By Francine Mathews
April is the cruelest month, T.S. Eliot assures us, but March can be pretty lousy, too. I feel April’s pain on the fifteenth each year, but I spend laborious hours all March assembling the information for my tax accountant to deliver his terrible news. I realize this falls into the category of First World Problems–and that if I only kept up with my Quicken entries all year long it’d be a snap to do–but hey, I have a lot on my hands. Books to read, books to write, clothes to wash and children to send off to college. And then there’s the loss of people I love. That seems to happen with brutal frequency in the month of March. My mother, for example, died on the fifteenth–the Ides of March–and so did my uncle, several years before her. It is a date rife with foreboding for me as well as Caesar.
Hence today’s Meditation, which purports to be about Death and Taxes. I confess right now that the title is a bait and switch–I intend to talk solely about Death.
I lost a good friend a few weeks ago. I will call her simply My Friend, out of respect for her privacy and that of her family. Hers was a death foretold–whose, really is not?–but it crept up on all of us who loved her. A bout of indigestion at a July 4th barbecue, diagnosed twelve hours later as Stage 3 pancreatic cancer. She lived eight months after Independence Day and spent most of it exploring what she called “a better dying.” As she had taught all of us for years how to live a better life, I wanted to learn from her in this as in everything. But the apprenticeship came to end early one Saturday morning. Yesterday, hundreds of us gathered in an intimate and lovely old Episcopalian church to weep as a soprano sang “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.”
Bear with me. I need to tell you about My Friend. It will help me come to terms, a little, with her absence, and perhaps a little with my own life. It may even help you to come to terms with yours.
When I first walked into her house years ago I was startled by the existence of a woman drunk on words. I had heard from a mutual acquaintance that My Friend was an aspiring writer; it was the proximate reason for us to meet. But the truth is, aspiration had nothing to do with it. My Friend lived in a sea of words, ran her fingers through them like a bowl full of jelly beans, caught them on her tongue like fresh snowflakes. She painted quotations from Ecclesiastes on the risers of her stairs. Her comfortable porch cushions were covered with hand-lettered phrases (my favorite: “Bunter, Launch the Lagonda!” from a TV production of Peter Wimsey.) And her remarkable walled garden was lined with massive zinc panels, hand-painted with stanzas from Andrew Marvell’s 17th-century poem, “The Garden.” I called these the Stations of Eden because the poetry led you through the various beds and garden rooms My Friend had formed with her own hands. The entire back terrace of raised beds and iron sculptures was paved in herringbone brick–and I say herringbone, because it requires involvement and thought. My Friend loved the pattern. But to achieve it, each brick had to be hand-cut at a correct mitered angle. So My Friend bought a brick saw. She measured and cut every brick before laying each of them in the earth. A quarter-acre of art, rugs and patterns and paths of brick, woven among the flowers and the Andrew Marvell:
She wrote poetry her whole life long as a way of processing the oddities and emotions and gifts of life; she embraced everyone she met; and never did I hear her say a negative thing about another human being. Her novel, unpublished, is a work of art.
And now my bitter confession: I wasted the time I had with her. Being a busy person, as she was herself, I found many reasons to put off our meetings. I would think in my mind: I must see My Friend again soon. I must walk the dog with her. Drop her a note. Push open her picket fence gate and walk up her stone steps to sit on her vine-covered porch and talk a while.
I never did it enough, and now I can never do it enough again.
In the months following her diagnosis, we struggled against the inevitable and our own inability to change the outcome. We traded spurious good news and clutched at straws. When you feel powerless, you look around for something to do. Another friend organized a cooking schedule. We all signed up. In the months remaining to My Friend’s life, I needed this more than anything–the dates on the calendar that said I could spend the day in my kitchen, making soup. Making dinner for My Friend’s family. Of course she was a marvelous cook herself and a great gatherer of love around her table, and so dropping containers of steaming pasta and polenta and curry and beef ragu on that front porch was all each of us who loved her could do to feel better about ourselves. Less lonely. Less out of time.
Ten days before she died, My Friend sent us all Valentines that she and her husband had hand-drawn and written to each other, with phrases of her most beloved poet, Walt Whitman.
Then with the knowledge of death as walking on one side of me, And the thought of death close-walking the other side of me, And I in the middle as with companions, and as holding the hands of companions, I fled forth to the hiding receiving night that talks not.
When she was truly gone, those of us she left behind appeared out of the woodwork to help her daughter, who is in large measure My Friend still walking on this Earth, to move tables in from the brick terrace that was waking in Spring, from the porch where she will never sit again, now, propped up by those cushions with words. We scrubbed the tables and moved chairs and swept floors and threw open french doors to sunlight and March wind. We held her dog close when he whined. We arranged flowers. It was necessary to me in particular to buy a lot of flowers (see picture at the head of this post, from my kitchen a few days ago), and leave them in bowls scattered around the house. So that when everyone assembled to love all that remains of My Friend, the Garden was there, too.
I have tried to absorb the lessons of A Better Dying these past few days as I have walked on from My Friend’s picket gate and the people she has left at the foot of Marvell’s tree. In order to have A Better Dying, I need to live a Better Life. Be curious and embracing of everyone I meet. Take time to measure and cut, as things ought to be measured and cut. Be drunk on words. Serve love every night and morning at my table, even if I’m the only one eating there.
I leave you with one of My Friend’s final poems.