I saw the picture of M’s headstone posted on Facebook. A friend had been walking around the cemetery, saw her grave, and took the photograph. It was the first time I had seen her headstone in all these years, and it brought back many memories of that period more than twenty-five years ago.
One incident, in particular, had a tremendous impact on me. A couple of years after M’s death, her mother sent me a book of M’s short stories. She said M wanted me to have it. I was honored, of course, and surprised her mother would send them to me (literally out of the blue), but I wasn’t sure I was ready emotionally to delve into M’s stories. I guess I was sad enough about her passing; if there was a reason M wanted her mother to send the book to me, I didn’t think I was prepared to understand and accept what she had to say, especially about dying at the young age of 34, with a young husband who likely would remarry, and two little girls who would never remember their natural mother.
I knew M from high school (we were all in the same theatre clique and hung out together), and we maintained a close friendship throughout our college years and beyond. With M, this was easy to do and, when I started a small theatre company after college, M was one of the first persons I called. I often saw M and her husband at the restaurant I was managing and frequently talked with M’s parents when they too came in for dinner. Unfortunately, I had been gone from the area for several years and working for an avant-garde artist in New York City when M died. I learned of M’s passing when I returned home for the holidays; my oldest sister mentioned her funeral over dinner. When she realized I didn’t know about M, she said she was sorry to be the one to tell me and added, almost as an after thought, that it had been a really sad funeral. I remember thinking, I wish someone would have called me; I guess there’s a certain loss of connections with friends by not remaining in the area.
The last time I saw M, I was with my wife, and we were going into the local movie theatre at the same time she and her husband were coming out of the doors. She was wearing a scarf over her head and seemed heavily bundled. I focused the conversation on my leaving the area and how excited I was to be pursuing a life of theatre and writing. It was a short interaction with people trying to get around us, but she was thrilled for me and wished me the best of luck.
Several years later M’s book arrived on my doorstep. In a letter, M’s mother said she had heard I was out of the theatre business, but didn’t know how to find me. One night, by chance, she ran into my oldest sister at a social gathering; my sister told her I was now, in fact, a fundraiser. M’s mother wished me the best of luck, hoped I was still writing, and gave me M’s book as one of the remaining requests from her daughter.
I was overwhelmed by the gift, and, I must admit, the book sat on my desk for an awful long while, hidden in the manila envelope in which it had arrived and, in time, lost under other books and papers. Though I had opened the packet and knew the significance of what was inside, I felt like I needed to keep the whole thing at arm’s length, sheathed and buried. However, finally, I realized I wanted – no desired – to know what M had to say; I resolved I would read it when I was alone and had the time to reflect on what was written there.
Presently, my work required that I travel to California. On an overnight flight to San Francisco, in the darkness of the plane, with the overhead light beaming on M’s pages, I read the book from cover to cover. Most of the stories were written when M was in college and shortly thereafter, before she was diagnosed with cancer, though several were written more recently when she was a elementary school teacher, and one or two dealt with her realization of what was about to occur, given the prognosis. Most significantly, the stories were funny, and poignant, and full of life, and so sad at the same time, and, looking out the plane’s window down at the sparkling nightscape below, I finally mourned M, our youth, our dreams of being artists, and all that was lost to her and her family in her passing.
The gift of M’s stories was the reminder of who M was and how she viewed life, even in the acceptance of her imminent death. On the plane and, later, on the flight home, I wrote to M’s mother a long letter about each and every one of M’s stories and how insightful I thought they were, her happiness with her family, her love of her husband and her two daughters, and her strength in living with cancer. With the mailing of the letter several days later, my unhappiness (and anger) over M’s death, much of which I didn’t even know I harbored, came to a close. M’s mother wrote back several weeks later to thank me and to say she would save my letter for M’s daughters, as a testimonial to the author they never knew.
I heard from my oldest sister that M’s father died a few years later, M’s husband never remarried, and my sister still sees M’s mother from time to time with her two granddaughters, both of whom are fully grown with husbands and children of their own.
Funny, how the picture of M’s headstone brought back these memories. I haven’t thought of M and her short stories in years. M’s book is still in my possession; I have kept it in my trunk for safe keeping, along with my own stories of our lives back then.