A Northern Light That Went Out Too Soon


I met Marina when our daughters took ballet class in the fall. On Saturday mornings, we'd watch the little girls practicing points and positions, giggling and waving at us through the windows as they pirouetted across the smooth dance floor. I noticed 7-year-old Molly because she and my Lucy have the same bodies, round tummies and chubby legs in pink tights.

They were often more interested in sharing secrets with the other girls than in listening to Terrence, the gentle instructor who always managed to lure back their attention: "Come on, girls. Do your best. Focus. Concentrate, come back to us."

Sometimes I would bring a novel or balance my checkbook so as not to waste the hour, but my attention was often tugged back by a withering look from Lucy, who could not see anything more important than me watching her dance. Of course, she was right. There is something timeless about sitting in the morning sunshine, surrounded by the ivy crawling up the arbor walkway of the Silver Lake studio, talking with other mothers while our daughters danced.

One Saturday in November, Marina and I started talking. Another mother, Gail, a close friend of Marina's, joined our chat. First, an exhaustive discussion of raising our children in Los Angeles. Then the conversation shifted and flowed.

"I took Molly back to Finland last August to see my parents and to meet all her cousins," Marina told us. "It was such a beautiful trip. She loved it so much. The sun stays up forever, and we took a boat to see the northern lights. It was such a relaxed and easy time seeing friends. Molly asked why can't we live there. She didn't believe me when I told her Finland can get really cold in the winter, but I told her someday, maybe we could." Then she laughed, and we laughed with her.

The image of this mother and daughter sailing toward the northern lights remained with me. I remember thinking what a good mother and kind woman.

After class, I lingered on the corner with Lucy to wait for Marina and ask whether Molly would like to come over and play sometime.

"Oh, of course," she said. We exchanged phone numbers and said we'd try to do something after Thanksgiving.

Lucy was soon thrilled to spend a Saturday with Molly at Marina's invitation.

I ran into Marina one more time at Mayfair.

"Oh, Lucy and Molly had such a good time together," she said. "Inside, outside. They played and played all day long."

We agreed to get them together again soon. But then Christmas came. Ballet classes were on a break. My husband and I went to England for a few weeks, and I stayed on even longer to do some research.

Back in L.A. as my husband drove me home from the airport, he said, "Oh, Terrence said Molly's mother is really sick. She got that flu that was going around, and it turned into pneumonia and septicemia." I should call, I thought. But the week got away from me what with jet lag, school and homework.

That Saturday, my husband took Lucy to ballet.

"Molly's mother died," he said when he came home. I felt a wave of nausea wash over me. "She died? That's not possible. It's not possible."

I went to pick up Lucy and caught the last few moments of class. The morning was overcast, and no one seemed to be really watching their daughters. Terrence came out and asked whether I'd heard. I nodded. "That woman had more sunshine than all of Finland. My God, you just never know . . . every moment. She died while I was teaching ballet last Saturday," he said. I cried.

I told Lucy about Marina after class. Her faced turned scarlet.

"Take me home. I want to go home," she said. We spent the day together, sewing sequins on her sweatshirts, painting her fingernails and toenails five different colors, baking cookies. Later in the afternoon, I asked Lucy what her play date with Molly had been like.

"Molly's mommy was our waitress. She took our order. And you know what? One time, when she was a little girl, she dressed up for Christmas in a beautiful white dress and wore a wreath on her head with candles. Lighted ones. But she tripped on a rock, and her hair caught fire, but her daddy turned the hose on her head. She had to get all her hair cut because it got burned. I like Molly's mommy. She's so fun. She tells good stories. How can she die? How?"

I gathered Lucy in my arms, and we just rocked in the rocking chair. I breathed in her sweet hair.

Later, we took some sunflowers over to their home. Lucy gave Molly her new Madeline doll and a chocolate bar and a note.

It still doesn't seem real. It's an outrage for a devoted mother to get sick from the flu and die. It's an outrage for a young father to face raising his daughter alone. Marina was meant to be planting a winter garden with Molly, taking her to ballet. Why did it have to be a woman in her 30s, full of health and vitality and complete adoration for her daughter and husband?

It's a death that breaks your heart over and over. I only wish I'd paid closer attention to this woman; remembered her words more carefully.

I do remember how she let Molly pay for little grocery items at Mayfair while she waited for her at the front of the store. I was impressed by her patience, as I typically herded my two through the checkout, feeling like I was lassoing unruly colts. Marina, on the other hand, never seemed in a rush.

I talked to Gail, Marina's friend, who said she had been fine before Christmas.

"She'd been nursing an elderly couple, then everyone in her family got the flu, and she was sickest. She was in intensive care for a month. Her mother came out from Finland to be with her. She died in her husband's arms." I couldn't speak.

When I think of Marina, I think of a mother and daughter sailing on a ship in the land of the midnight sun to see the northern lights. I think of her easy laughter as our daughters twirled in fits of giggles across the studio in the sunshine of a Saturday morning, the dance of the 7-year-olds. When I think of Marina, I think of sunflowers and a child in a white dress with a burning wreath of candles for a crown.

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