November 17

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Today is Ariela’s birthday. She would have been twenty-seven. We always celebrated with a party and presents. I don’t know what she liked better — being the center of attention or getting all of the presents.

When she was in elementary school, we invited her entire class to her parties.

My mother would never let me leave anyone out. Even Evelyn Miller who had cooties. “You’ll invite Evelyn or there won’t be any party,” my mother said. “Remember, you went to her party.”

Nowadays, it’s amazing how many people don’t reciprocate. Even kids who came to Ariela’s parties year after year. The little girl who lived four houses down. The twins in her Girl Scout troop. Maybe those girls didn’t have parties.

One girl in her class always included Ariela. For one birthday, a long white limousine drove everyone to a restaurant atop a skyscraper in San Francisco. I hear that girl moved to New York City. I’m sure she’s building skyscrapers now.

Ariela had lots of bowling parties. Duck pins when we lived in Massachusetts. Ten pins in California. She took friends to the San Francisco aquarium on two birthdays. Another year to the opening of a Harry Potter movie. At twenty-one, she invited her friends to a nightclub. A few years ago, a friend threw her a surprise party. A lot of great parties, just not enough of them.

Say what?

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At an event last weekend, an acquaintance wanted to know how I was doing. “Are you still grieving?” she asked.

I had the impulse to say something clever, to let her know questions like hers can sting, but I couldn’t come up with anything on the spot.

“Always,” I said.

Later that evening, I thought I could have said, “Oh sure, I stopped at 6:37pm on October 14th.”

I always think of these things too late. My French-speaking friends call this “l’esprit de l’escalier.” Translation: “staircase wit.” Used when you think of the perfect retort too late, after you’ve walked down the stairs. Of course, the situation rarely arises a second time for me to use my premeditated response.

I need to be prepared. Plan ahead. And, at the same time, sound spontaneous. This requires that I conceive of all the questions and comments I might encounter. Rehearsing wouldn’t hurt.

I remember one of Ariela’s friends who used a wheelchair. When he was asked, “What’s wrong with you?” he yelled, “SCI” over his shoulder as he propelled himself forward at top speed. He had thought about this beforehand and decided that confusing people has some merit. Also, he was able to demonstrate his physical prowess, something I can’t claim. For the record, SCI stands for spinal cord injury.

I don’t know if I was ever swift enough for really witty retorts, but I know I need help now. I vacillate between having fun with the intrusive questioner, or as my kinder friends would encourage me to do, use this as a “teachable moment.”

If you have some advice about how to deal with unwanted questions, I’m open to suggestions.