The Lessons of Lindsay

Teaching comes easy for this recent VCU grad. It's everything else that's hard.

It’s 2008, a year earlier, and I’m sitting in a small house in Richmond, Virginia that Judith Aronson shares with her daughter Lindsay. Except for the Today Show droning on to no one in particular, the place is dead quiet. Above the television set, next to a framed series of classic Frank Sinatra album covers— In the Wee Small Hours, Swing Easy! — a single sheet of paper is taped to the wall. It reads simply “Lindsay Lu will be good as new!!” Placed strategically, so that everyone who enters or leaves is required to notice, the note seems less prayer and more declaration of intent. Not please make Lindsay Lu as good as new. Lindsay Lu will be good as new.

Into this brightly-colored living room comes mom, carrying her adult daughter. She makes two gentle deposits — Lindsay into a big recliner, followed shortly thereafter by a mound of pills onto an adjacent tray. Judith leaves again to get herself dressed and Lindsay is kept company by the family dog, Sadie, whose main mission in life seems to be always snoring at someone’s feet. It’s hard not to stare a bit at Lindsay, but that's the story of her life really: during college, stared at for her beauty; then, later, stared at in the gym for her obsessive exercise regimen and tight abs; and now, on this spring day in Richmond, stared at in her current state, sitting on a recliner wearing a pair of flannel boxer shorts and a white-t-shirt and missing her arms below the elbow and her legs below the knee. Her hair is short — gone are the long tresses she had at back at graduation in ’07 — and her right leg is in a cast, a two-inch hole at her kneecap exposing a nasty open wound that goes straight to the bone. Around her throat, a large rainbow colored Band-Aid covers the remains of a months-old tracheostomy. It's all a little jarring, but as Judith likes to say, "Lindsay’s still Lindsay," and her particular brand of analysis, an endearing style of malapropism buried within declarative statement, has a way of putting people at ease, staring or not.

“Mom, what are those stages again?" she yells into the other room. The question hovers in the morning quiet.

“What stages, Lin?” Judith yells back from her bedroom.

"You know, those stages of grief,” says Lindsay, who is called Lu by good friends. She pauses to watch some baseball highlights on the television and then continues. “I read somewhere on the internet about these nine stages of grief. And I thought to myself, ‘I didn't have any of those. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized I had all of them. Just not in the right order." I’ve known Lindsay for exactly ten minutes and it’s the very first thing I scribble.

A few months back, a make-up artist I frequently bump into at weddings — I’m a photographer by profession— will ask me for a favor, to say a prayer for a friend's daughter, a young woman I’ve never met. That simple request has led me here, into this yellow living room in Richmond’s West End, watching Lindsay wait for her mother to dispense all those pills. Well, to be truthful, that simple request for a prayer and the fact that my weekends are sometimes filled with self-absorbed brides and grooms who complain about the size of shrimp and missed hair appointments, a fact which in turn usually causes my make-up friend Kim to stop applying lipstick, peer out over her glasses, and shoot me a look across the room that says they have no fucking idea. After months of these looks, of hearing about Lindsay's dire situation, I feel duty-bound to come to Richmond and seek out this Lindsay, the woman who thought she would be out of the hospital after her Friday surgery by Saturday, not December. What went wrong? Who's to blame? How does one cope? These are the things that race through your brain when you hear a story like hers, but it becomes quickly apparent that Lindsay Ess operates on her own schedule.

Just not in the right order. At twenty-six, it's not surprising that Lindsay might not have the famous Elisabeth Kübler-Ross model of loss and grief down pat. Published in 1969, fifteen years before she was even born, "On Death and Dying" is not exactly a book one reaches for before it comes in handy. For the record, it lays out only five stages, not Lindsay's nine: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and ccceptance, generally in that particular order, though the notion of having them in the wrong order seems far more fascinating. (After all, "Let's just get on with it," what Lindsay finally blurted out to the doctors before all four of her limbs were amputated, doesn't exactly qualify as a denial.) But on this particular morning, as Judith alternates between helping to wipe down the sores around her daughter's four residual limbs as well as being a catch-all for a host of complaints ("I don't want to wear your shoes. They look so old" and "Hello? I'd like to have normal toes"), you quickly realize that the name of one of those extra stages Lindsay added into the Kübler-Ross mix might as well be called Mother.

They are a pair, Lindsay and Judith, and in this case the word pair takes on a depth untested by the normal bounds of contentious (and comic) mother/daughter relationships. The second of two children (her brother Mehs, named for his grandfather, is eighteen months older) Lindsay Ess was born March 29, 1983. A year later, her father, Michael Ess, a jazz musician, left. Judith, who was working in the food business, moved Lindsay and Mehs north to Alexandria, Virginia and, seven years after that, to San Antonio, so the kids could be closer to their grandparents. After fulfilling a promise that they stay in Texas until after high school graduation, the family of three moved back to Richmond for good in 2000.

"She was the sweetest, most endearing child," Judith says of her daughter. "Everybody fell in love with her. Aronson thinks back to her own childhood. "I had the best mother in the world. A mother sacrifices everything for her child. That's just the way it is. It's your child. I don't know any other way of being."

Today's duty involves getting her daughter get ready today for occupational therapy and its readily apparent all the volleyball camps and tennis lessons in the world can't prepare you for Belts 101. Lindsay graduated with a fashion degree, after all, and fashion majors aren't exactly keen on being dressed by their moms. To watch them go back and forth over the tiniest of details — the length of her pants, the position of her belt, the best way to clip her hair, even the best route to take to the therapist — is an excruciating experience. After a while, you think, there has to be some boiling point for Judith, who complies with each ensuing request, but it never comes. Eventually she'll simply tell me, "She can't be the one driving," distilling the complicated issue into six simple words. But for now, Lindsay just stares into the mirror.

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