I turn in to the driveway that leads to 1810 Cedar Street and it hits me. I’ve navigated this stretch before—on New Year’s Eve and prom night, to attend lavish pool parties and join middle school study sessions—but this time, it’s different.
The massive trees that guard the entrance to the property are still standing. The nine-thousand-square-foot Southern mansion up ahead is just as imposing as I remember. But the young woman standing in the doorway, my oldest childhood friend, has changed since the last time I saw her, when we headed back to college for the beginning of sophomore year a few months earlier, her to Cornell, me to N.C. State.
The Caitlin Atwater I’d known before had a certain glow. She was put together and upbeat. Her blonde hair was vibrant. She’d welcome you with a smile and a quip. But today she’s run-down. Caitlin was always slender, but she seems to have lost weight. Her eyes reveal that she’s been crying, that she hasn’t slept in days.
Of course she hasn’t.
Her mother, Kathleen Peterson, a Nortel Networks vice president, had died a few days earlier, on December 9, 2001, the victim of bizarre accident, a fall down the stairs. Or so she believes. This is Caitlin’s first day back at her Durham home since a sorority sister delivered the news. She doesn’t want to be alone.
Inside, the Peterson house doesn’t feel the same. There’s no hint of the Christmas to come, of the special batch of shortbread cookies dusted with powdered sugar Kathleen made every year. We don’t talk much as we pass the grand staircase located just inside the front door. An eerie silence now pervades a house that, with three girls and two extroverted adults living there, had always been abuzz.
When we make our way down the long hardwood hallway that leads to the kitchen, past the spot where her mother had taken her last breath, Caitlin keeps her head down. She doesn’t break down when we pass the boarded-up entrance to a staircase we used to flock to as kids (we were fascinated by the handicap seat that ran along the railing), even though she knows that, beyond the plywood, Kathleen’s blood still coats the walls.
In the kitchen, she pours us a glass of sweet white wine. The counters are covered in a hodgepodge of liquor and wine bottles, casseroles, cards, flowers, and other items brought by friends and family members. Caitlin’s mother wouldn’t have permitted such disorder in her kitchen. Cooking was cathartic for her. This sort of chaos wouldn’t have made sense.
Before we drink, something else strikes me. Caitlin is the kind of person who, like her mother, always makes a toast—to love or life or health or friends. But today our glasses stay silent, like she’s waiting for Kathleen. We spend the next several hours sitting at a breakfast table near the fireplace, telling stories and shedding tears.
It doesn’t seem real. Not to me. Certainly not to her.