It is never easy to find the right words for the death of a friend — making sense of it to oneself or to others seems equally difficult. But such a loss presents a peculiar difficulty at midlife. It is not the tragedy that comes with the death of a child or even a young adult on the cusp of grown-up life. These are lives cut down unacceptably early, heartbreaks that reside in their own universe of senselessness.
Nor is it the culmination of a life well-lived of someone in their 90s; such passings, though cause for grief and mourning, nonetheless conform to the inevitable cycle of human life.
But the death of someone in her mid-50s summons a different, and complicated, sorrow. And can raise questions about how to grieve for a person who has not yet been able to fully savor her age and appreciate its rewards, whether those have to do with family, kids and grandkids, a culmination of professional achievements or some other, personal accomplishment.
If it is impossible to clearly assess such a life halted in midstream, what one can do is look at disparate moments. And what I found when I was recently put in this position after the death of a high school friend is that those moments, when added up and viewed as a whole, created a sudden, bright portrait I had not known was there.
Kate had been an accomplished jeweler and an exceptional sailor who spent much of her adult life on the Maine coast. An early marriage was long behind her, health problems had plagued her, and the more recent years had been tough on her. Still, when she died of a heart attack, it was a shock to everyone who knew her.
I saw Kate the year before her death, but I had not been a big presence in her life. It is a regret that will stay with me. All the more essential, then, to pay proper tribute. So when her sister asked me to speak at the memorial service, I agreed instantly. But I was at first flummoxed, bewildered, clueless and speechless. Where would I find the words that could give any kind of meaning to a life that ended midway so abruptly and unexpectedly?
So I gave myself clear instructions: Be direct, be brief, be personal, be intuitive. Then just see what happens. I have always believed in the transformative power of language. Sometimes you have to work hard to find the right words; other times, they seem to find you on their own. And sometimes both these things happen. But however you come upon them, the correct words can put things right in unexpected ways.
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How to Summarize a Life
I revisited our teenage years and let the archive of memories set loose its images. We had met as 15-year-olds at a fussy New England prep school. It was the kind of school that students brought horses to, and certainly students were not permitted to have cars. But Kate brought a black Corvair, then the most dangerous car on the road, and found a woman off campus who would rent her garage space.
Kate’s fearlessness was just as impressive in the classroom, where she’d silently stare down a despotic art teacher who belittled her work. But if she had nerve, it was undercut with humor. With her husky, deep-throated laugh, she was always the first to acknowledge the absurdity of curfews and hemline requirements. Archaic dining room etiquette, like the astonishing demand that one use a fork and knife to eat a banana, elicited from her a particular glee, not to mention obscene pantomimes.
Reviewing our teenage bond made it clear to me that these same qualities have served as a benchmark for friendship in my adult life. I had not fully understood this before, and it was a gift to learn that I value, indeed search out, in my friends now the ability to know when silence is required; humor at human pretension; fearless individualism.
I found a way to say all this at the service, recalling the car, the art teacher, the dining room charades. And noting, too, the fact that sometimes, despite the way we hope our friends bring out the best in us, they can also bring out a more negative quality, namely a kind of greed. Sometimes we are drawn to people because we find in them traits that we know we are missing ourselves; sometimes we imagine that sheer human proximity will be a way for us to acquire these qualities.
Then I read a poem by Mary Oliver, whose work often combines a celebration of nature with an elegiac quality. Grounded firmly in the natural world with real, tactile images, Oliver’s poems are nonetheless subtle, evocative, evanescent.
In the week before the service, I had looked at many of Oliver’s poems, finally settling on “Wild Geese.” The poem asks, “Tell me about despair, yours,” then observes that the world goes on, that “the sun and clear pebbles of the rain are moving across the landscapes” and the wild geese are heading home.
I felt certain Kate would have appreciated the poem’s brevity and understatement; and the quiet rhythm of the lines, the image of flight, the formation arcing across the sky all seemed appropriate for the final departure of a friend.
Which brings us to the “see what happens” part.
Finding a Person's Essence
After the service, I approached the minister, a lovely woman who had known Kate and who had spoken eloquently about her work as a metalsmith, her appreciation and use of rare gems and her ability to hammer rough metals into something polished and fine. I wanted to acknowledge the minister’s fluency, her sensitivity and her kindness. She was someone who knew better than most, and had shown us all, how the right words can work toward healing and unifying. And, as it turns out, how they can be transcendent.
I thanked the minister, and she smiled and said, “You know we were on the same page, don’t you?” I had no idea what she was referring to and looked at her with curiosity. She told me then that before the service, relatives had gathered for a private ceremony in the cemetery to inter Kate’s ashes in the family plot there. “Afterward,” she said, “I read a poem. The one I chose was ‘Wild Geese.’”
It’s hard not to read all manners of meaning into such a coincidence; certainly it was easy for my mind to stray to occult interpretations of such an unlikely concurrence. But what I understood best when we two strangers settled on the same poem to eulogize our common friend was how Kate’s persona had been imprinted on us both clearly and indelibly. If trying to assess her life had at first seemed an exercise in obscurity, the sublime accident spelled out to me that her spirit and character had all the clarity of chevron flight in the autumn sky.
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