Now that she’s gone, I’m looking for evidence that she was here: strings of text messages exchanged over long mornings watching Wimbledon or the US Open; blog comments and Facebook likes, photographs and emails. William Maxwell is quoted in Alec Wilkinson’s My Mentor as saying, after his wife’s death, “It’s the strangest thing. When I’m awake I keep asking myself, `Where’s Emmy?’ It’s not any particular kind of grieving; it’s just the mind trying to find her.” Which is, I would argue, a particular kind of grieving. Or a particular stage of it.
I found the last email Janet sent me. She resigned last year while I was on sabbatical, so one day I left work and I just never saw her again. We had a good friendship outside of work, but once she got sick, or whatever happened, she subtly and slowly cut most of us out of the daily workings of her life. That’s what makes this so hard, in a way, so difficult to comprehend. Just as there are different stages of grief, there are different stages of goneness, too. When I heard she had quit I reached out to her, and this was her reply. I was in Paris when I received it. We had recently connected via Facebook (I am not FB friends with anyone from work, so we had only just connected there). The subject line reads: Friends!
” … I could find neither the energy nor enough devotion to duty to tackle it all. So I bailed. I fled. I feel much better mentally now, not having anyone depend on me for anything.
“I am playing around with my art and relaxing and reading and loafing. It’s great. Your post on practicing sabbatical (a ‘ceasing’) was most timely for me. How to switch gears gracefully and with confidence. To also accommodate the nearly irrational need to ‘have something to show for it’. I’m still noodling all that over. I am not sure how it all shakes out. But I am also not crazy-worried about it.
“I am quite enjoying your blog postings and pictures. (The pictures are very pro!) Thank you for taking the time to do that. It sounds as if it’s been a satisfying experience for you so far. The group you’re with is lucky to have you.
“Love+kisses, your new Facebook Friend (!)”
Wilkinson quotes a long passage from Maxwell, in which he writes,
“I must have been thirteen or fourteen when I heard that Aunt Beth had cancer and was in the hospital. I felt I ought to go see her. I thought my mother would want me to. My Aunt Annette was in Florida and there was no one to enlighten me about what to expect. I went from room to room of the hospital, reading the cards on the doors and peering past the white cloth screens, and on the second floor, in the corridor, I ran into her. She was wearing a hospital gown and her hair was in two braids down her back. Her color was ashen. She saw me, but it was as if she were looking at somebody she had never seen before. Since then, I have watched beloved animals dying. The withdrawal, into some part of themselves that only they know about. It is, I think, not uncommon to any kind of living creature. A doctor passed, in a white coat, and she turned and called after him urgently. I skittered down the stairs and got on my bicycle and rode away from the hospital feeling that I had made a mistake. I had and I hadn’t. She was in no condition to receive visitors. But I had acquired an important item of knowledge – dying is something people have to live through, and while they are doing it, unless you are much closer to them than I was to her, you have little or no claim on them.”
I don’t know much about Janet’s final year. I wish I did. I invited her to our Christmas party and received regrets. I sent her a Christmas card. I texted her periodically and never heard back. I can’t say I forgot about her – just two weeks ago I was around the corner from her apartment buying t-shirts at the Gap. I thought about sending her a message and then decided not to. I didn’t want to bother her. She’d made it clear that things were different now, even if I could not understand why. And then last Thursday, and the news that she had died, and it all welled up: the questions, the insecurities, the doubts. What happened to her? Had I tried hard enough? Did she know I loved her?
At one point Maxwell wrote to Wilkinson’s father and said, “There is no adequate way to thank you. It isn’t even very sensible to try. I mean, you don’t thank people for being your friend, you thank God for your good fortune in having them as a friend.”