Goodbye, Dear Friend

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Last weekend, I went to Brooklyn to celebrate the life of my friend and mentor, Jane.  An inevitable fact of aging is those I love, who are older than I, sometimes die.  Jane died too soon, and I was glad her service was a few months after her death to give me some time to compose myself. 


On the July morning that Maggie called me to tell me Jane had died, torrential rains beat on the roof. I was numb, rattling around our big house in Eagles Mere like a ball bearing without destination.  Our son had an orthodontist appointment down the mountain.  Determined not to let the lozenge of my grief keep me from my routine, I got into the car with him , but as I navigated each familiar curve of our descent, tears began to leak from my eyes.  I swiped at them with the back of one hand, worried I would scare my son.  I felt the urge to howl, primal, at the injustice of losing Jane.  The orthodontist swiftly fixed the broken wire, and Atticus and I drove into Williamsport to Otto’s, my favorite independent bookstore.


Atticus treated me gently, as if I were a glass ornament. At the counter, I smiled damply at the woman and forged ahead.


“My friend died,” I announced, “and she always recommended books to me.  I need the titles she would recommend.”


The lady looked at me as if I had escaped from an asylum.  She smiled warily.


“I need your best first-run fiction,” I blundered on, tears spilling again.  “I need the best recent titles you have.”


Jane, you see, had always recommended titles. We both devoured books for pleasure, writing back and forth to each other. Every month or so, her email was full of suggestions, “Ansy, you simply must read Pachinko….” And I did. What would I do without her?

My friend, Alisa, a salesperson I’ve come to know over the years, came into the front of the store. Her kind eyes made my tears flow faster.  I blurted out my sad news again, and she glided to the shelves, plucking one hardback after the other.  No questions, just the meeting of my urgent need.  I stood next to her, holding the books, as if, in their weight, I could weight Jane, herself, to the earth.  We left with a shopping bag full of books:  Harry’s Trees, Asymetry, which I had sent to Jane a few days before; the new Charles Frazer, Southernmost, and Mrs. Osmond and Homegoing, both of which Jane had recommended in the spring.  I held the heavy bag, amulet against loss. 


So it was a good thing to have a few months between that day and the Saturday celebration about ten days ago.  I went to Jane and Thor’s house in August to say goodbye to the place where I imagine them together, to walk in their small garden, a garden full of flowers and herbs and rocket arugla that Jane smuggled into the country from Sicily.  For years, she gave me cuttings from her garden to root in Eagles Mere; some years they flourished; other years, they perished.  I saw, that summer afternoon in the garden, the Chapin English department, my dear colleagues of twenty years.  We often traveled to 12 Second Place for parties in the early summer, Jane and Thor entertaining us with sumptuous food and sparkling conversation.  I was paying homage, standing in that garden, to all of us, to the decades that we had spent together.


In the chapel at Packer-Collegiate School, I was overwhelmed by the Tiffany glass windows, by the presence of former students and colleagues, feelings coursing through me so fast, I could neither name or track them


But at the end, after all the tributes and the hugs and the exquisite cheese and crackers, I left lighter, as if Jane, in her death, had wrapped me in a web of love—all those people from my own past, from Jane’s life, gathered to remember her, to remind us of her care. And, when I arrived home, my stack of new books from Otto’s were waiting in the dining room where I had piled them in August.  I am ready to read them now.