so unmoored that no one else could remain fixed to guide him through this dark, miserable passage. The crying of the daughters, and the boy's silence, burned itself into my ear's memory the way the hospital smell is in my nose.

The service grew into a collective mourning, with memories from three generations, and a poem from her younger daughter. Deep words of rabbinic comfort offered scant solace. Finally, the time came to bury her. With burning eyes blind with tears, hands wadded with linty, soggy Kleenex, I felt a different heat, as the milk that my body had readies for my son made me flush, and think of him, and home.

Once back in the snug nest of my block, I kissed my daughters, fed my son, then settled him into a midday sleep. And I began to bake a chocolate cake, in a fancy pan, for the block party. The ritual comforts: breaking the eggs, sifting the cocoa into the flour, greasing the pan; blending, pouring, bracing against the hot oven air, once the door is opened, to set the wet batter to bake on the oven's center rack. As I measured, mixed, and stirred, I thought of Barbara. Ten years earlier, her daughters were jumping rope outside and her son was an infant in his crib. Ten years earlier -- naive, loving, thrilled with the gifts of her life -- she too might have baked a chocolate cake on a sunny Sunday afternoon, and basked in the smells that enveloped her kitchen, casing her family in a sweet, safe embrace. The cake goes into the oven; one day becomes the next. The cake comes out. The girls bang open the front door and the baby starts wailing. And you’ve buried a friend.

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DUCTS summer issue 2001
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