Thursday, September 28, 2017

For Wayne and his Beth


Good grief: an oxymoron come to life
from pages drawn and quartered, inked and dyed,
where readers sought themselves and, laughing, sighed
as their frustrations, phobias, and strife
played out in miniature before their eyes.
Can grief be other than completely bad?
Can that which sears the heart from all it had
be partly good? There is no compromise.
There is,  however, one redeeming grace,
a balm to place upon the sorest spot,
one truth pain cannot weave into its knot.
When mourning comes, it stands upon this base:
Endearment is our bedrock, our relief.
Only those who love are granted grief.


Friday, September 15, 2017

Lee, part III

Luckily for me, Corinne Conti is a relatively unusual name. Had her name been something like Kathy Smith, a whole chapter would be missing from my story. I started with Googling, of course. I didn't have to do any more than that because Google brought a bunch of hits. One of them--for Blaine Conti--came with a phone number in Washington state. I figured Blaine might be Corinne's husband's name, but no. It was her name, her legal name.

I called, and she couldn't have been nicer. She sympathized with my plight. She hadn't been in contact with Lee for years, and she felt bad about that. Corinne had a young voice filled with warmth and enthusiasm, and I didn't realize until she told me that she was 85 years old. Her age, coupled with recent heart surgery, explained why she repeated questions several times. She suggested I contact the police and ask them to make a welfare check on Lee. I was reluctant to do this, knowing Lee's feelings about privacy. Corinne said she was quite familiar with Lee's feelings about privacy, and understood why I said I'd leave that option for last. But I realized the only address I had for Lee was a rented mailbox in a storefront. I asked Corinne if she knew Lee's physical address. No, but she knew the street Lee lived on. If only she could remember it.

A day or so later she did remember it, and called to tell me. With some creative Googling I got the name of another tenant in Lee's apartment building. A little more digging revealed that he worked in a restaurant--so one morning I called the restaurant. What a thoroughly nice guy! It turned out he no longer lived in Lee's building, but his brother did. He would ask his brother about Lee, and one of them would get back to me.

By this time my son had jokingly called me a stalker. It does make you think about how easily we (and our neighbors) can be found.

Lee's upstairs neighbor emailed me to say he and his wife had knocked on her door, but she didn't respond. However, he said another neighbor noticed Lee's car going out regularly. So she must still be working.  I felt enormous relief, as this was not the news I'd expected to hear. But after a few days the relief was tinged with hurt, puzzlement, and even a bit of anger. How could my dear friend, who knows me so well, who means so much to me and always said she felt the same, ignore my pleas and leave me hanging like this?

An answer--the only one I'm going to get--came weeks later, when Lee's therapist called to tell me she had died. She said as Lee's cancer had progressed and she had to quit her job she withdrew more and more, shunning contact with anyone. Her car had been used by the caretaker she'd hired.

I've always said if I were sick in the hospital I wouldn't want visitors other than my family. One might say Lee took this to extremes, but then her need for privacy was always somewhat beyond the norm. If we'd talked, we would have talked about her illness. We'd have had to. She was probably tired of talking about it, tired of thinking about it, tired of trying to accept the inevitable end. But would she not have drawn any comfort from me? Have I been through so much that I used up all my comfort on myself? I always made Lee laugh. Does that not count at some point? I hope not.

In the end, I was able to do one thing: I wrote Lee's obituary. I was glad no one else wanted to take it on because I wanted to do this for her, and I knew I could do it well. In the process, she and I connected with every word.

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

Lee, part II

I eventually located Lee, and left the phone message that made her cry. And then we picked up where we left off. There was some serious catching up to do. She had to absorb the news that my husband and daughter Gillian had died, and I learned about her bout with breast cancer.

We were no longer Manhattanites working in the rarefied atmosphere of Lincoln Center: Lee was a psych nurse in Alaska, and I was home in rural Pennsylvania. But our connection remained the same. We had much to share, much we needed to share. I changed my phone plan to give me unlimited minutes. We also emailed a lot.

As we got older, the topic of our health came up more frequently. We were both rather compulsive researchers, and learned quite a bit as we compared notes. We had our DNA tested at the same time. We got into genealogy and shared our discoveries. We read books together and discussed them.

Then Lee's cancer came back. That was scary, but it became less frightening as Lee's doctor assured her she could continue working and could even go to Europe, which she'd been thinking of doing. Soon after the diagnosis she had another scary experience: skidding on ice and crashing her pickup truck, totaling it. She bought a new Jeep, but after the accident she felt as though the other shoe was bound to drop.

In April 2016 she emailed that she was scheduled for another PET scan. She was depressed about that, but said Alaska was beautiful in spring and she hoped Mother Nature would work some magic on her. She ended the email with, "Thanks for hanging in with me.  You are always in my heart. Love, Lee."

I emailed back, and at some point called her as usual, and then called again. Emailed again. But she didn't return my calls, and the emails had stopped with that one in April. I persisted, asking--later begging--for even just a line to let me know she was all right. Nothing. This went on for months. At Christmas I sent her a card and a letter. As with other letters I'd mailed, they were not returned to me. I felt that was good. But Lee's mailing address was a UPS mailbox, and for all I knew they could have been throwing them out.

A few years earlier we had talked about the possibility of something happening--illness or death--and I said she knew how to get in touch with my kids, but I didn't have the name of anyone I could contact if I were worried about her. Lee said, "I guess you could call Corinne Conti." I wrote the name down on a Rolodex card. It felt like half ace in the hole, half last resort. But of course I had no idea who Corinne Conti was, or where she was.

To be continued (last time) . . .

Friday, June 09, 2017

Lee, part I

I still have her phone number on my night table. With a four-hour time difference between her home and mine, our conversations would often take place at my bedtime. I would have had more energy to talk at other times, would have been less brain-fogged, but I knew I'd get her voice mail.

At bedtime, I often got her voice mail anyway. I never knew if she was out or simply not answering the phone. Because we were such close friends, most of the time I assumed she was out. But it was never the safest assumption.

We met in our twenties, both living in Manhattan and working at one of the most glamorous music venues in the world. It's wonderful when you have a dream job and you're aware of it. I was aware. The atmosphere could be casual (I sometimes brought my dog to work) or beyond sophisticated. I took piano lessons in an office down the hall. My co-workers and I lunched at some of NYC's finest restaurants, and lunch almost always included scotch or a martini. I honestly don't know how we got any work done in the afternoon. Because this was the 1960's, many of the offices, mine included, were filled with cigarette smoke. We had free tickets to just about everything.

On our lunch hours, when we weren't eating and drinking, Lee and I would walk the streets (yes, in our heels), exploring little exotic shops. Sometimes we explored the building in which we worked. Thanks to a shared (if somewhat unbalanced) sense of adventure and my overdeveloped sense of mischief, we went places Lee wouldn't have gone on her own (and neither, perhaps, would I). I don't know if this was good or bad, but we had lots of memorable fun.

I was married and living in midtown. Lee was single and had her own apartment near our jobs. I took a bus to work, and one morning I got off a few blocks before my stop and dropped in on Lee. I knew she'd be just about ready to leave for work, and we could walk together. She was, and we did. But she was clearly thrown by my unexpected appearance, and asked me not to do it again. I would never have predicted that reaction. We were such close friends. Growing up in an apartment building where my best friends lived as well, I had never encountered an intensely private person, and I couldn't relate. I don't think I even heard the word territorial in those days. But I never dropped in on Lee again.

Lee's reaction was all the more surprising given her remarkable intuition and sensitivity in interpreting human behavior. She taught me more than I could ever write about here. Looking back, I was often more than a little dense in comparison. I remember my response when Lee said family patterns tend to repeat through generations: I thought that sounded silly. Silly me.

When Lee got married I was her matron of honor ("female witness" is more accurate), and shortly after that my husband and I left Manhattan and moved to New Jersey, then to our weekend house in Pennsylvania, then to a more permanent home in PA. Lee, whose marriage didn't last long, visited me in all these places before deciding to go back to school to become a nurse. After graduation, she began her journey west. We kept in touch while she worked in several states, but after she sent a post card from Alaska I stopped hearing from her.

"I cried when I heard your voice." Lee was talking about a message I left on her answering machine. By now it was years after she sent that post card, and months after I first started trying to find her. It wasn't easy, but I was like a dog with a bone. I missed my friend and wanted to know how she was. In the process, I found her ex-husband and called him. I scared the poor man, who figured if I was calling him it must be because Lee had died. But no, he didn't know where she was.

To be continued . . .