The issue of “priorities” is always a bit of a bear for me, but lately … Since May, I have lost two friends who were writers. When I say “lost,” I mean they died. They were both writers who left things unfinished. Not because they were careless in their work or undisciplined or anything else like that, but because their time here was cut tragically short. They both left behind unfinished projects they loved and longed to complete. They left behind goals they had not yet achieved. Is there a writer living who doesn’t have incomplete projects and goals? I don’t see how there could be, because writing is an ongoing process, just like living.
Importantly, here is what neither of them left behind: people in their respective lives who now are in some doubt about whether they were loved by one (or both) of these women. When it came to caring for their friends and their families, they left nothing unfinished. I want to tell you things about each of them, but I can’t bring myself to use their names simply because I cannot do either of them justice. I don’t want to disappoint the people who knew them, but I have to write something down about them. Something that must be shared. Forgive me in advance for all the ways this effort will be lacking.
I’m not going to go into how each of them died – the sheer unfairness of both their situations will overwhelm me, and I might spin off into a rant as I am wont to do. Made for cliché, right? “Life’s not fair.” Yes. Check. Knowing that life isn’t always fair, and being able to say those words out loud doesn’t make it easier to take. The phrase is a crutch for us when we don’t know what else to say. I don’t know what else to say about either of their deaths, and I refuse to resort to that phrase.
My two friends were the same in many ways, but also quite different. I don’t even know if they knew each other, but they had quite a few friends and acquaintances in common. One (let’s call her “L”) had golden hair that was always doing its own beautifully curly thing, and ice blue eyes that were like tractor beams. As soon as you made eye contact with her, you were caught – the proverbial deer in the headlights, lost in those bright, bright eyes. She was a humorist, and most of her writing was comedic. She didn’t just have “readings,” she performed her writing. She had a voice like butterscotch when she read or performed: deep, rich, authentically southern. Her comic timing was dead on. I could hear her tell the same story a dozen times, and laugh just as much the 12th time as I had the first. She won awards for her work. I can admit here that I have never been a bigger “fan” of one of my peers. Ah, my poet friends and other writing friends inspire me and push me and often (too often, I confess) make me envious of their talent, but I just wanted her autograph. I never asked for it, though. She would laugh hysterically if she knew I felt that way. Often, when she asked me for feedback, I’m sure she wanted to hit me. I was worthless. Her: Help me shorten this; it’s too long and there’s a time limit for this performance. Me: No! Don’t change it – I love it! It’s hilarious. Her: But it’s too long – I have to shorten it. There won’t be time to read the whole thing as written. Me: No, don’t change it. Her: It’s too long. Me: It’s perfect. I love it. Don’t change it. Her: (grrrrrrrrrrrrr). Believe me, that behavior is just not typical for me. I would take a red pen to William Faulkner given the chance – I’m not shy about suggesting changes, as my poetry group will tell you. She probably thought I was drunk, or had had a stroke, or something. She definitely thought I was useless as an editor. The portion of her writing that wasn’t funny (that she shared with me) was poignant, sometimes haunting, so wise, and it revealed the depths of this true seeker and accomplished (if often anonymous) philanthropist. Quite simply, it was the kind of writing that would have made me envious if I hadn’t been such a big fan. “L” was completely human in her writing, which means that even the funny stuff evoked empathy, because her characters were real, not cartoons. Likewise, her more serious writing often included just enough of a smile to ease the pain. She believed laughter heals, but she didn’t use it to cover up sadness and hurt. Laughter just makes what you must bear more bearable. “L” left us with many stories and memories that will always make us laugh, and that is a fine thing because her absence is almost unbearable for many who knew her. Remember: “L” is for laughing.
My other friend (I’ll call her “S”) was someone with whom I was better acquainted 15 or so years ago than when she passed. We had lost regular contact even though we lived in close proximity to one another. There was no falling out – she had 3 children, I had one, she achieved an M.F.A., I was in hermit mode writing, she was in hermit mode writing, I fell off the map, she went to work outside the home, etc. Who she was when I first met her is who she always was on those warm occasions our paths did cross, and who she always will be to me: an auburn-haired beauty with deep, deep brown eyes, and a big, bright, indefatigable smile; a woman who somehow achieved that peace they talk about, the one that surpasses all understanding. When I met her, “S” was the PR person at a local independent bookstore (remember those?). After the tragedy at Columbine High School, I got this idea that the world, especially the young world needed more poetry, more outlets for self-expression, so I convinced good friend and fellow poet Ann Campanella to help me run a student “contest,” though it was more celebration than contest. “S” the P.R. person, helped publicize the contest and take care of all the logistics that Ann and I hadn’t considered (which was basically ALL of them). She persuaded the owners of the bookstore (though it didn’t take much to persuade them, community-minded folks that they were) to host a reading featuring some of these young poets. Each year the contest ran, the readers came from everywhere, and it was one of the most special times in my writing life. I’m embarrassed to say I cannot remember how many years we sponsored that contest/celebration, but I can recall its biggest fan was definitely “S.” Even when my enthusiasm would flag because of other pressures, “S” was there to make it happen, to reassure me, to hold my hand, to be the voice of calm and hope and encouragement, to make me believe again that what we were doing did matter, and it mattered more than we realized, because – and she seemed very comfortable with this notion – we don’t always get to see the fruits of our labors. My friend Ann, whose work on the project was tireless and careful, always has had a calming influence on the neurotic me, but “S” could help even Ann get more centered if my “crazy” was starting to rub off on her. It was amazing! “S” got us help or was the help when we needed it, and she expanded the circle of respected writers who participated, finding judges who were willing to lend their good names to our efforts. Ann and I once joked, “If you have an idea about a project, don’t tell ‘S’ unless you’re 100% sure you want to do it! She can make any crazy thing you come up with happen!” Her dedication to our small endeavor was unbelievable; Ann and I agree that she was our angel in that undertaking. She was capable, calm, and unflappable, with a sly and often self-deprecating sense of humor. Recently, Ann and I were both humbled and touched to learn that “S” had found meaning and solace in some of our respective writing in the months before her death. For myself, I was surprised, even though “S” had tried to teach me many years ago about the unknown and unknowable fruits of one’s labor. “S” is for serenity.
Both “L” and “S” loved with their whole selves and unconditionally. Take that in for a breath before you read on. No one living within their respective circles has a scintilla of doubt about how much they were truly loved by “L” or by “S.” Quite an achievement, I think, for two people whose time here, as I said, was cut tragically short. How did they do it, I wonder. How were they able to love so many so fully? Yeah, I know how sappy that sounds, but don’t cue the harp music. These women were real – they were sharp, and witty, and funny, and strong. You have no idea how strong. They were also unreal – so gentle and patient. Giving. Sensitive. Soft touches. Both spent a tremendous amount of time and energy caring for others simply because that is who they both were. They were good women. Yes, they were good writers, too, but they were good women above all. There is an old saying that goes, “She’s too mean to die.” Its corollary is, “She was too good for this world.” These two women were just exactly the kind of people this earth desperately needs: creative spirits who heal and teach and lead and touch; those rare individuals who make you feel better about things through the power of some mystery I have yet to work out.
Reflecting on these two losses leaves me “knowing” very little, but one thing I do know with certainty: if I die in my sleep tonight, I will leave a great deal more that is unfinished than either “L” or “S” left. Yes, and some unfinished writing too …