Last night I dreamed of an old black and white photograph, dozens of faces frozen in happy concentration and animated talk. The people were seated in bleachers, spectators at a grass-court tennis match circa 1940s.
The image must have been what dream experts call day residue; it was a near-copy of a scene from Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, a fascinating film I watched again a few days ago.
But in my dream, the amiably sinister face of movie killer Robert Walker was replaced by the smiling countenance of a childhood chum. There she was, Jody DeYoung, looking out at me as plain and pure as if time had not happened to either of us, and especially not to her.
My mother sent an article about Jody from the hometown paper a few months back, and in that picture her face looked much as it had in our high school yearbook.
She had died of cancer, the article said, and there followed the usual scattered distillation of one human life: She had been an accomplished swimmer and triathlete; she vacationed in Colorado and loved to ski Crested Butte; she was survived by a husband and children and parents.
I knew nothing of this. Jody and I had been casual friends and volleyball teammates, and that slim association now 25 years past.
Although her teenage face – handsome and open – came back to me clearly, I remembered little of her: only that she was good-natured and gregarious, one of those rare kids who moved effortlessly between cliques as if the high school caste system that made many of us miserable did not exist.
Yet that seems to me even now a remarkable accomplishment, a reflection of some inherent graciousness that likely endured for all of her 42 years. So I am sorry she is dead, that that piece of goodness has gone missing from the planet, that mortality was so strict with her.
I’ve yet to make peace with the truth of all flesh that long endures: No sooner do we finish growing up than we start to break down. In the end, we are joined with all creation in the act of dying, the most solitary task of an often lonely life. In the meantime, we are separated by little more than how we arrive at that end: how long it takes, what road we travel, what contagion or calamity distinguishes our finish.
I wonder, sometimes, how we go on. And so it was, on a recent cold and blustery Saturday, that I picked up a slender book called My Cat Saved My Life.
The author is Canadian composer Phillip Schreibman, who writes of the leaden depression that weighted him after watching each of his parents – wonderful people, loved by many – die painful, protracted deaths within six years of one another.
Schreibman’s account of how a tattered, starving kitten named Alice cracked open his darkness contains no pat answers; it’s just, in his words, “a small story in the stories of the world.”
The man paid attention to the animal and she taught him what he needed to know: that the job of all living creatures is to experience creation, to receive its signal like some sensate radio.
That’s it: Be here until you’re not.
But there is another difficult death in this story, a “death of a great soul” in cat clothing. And again, Schreibman is cast into the perilous province of survivors. Which is all of us still alive, trying to remember what we have been given by those now dead, and trembling, in our forgetfulness, over how we will possibly navigate the dark distance from this moment to that of our own mortality.
The composer intends to follow the instruction of a cat, and of the Talmud: You are not expected to finish the work. Neither may you desist from it.
You could do worse, I think, for a map to an unknowable destination. You could do worse.
The text of this piece appeared in its original form in The Denver Post on Nov. 11, 2000.