Thursday, October 11, 2007

Sweet Old World (Lucinda Williams)

I don't really know how to start this story... but I know altogether too well how it ends - two years ago today, one of my very best friends killed herself...

I met R in college, although I can't even recall the particulars - one day she was a stranger to me and the next I couldn't imagine life without her. She was brilliant and joyful and compassionate - we ended up working together (at the boutique where I bought my wedding dress), she as manager and me as her assistant. There were busy times but we had just as many slow moments, and it was only natural to share our past stories, give advice on present relationships and look toward the future - turned out we were both English majors. She was from a very small town in Georgia and had been dating someone very well-to-do from South Carolina -he taught her many things about culture and society... and she in turn gave him adoration. We never thought they'd actually end up together because his mother was so disapproving of him settling "beneath" their family status - to this day, I believe he proposed to get back at the matriarch. [ He remained critical and penny-pinching and philandering throughout their marriage - I rarely speak ill of anyone, and it was hard for me to watch my friend allow herself to be mistreated for decades. ]

I went to her wedding and she came to mine - there were many women late- or non-drivers in my family and I vowed not to follow the pattern. R taught me, at the age of 23, how to feel comfortable behind the wheel of a car... never minding that we sometimes only went in circles in a parking lot for hours - when I finally got my license, I gave her all the credit...

They moved back to South Carolina and we continued to stay in touch - my daughter Sarah and her daughter K are three months apart... and there is six months difference between my son Robby and her daughter A. I also hold her responsible (in a good way, Martha) for talking me through the first few months of my third pregnancy, when it was most definitely not in the plans. I've said before that Eric is a chosen child - R was as much a mom to him as she could be without actually giving birth... :-)

She and her family, due to her husband's relocation, moved around a good bit, as did we - I still have boxes of letters she wrote to me when we lived in Puerto Rico for 4 1/2 years, complete with book and music reviews from magazines she'd include. My photo albums are filled with pictures of us comparing pregnant bellies... cookiemaking days... zoo or duck-feeding at the lake excursions - we'd threatened to blackmail our children with the countless bathtub pictures, five of them squished in like little fishes. R was a lifeline to sanity during a very stressful time for me - I know I also provided that for her on many occasions...

We both loved music and one of my favorite memories is returning from a friend's party with her, both of us nine sheets to the wind, and sitting in her car in the driveway, belting out Van Morrison's Into the Mystic at the top of our lungs, complete with the horn solos - she also loved shag/beach music and every time I hear something from that genre, her face appears before me...

She gifted my kids with so many classic children's books over the years, all inscribed most thoughtfully and lovingly - we've always read her copy of The Polar Express each Christmas Eve, even now when mine are all grown up. She called me every birthday - I reciprocated. She connected with Edna St. Vincent Millay (the poem below was her favorite) and I actually found an album of ESVM reading her own work and gave it to R for her birthday that year - she continued to call it her best present ever...

Throughout their moves, R continued in a mom/housewife role, but when they moved back to South Carolina, she was finally able to pursue her own dream of returning to school to get her Masters in Library Science, eventually becoming an elementary school librarian and then working into the position of county-wide coordinator - she changed so many lives, as I read in all the testimonials posted after her death. No surprise there - I knew her when...

Unfortunately, we had lost touch for a few years when her family moved to Korea - I finally caught up with her, by Instant Message, a month after her February birthday and we had a delightfully long chat. Life again intervened and the following December (2005), I got a phone call from one of her dear friends in South Carolina, telling me of R's death - her SOB of a husband hadn't bothered to contact me and I was indebted J took the time and energy to track me down, albeit belatedly. I sent R's husband and daughters a sympathy card, enclosing a long letter detailing how and why she meant so much to me - I never heard back from him...

I was devastated then and I am to this day - it seems a waste that a woman with such generosity and gentility and joie de vivre could willingly remove herself from this earth. I knew she was in pain - I always hoped she would continue to work through it. I've heard it said that suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem - I'll guiltily berate myself for not being closer emotionally, even though the geographic hurdles were daunting. Desite my anger and confusion and hurt, I forgive her - I know in my heart R felt that was the only way out...

POEM(S): The Investigation by Jeffrey Harrison

There were some things I would never know —
I realized that, but I wanted to understand
as much as I could before I let it go.

I couldn't stop making phone calls to Chicago —
to his doctor, his insurance agent, his doorman;
the coroner, who told me more than I wanted to know;

to his psychiatrist, who made a show
of sympathy and dismissed out of hand
my speculations — but I wouldn't let them go.

The detective sounded weary, which was no
surprise: it was 2 a.m. He patiently explained
what he could, then sighed, "You'll never really know."

I weighed the possibilities, made lists, wrote memos
to myself: was it spontaneous or planned —
and for how long? I couldn't let it go.

I kept calling my brother and sister to let them know
what I had figured out. Each time they listened
but then told me what I had always known:
we would never understand. I had to let it go.

Renascence by Edna St. Vincent Millay

All I could see from where I stood
Was three long mountains and a wood;
I turned and looked another way,
And saw three islands in a bay.
So with my eyes I traced the line
Of the horizon, thin and fine,
Straight around till I was come
Back to where I'd started from;
And all I saw from where I stood
Was three long mountains and a wood.
Over these things I could not see;
These were the things that bounded me;
And I could touch them with my hand,
Almost, I thought, from where I stand.
And all at once things seemed so small
My breath came short, and scarce at all.
But, sure, the sky is big, I said;
Miles and miles above my head;
So here upon my back I'll lie
And look my fill into the sky.
And so I looked, and, after all,
The sky was not so very tall.
The sky, I said, must somewhere stop,
And -- sure enough! -- I see the top!
The sky, I thought, is not so grand;
I 'most could touch it with my hand!
And reaching up my hand to try,
I screamed to feel it touch the sky.
I screamed, and -- lo! -- Infinity
Came down and settled over me;
Forced back my scream into my chest,
Bent back my arm upon my breast,
And, pressing of the Undefined
The definition on my mind,
Held up before my eyes a glass
Through which my shrinking sight did pass
Until it seemed I must behold
Immensity made manifold;
Whispered to me a word whose sound
Deafened the air for worlds around,
And brought unmuffled to my ears
The gossiping of friendly spheres,
The creaking of the tented sky,
The ticking of Eternity.
I saw and heard, and knew at last
The How and Why of all things, past,
And present, and forevermore.
The Universe, cleft to the core
Lay open to my probing sense
That, sick'ning, I would fain pluck thence
But could not, -- nay! But needs must suck
At the great wound, and could not pluck
My lips away till I had drawn
All venom out. -- Ah, fearful pawn!
For my omniscience paid I toll
In infinite remorse of soul.
All sin was of my sinning, all
Atoning mine, and mine the gall
Of all regret. Mine was the weight
Of every brooded wrong, the hate
That stood behind each envious thrust,
Mine every greed, mine every lust.
And all the while for every grief,
Each suffering, I craved relief
With individual desire, --
Craved all in vain! And felt fierce fire
About a thousand people crawl;
Perished with each, -- then mourned for all!
A man was starving in Capri;
He moved his eyes and looked at me;
I felt his gaze, I heard his moan,
And knew his hunger as my own.
I saw at sea a great fog bank
Between two ships that struck and sank;
A thousand screams the heavens smote;
And every scream tore through my throat.
No hurt I did not feel, no death
That was not mine; mine each last breath
That, crying, met an answering cry
From the compassion that was I.
All suffering mine, and mine its rod;
Mine, pity like the pity of God
Ah, awful weight! Infinity
Pressed down upon the finite Me!
My anguished spirit, like a bird,
Beating against my lips I heard;
Yet lay the weight so close about
There was no room for it without.
And so beneath the weight lay I
And suffered death, but could not die.

Long had I lain thus, craving death,
When quietly the earth beneath
Gave way, and inch by inch, so great
At last had grown the crushing weight,
Into the earth I sank till I
Full six feet under ground did lie,
And sank no more, -- there is no weight
Can follow here, however great.
From off my breast I felt it roll,
And as it went my tortured soul
Burst forth and fled in such a gust
That all about me swirled the dust.

Deep in the earth I rested now;
Cool is its hand upon the brow
And soft its breast beneath the head
Of one who is so gladly dead.
And all at once, and over all
The pitying rain began to fall;
I lay and heard each pattering hoof
Upon my lowly, thatched roof,
And seemed to love the sound far more
Than ever I had done before.
For rain it hath a friendly sound
To one who's six feet underground;
And scarce the friendly voice or face:
A grave is such a quiet place.

The rain, I said, is kind to come
And speak to me in my new home.
I would I were alive again
To kiss the fingers of the rain,
To drink into my eyes the shine
Of every slanting silver line,
To catch the freshened, fragrant breeze
From drenched and dripping apple-trees.
For soon the shower will be done,
And then the broad face of the sun
Will laugh above the rain-soaked earth
Until the world with answering mirth
Shakes joyously, and each round drop
Rolls, twinkling, from its grass-blade top.
How can I bear it; buried here,
While overhead the sky grows clear
And blue again after the storm?
O, multi-colored, multiform,
Beloved beauty over me,
That I shall never, never see
Again! Spring-silver, autumn-gold,
That I shall never more behold!
Sleeping your myriad magics through,
Close-sepulchred away from you!
O God, I cried, give me new birth,
And put me back upon the earth!
Upset each cloud's gigantic gourd
And let the heavy rain, down-poured
In one big torrent, set me free,
Washing my grave away from me!

I ceased; and through the breathless hush
That answered me, the far-off rush
Of herald wings came whispering
Like music down the vibrant string
Of my ascending prayer, and -- crash!
Before the wild wind's whistling lash
The startled storm-clouds reared on high
And plunged in terror down the sky,
And the big rain in one black wave
Fell from the sky and struck my grave.
I know not how such things can be;
I only know there came to me
A fragrance such as never clings
To aught save happy living things;
A sound as of some joyous elf
Singing sweet songs to please himself,
And, through and over everything,
A sense of glad awakening.
The grass, a-tiptoe at my ear,
Whispering to me I could hear;
I felt the rain's cool finger-tips
Brushed tenderly across my lips,
Laid gently on my sealed sight,
And all at once the heavy night
Fell from my eyes and I could see, --
A drenched and dripping apple-tree,
A last long line of silver rain,
A sky grown clear and blue again.
And as I looked a quickening gust
Of wind blew up to me and thrust
Into my face a miracle
Of orchard-breath, and with the smell, --
I know not how such things can be! --
I breathed my soul back into me.
Ah! Up then from the ground sprang I
And hailed the earth with such a cry
As is not heard save from a man
Who has been dead, and lives again.
About the trees my arms I wound;
Like one gone mad I hugged the ground;
I raised my quivering arms on high;
I laughed and laughed into the sky,
Till at my throat a strangling sob
Caught fiercely, and a great heart-throb
Sent instant tears into my eyes;
O God, I cried, no dark disguise
Can e'er hereafter hide from me
Thy radiant identity!
Thou canst not move across the grass
But my quick eyes will see Thee pass,
Nor speak, however silently,
But my hushed voice will answer Thee.
I know the path that tells Thy way
Through the cool eve of every day;
God, I can push the grass apart
And lay my finger on Thy heart!

The world stands out on either side
No wider than the heart is wide;
Above the world is stretched the sky, --
No higher than the soul is high.
The heart can push the sea and land
Farther away on either hand;
The soul can split the sky in two,
And let the face of God shine through.
But East and West will pinch the heart
That can not keep them pushed apart;
And he whose soul is flat -- the sky
Will cave in on him by and by.

QUOTE: "We live our lives, do whatever we do, and then we sleep. It's as simple and ordinary as that. A few jump out windows, or drown themselves, or take pills; more die by accident; and most of us are slowly devoured by some disease, or, if we're very fortunate, by time itself. There's just this for consolation: an hour here or there when our lives seem, against all odds & expectations, to burst open & give us everything we've ever imagined, though everyone but children (and perhaps even they) know these hours will inevitably be followed by others, far darker and more difficult. Still, we cherish the city, the morning, we hope, more than anything for more. Heaven only knows why we love it so... There she is with another hour before her." ~ Michael Cunningham


  1. Susan, I am so terribly sorry...I'm not sure if you shared the news of R's death but I do remember you speaking of condolences are with you as you again mourn her loss, and honor her life.

  2. Hey, M ~

    Thanks, as always, for your reassuring words - it's been a tough week, as all this has surfaced once again... but it's also been very cathartic to get it out of my head and heart and onto "paper"...

    Sarah and I were going through a box of books last night (Keep or Donate?) and ran across a few R had gifted and inscribed - more weepiness... and of course they went into the Save pile for Sarah to pass on to her children, one of these days... =*)