Every decade or so, when my plastic-covered address book — the old-fashioned kind with tabs for each letter of the alphabet — begins to fall apart, I buy a new one and begin transferring names. Not just the names of the living who are still part of my life, but the names of the dead I love. It is a small demurring, a silent protest. A refusal to cooperate.
I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned
With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.*
In the real world, my friend Lisa died of mesothelioma — or the aggressive chemo, or some combination — in 2008, when she was 51. She loved tequila and cats — not in that order — threw warm and wild parties and adopted my dog when I moved away to grad school and a big-city apartment.
Lisa was secretly softhearted, appealingly snarky and endlessly creative, a graphic designer whose eclectic tastes turned her Victorian home into an attractive hodgepodge of antiques and whimsical art. I knew her first as a newsroom colleague who shared my passion for good journalism, later as a friend of the heart.
In the world of my address book, Lisa still lives on South Vincent Avenue in Minneapolis, where I can call her anytime.
Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.
Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.
A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,
A formula, a phrase remains, — but the best is lost.
In the real world, my Uncle Wayne died of cancer a couple of months before Lisa did, at home with the family who wished and wished he had been given more than 71 years.
He was quiet and soft-spoken, which made his wickedly dry sense of humor surprising and delightful. A skilled craftsman with an eye for beauty, he built an elegant gazebo for my Aunt Judy, the best friend to whom he was married for 49 years. They shared a love for each other, their daughters and grandchildren, but also for nature — for the plants and the trees and the animals — tending those varied lives with care and appreciation.
In the real world, my Aunt Judy does this alone now. But in the world of my address book, my Uncle Wayne still lives and loves with her in the home they built on a red brick street in a little central Illinois town, and I can visit them anytime.
The answer quick and keen, the honest look, the laughter, the love, —
They are gone. They are gone to feed the roses. Elegant and curled
Is the blossom. Fragrant is the blossom. I know. But I do not approve.
More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world.
In the real world, my one-time love Roberta died of cancer 27 years ago, when she was 40. People were drawn to her beauty and brains, but they stayed for her kindness. Roberta saw the broken places in others and loved them well, with a kind of unfettered joy that disoriented and delighted my cautious heart.
Long ago — 30 summers now — we pulled off the interstate on the way to one of the holistic treatments she tried first. Pulled off on the shoulder, stepped out of my little truck, and danced slow and close in the sun-parched grass along that hurried highway to the song in the tape player. Because the music was beautiful and we loved each other, but also because of a subtle dissonance, an undertone that whispered what we knew and wished we didn’t: that the sweetness of that moment would pass, and all too soon.
Even in her last months — after the chemo had taken her thick hair, after a metastasis had disabled her right arm, when I could smell the cancer and feel its heat, feel its fierce growth beneath her delicate skin — even then, she radiated a kind of light, a quiet courage that never faltered. And when she felt well enough, she would walk to a local bakery for cookies — the good kind, warm and soft and sweet — and stand on a street corner to hand them to people who looked as if they needed just that type of cookie.
And that’s where Roberta still is, in the world of my address book: in that Seattle neighborhood with the little bakery. She is well and ever beautiful. And I can fly out to see her anytime, and we can hand out cookies to people who aren’t as happy as we are. Roberta, happy because she understood life and love and, ultimately, how to let go. Me, happy because we’re together, and I can dance with her again.
Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.
*Italicized excerpts comprise Dirge Without Music, by Edna St. Vincent Millay
**Peace of Mind, by Richard Schonherz and Peter Scott; what we danced to that day