Correspondence

I’m going to write my friend a letter
On paper, with ink
Indelible which means

It could last forever
Folded in thirds and stored in the pages of a favorite book
He might show his children my letter

I’ll tell him how I’m feeling
In ways that will stand the test of time
However long that is

I can’t change my mind tomorrow
If my letter is already in flight, a wing on soft paper
Like in the old days, blue tissue folded in on itself

It feels serious, this letter writing
Weighty
Like I better mean what I say

Sallie’s Funeral

I went to Sallie’s funeral today.

It was in a very old Episcopal church downtown, the kind where you need to leave your coat on because the heat, what there is of it, will rise to the very top of the vaulted ceiling and leave you there like you are sitting on a park bench.

The hymnals were from 1984 which is fine, really, because how many hymns change? Hymnals are timeless, I guess, it’s only the bindings and the pages that wear out. I didn’t sing from the hymnal but I held it open against my chest, held it close to me as if it was very dear.

The man at the door handed out programs along with a small card with a picture of my friend as she looked recently – 84 years old – long white hair pulled back – and the slightest of smiles like she’d just gotten done shaking her head about something – the border, the war in Syria, homelessness. On the back was a photo of her as a beautiful young woman wearing a dancing outfit with a lot of flounce and fluff. She could sew, Sallie could, and I bet she made that outfit.

Two pews ahead of me was a young woman holding a baby. The baby was a little girl, maybe six or seven months old, and she peered over her mom’s shoulder at me and other folks and you could feel the pings of envy from everyone – wishing they had a baby or were still a baby. She had bright blue eyes and a soft open mouth that sometimes looked smiling. She grabbed the gray hair of the woman next to her whom I figured to be her grandmother mostly because of her indulgence and lack of aggravation like she had waited years to have that tiny hand pull her hair.

Sallie would have been pleased that a baby was the focus of my attention. She would have liked the other babies letting out accidental yells; she would have enjoyed the squirming of toddlers, the dad standing up to hold his one-year old daughter dressed in a fancy white dress with what we used to call crinolines underneath, she looked like a doll from the Civil War she was that grand. All of it -the jostling and moving about -Sallie would shake her head and smile and then move the chairs back so the babies could have the center of the room.

I used to spend time with Sallie but that was long ago. I sat in her kitchen many times while she cooked and talked about revolution. For a time, I picked her up before dawn to stand against anti-abortion protesters bused in from out of town to harass local clinics. I remember standing with her one morning, our arms linked with others in a long line with a protester just a few feet away yelling, “Baby killers!” at us and Sallie, looking him right in the eye and saying, “Why don’t you just shut up?” I loved her for that and for standing for choice even though she would never, ever make that choice herself. She just believed in people’s freedom was all.

Sallie and I weren’t close but we had shared history, too complicated to explain, so it was important to me that she died, that she wouldn’t be on the earth anymore. That she was gone made me think about everything while I watched the baby and I was filled with sadness and melancholy about my entire life. The people I know are dying. And the relentlessness of age and passing made me want to zip my coat up and go outside in the driving rain. The wind nearly turned my umbrella inside out.

New Girl Aboard

Two nights ago I had a dream about being on a ship that was sinking. I was in the ship’s movie theater, sitting in a velvet seat, watching I don’t remember what, and the ship’s sirens went off (I’ve never heard a ship’s sirens but imagined them to be much like the sirens in the Poseidon) and then worried I’d have to be like Shelly Winters and swim underwater for painfully long minutes and finally expire from a heart attack before sinking with the ship and resting forever at the bottom of the sea, the film slowly unraveling from the reel floating nearby.

I’m going on a cruise tomorrow. It’s my first one.

I have questions:

  1. Why don’t people wear life preservers all the time on a cruise? If we were on a speedboat in Lake Insignificant, we would be suited up. Safety first!
  2. What is the deal with spouses mysteriously falling overboard? I’m not with my spouse so no worries about me in particular. But is it that easy to just fall off the boat? That’s concerning.
  3. Will I have the guts to fight for a seat on the lifeboat? What if I have to elbow a young mother with a babe in arms? Do I have it in me?
  4. Could there be a mutiny?

I’m not anxious, I’m just asking.

My friend got a free cruise for two and invited me to come along. I’m not keen on the idea of going on a cruise, mostly because of the problem of not being able to get off if I don’t like it. It’s like going on an endless plane ride. You’re in the tube, you have to stay in the tube.

I like traveling in a car or, better yet, a truck. You can stop and go. It’s hard to fall out. There are air bags. And scarcity is not an issue. There are always more seats in our truck than there are passengers. Thank heaven.

But I want to do it. I want to be a cruiser. I want to wear a big hat and sit in a deck chair reading a novel. Swim in a pool on a big boat in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico. Walk the deck in the moonlight and see the ship’s lights shining on the water. I want to eat and talk and laugh with my old friend. And celebrate having this time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Photo by Linval Ebanks on Unsplash

The Tiny Bird in the Bush

To get out of the sun while waiting for my husband to buy our baseball tickets, I sit on the curb in the shade of a very large bush. The Arizona sun is glaring and hot, even this early in the spring, and, after just 24 hours in Phoenix, I’m not used to it. My sensibilities are still tuned to Wisconsin, where March is cloudy and windy, rain seemingly always on the way.

A heavy-set older woman wearing khaki shorts and a plaid shirt and holding two bottles of beer approaches the bush, saying “I don’t see it, I don’t see it.” Her friend, a thinner woman in white pants and a San Diego Padres t-shirt nods. Both circle the bush, cocking their heads. “I don’t see it either,” the friend says.

I figure there is a rare bird they have sighted and that it is hidden somewhere in the thicket. It must be a very tiny bird. I see nothing moving. I start thinking I should move. Maybe where I am sitting is blocking their search so I try to catch the eye of the woman with the plaid shirt. “We put a bracelet for our friend in there but now it’s gone.”

“It was there last year but I don’t see it. Do you see any beads or anything in the dirt?”the second woman asks. They keep circling. I wonder why they put a bracelet in the bush but then it occurs to me. I bet their friend died and the bracelet was a memorial to her. Maybe they came to Padres games together, drank beer, and laughed in the hot Phoenix sun.

I decide to get up and cross the street to the ticket window. The thinner woman says to her friend, “We should just buy a new bracelet. Let’s buy a new one and put it in the bush.” They nod to each other, still studying the bush as if the bracelet will materialize any moment. “Yeah. Let’s just get a new one.”

I hope they do. I hope they get a new bracelet for their friend and I hope it’s tiny like a bird no one else can see. I hope it builds a nest and stays put forever.

 

___________

Photo: Bonnie Kittle

 

Book Mark

When my friends’ son died by suicide, I bought them a book.

I can remember standing in a bookstore near the San Diego harbor, pulling book after book off the shelf, looking for just the right one that would speak to my friends’ terrible grief. Then I decided to mail it to them, somehow thinking that whatever insight that was offered in the book simply couldn’t wait for me to return to Milwaukee to give it to them in person. I wrote a weepy note which I tucked inside the cover and sent it off.

The topic of the book was how to manage grief. My sense at the time was that if they read the book, they would feel better. Thinking back, my naivete seems unbelievable, like a 5-year old with a bunch of dandelions showing up at a crash scene to comfort the survivors.

When I saw my friends a few weeks later at a memorial service for their son, I stood in line with many others to give my condolences. When I reached my friends, they both looked so bereft, so torn, that I put my hands on their faces, first one and then the other, almost pushing back their hair like they were children. I wanted to mother them. I wanted to console them. But there would be no consoling. Neither my grief instruction manual nor my physical presence could pull the knife out of their hearts by a single inch.

So I steered clear for a long time. Their grief seemed monumental. Out of my league. I told myself, you have no business butting in on their grieving. You don’t know what you’re doing. You did enough. Sending that silly book.

Then another friend lost her son to suicide.There is no comparing one to the other. Each is horrifying in its own way as only suicide can be. The shock, the suddenness of going from a normal life to one where every moment and every word are questioned, piled on top of what might be called ‘normal grief,’ that seems to be the essence of suicide.

I was out of town when this friend’s son’s funeral was held. I sent messages to her on Facebook and email and then, not being able to stand having done nothing, I took her a book and a candle. This time the book wasn’t an instruction manual on how to handle grief, or maybe it was. It was Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, Wild, that traces her coming to terms with her mother’s death as she hiked the Pacific Crest Trail. A few years later, my friend would post on Facebook that she’d had a Little Free Library built in her son’s name and my book was one of the first on its shelves. I don’t know if she ever read it. She had at least handled it. I’d told her I loved the book and I gave it to her. So there was that. It was not nothing as we used to say but it wasn’t much. She had better friends, I thought, even though I had known her a very long time. I knew she had better friends so I stepped back.

Then, unbelievably, another friend’s son died by suicide. This one was hard. The distant waves of grief I’d experienced with the other two now lapped at my feet. This one felt close for many reasons. So I sat down and wrote a poem. In the poem, I tried to speak to my friend’s grief, speak to my friend. I tried to be wise. I tried to rise above, not realizing until much later that the perspective I needed to gain was my own.

In the months since that time, I reach out, as she calls it. Thanks for the reach-out, she says. That’s all I do. She has better friends. I know that to be true. But I keep on, sending messages every now and then if only to tell her that her grief lives over here with me, too, for reasons I can’t explain to her or myself. So that’s what I do. It’s what finally feels right to do. Not to presume, not to intrude, but not to forget either, not to go on as if nothing happened. So I send my messages and we go back and forth and it feels right.  But still I felt the need to buy her a book. I bought her Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, and I bought a new copy for myself because, you know, I had given my copy away to someone else.

_________

Photo: Syd Wachs, Upsplash

Old Friends

Some things people say turn out to be true.

Forty years ago, my friend shouted out to me from her office, “Don’t you think we’ll know each other forever?”

It was said like confetti, a joyful thought thrown into the air, and it rained down on me like luck itself. I was a single parent, a graduate student, struggling with money, struggling with academics, wearing my turtleneck sweaters and acting the part. I didn’t have friends. I had problems as friends.

“Don’t you think we’ll know each other forever?” That seemed unlikely, improbable. She was smarter, at ease, good at things, good at laughing and making people comfortable. She was at home in her own skin; I wanted to leave mine on the coat rack by the door and become someone else. Maybe her.

Sometimes, later in my life, when I had to do scary things like talk in front of a big group, I would pretend to be her. She doesn’t know this. I never told her.

So, today, we sat in a restaurant and we talked for a good long time. It has been many years since we’ve spent much time together. But right away, listening to her talk, watching her hands move the same way through the air, hearing the long, intricate stories and her laugh at the punchlines, I remembered her shouting out to me, “Don’t you think we’ll know each other forever?”

Who knew that would be true? She did, I guess.

 

 

The Lasting Memory of Exclusion

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The sting is at once startling and searing.

At first, you think. this isn’t what’s happening. You’re misinterpreting what you see. And then it hits you. You’re being purposely excluded. Those girls  are crossing the street to avoid you. You think you’re imagining something but you know you’re not. It’s real.

It happened to me in high school. When I went to California for a two week visit, I had a best friend, the same best friend I’d had for years. When I came home, she had left me. She said I was ‘different’ but never explained what that meant. I puzzled over this and thought it might be true. The trip was the first time I’d flown anywhere and I went by myself, hunched in the window seat, face up against the glass the entire way. I’d never seen things from that high up. In L.A, my sister handed me the keys to her car and went to her job at the Gas Company. “Don’t get lost!” she laughed over her shoulder, assuming I could find my way on the web of L.A. freeways. She and I talked long into the night, about our lives, about our parents. We talked as equals, as kin. Adults. Coming home, I felt bigger, not small anymore, not as young. So maybe my best friend was right. I was different.

When I came back to school, I saw right away that she had been brought into the hive of the best girls. At first, I thought it was temporary, like something happening just today. But the next day was more of the hive and the hive started to travel – up and down the halls, to the lunchroom, then the parking lot and the stands at the football game. I waited for her to motion for me to join the hive, part walls so I could step in, tell the best girls I was one of them. But she didn’t do that. Instead, every now and then, she’d glance back at me, sometimes another girl would, too, and they’d both look like it was a delicious feeling to be in the hive and to see other girls’ yearning. I’ll never forget that look or the yearning.

It was two boys who rescued me. One had a car and the other was his sidekick. We rode around town after school telling jokes and arguing about politics.They didn’t know about the hive, they’d never seen it. It didn’t exist in their world and so I envied them.

Eventually, my former best friend and I became friends again. But it was a distant relationship, formal almost. She had taken part in excluding me, she’d looked back at me from the hive. That razor slit of insult and rejection; it was tiny like the old time smallpox vaccinations, a little X on my arm. It probably would have healed with time but I wouldn’t let it. It’s still there fifty years later.