Posts Tagged ‘death’

One evening this week, unable to sleep and thinking of my friend Peter Greer, who was dying, I went downstairs to find a book. I pulled down the two volume collection of Meditations, selected pieces from among those given on Thursday mornings in the church on the campus of Phillips Exeter Academy by faculty or by senior students. Peter gave several over the course of his teaching career, and some of those are in these books. Opening the first volume, I saw the dedication page to James Valhouli, an English teacher who died in my first winter at the school. I had not known him, and I was still getting my bearings in that sometimes intimidating and austere place when he fell through the ice on the Exeter River and drowned. It was terrible, and bewildering, but not personal. All I knew of him were a few stories, a black and white photo, and a favorite poem. The vivid details of his death were more real to me than he was, and when I think of him, it’s only as I cross that same river.

The dedication page of the second volume bears the name of another English teacher, Rex McGuinn, who died while out for a run four years after I graduated. I had one class with him, and when I heard of his death, I conjured all the memories I had–an impressive mustache, a soft, Southern lilt, generosity and kindness toward my own poor attempts at writing the required poems for his class. We read Blake, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and once we went to his house, and I was still young enough for this to strike me as strange and unsettling, a vestige of the childish belief that teachers live at school. In any case, I knew him, though we never became friends or kept in touch.

Peter’s name, I’m sure, will appear on some dedication page somewhere, likely many. He was popular, beloved, one, I’m sure, of the most heavily visited faculty members when reunion weekends rolled around. When he was my teacher, he did his best to draw me out of my muteness in class. When we met in conferences over my writing, he encouraged me, prodded me, challenged me. Chronically low on self esteem, I was flattered but suspicious of his praise. In my four years at school, I never really overcame the muteness in class. When the course was over, the depth of my shyness kept me from ever speaking to him or dropping by to visit. 

In my senior year, Peter’s wife, Anja, also a teacher at Exeter, died of cancer. In the weeks leading up to her death, I kept a secret vigil. A day student, I commuted to campus each day, and in the evenings, I would take a detour to drive past their big house halfway between the school and home. There was nothing to it but driving by, slowing just slightly, and looking to see which windows were lighted. I had never been inside, and I didn’t know the layout of the rooms, but I came to believe that one upstairs window, which was always illuminated, must have been where she was. I drove past every night, and thought of them in there. I told no one about this habit.

After Anja died, I wrote Peter a note. Then, I could not conceive of calling him anything but Mr. Greer, and so I addressed it that way. I drew a little sketch of a Northern Redbud tree, painstakingly coloring hundreds of the tiny pink buds, and included a few short, self-conscious lines expressing the inadequacy of my words. Less than a week later, he was back on campus, and all of us, awkward teenagers anyway, suffered the additional faltering awkwardness of trying to speak with a man whose wife had just died. Mercifully, I have no memory of what I said. But I have kept a journal since I was eight years old, and in an entry from April 27, 1998, I wrote, “I was sitting in the hall by the English classrooms when Mr. Greer came by. I saw the four, neat white teeth of his smile and he crouched in front of me and said, ‘I know I’ve already told you this, but that note was really wonderful. I just keep showing it to everyone. You said in it ‘I don’t expect that my little words would make a difference,’ but I want you to know, it did make a great deal of difference,’ and he laid his palm briefly on my knee.”

compbookMy last month and a half at Exeter were consumed by boyfriend musings and trysts, tormented decisions about college, and feckless participation in track meets. I circled around Peter, watching him, noting how he seemed, what he said, surreptitiously watching him clean out Anja’s classroom, walking down the hallway with a potted fern in each hand. I recorded my dreams in my journal too. In many, I was being chased. In one, I was crossing a river on a bridge of rotted planks, each one inscribed with a name and a death date. After my graduation, Peter and I settled into a semi-regular exchange of notes and emails. He prodded me to call him Peter, I resisted, and we settled on “Peter Mr. Greer” or PMG, for short. The aimless summer between graduation and when I went off to college, I rode my bike past his house often. Unmoored in my freshman year at UMass, his notes held me to my own center. I found my place gradually, and still we kept in touch, and I finally was able to call him just plain Peter. He came to our wedding. He wrote congratulations on my first child, my second. He made a good marriage; he got his diagnosis. He and Dale lived snugly in their fine little house with their fine little garden. They traveled; they stayed home. Looking through our notes now, I marvel at their frankness. He had once said he and I had a certain diffidence in common. It seemed we were able to write each other so freely because of, not in spite of it. Both of us were capable of being lively, gregarious in conversation, yet both of us often felt an urge to travel through a crowd with our heads down, unnoticed, even by friends.

In my last note to him, I wrote in thanks. Over the years of our friendship and our correspondence, he had shown me how to be a teacher, a friend, a bird watcher, a reader, how to be contentedly married. While I was a student at Exeter, I gradually came into my gifts, helped by several marvelous teachers. David Weber, Ralph Sneeden, Harvey Knowles–with their encouragement, I gained in confidence, and began to think of myself, hesitantly, shyly, as a writer. But my skill in writing remained, to me, abstract and with a shallow purpose, like a parlor trick I could trot out to distract or dazzle. Writing to Peter, and being written to by him, was my first education in what my writing could do for someone. I looked at the effect my words had wrought on a friend and my own understanding of my gift was changed utterly. Exeter taught me to write for the sheer aesthetic pleasure of it, the keenness of expression, revising for meaning and expression and tone. All of that is technique, and without technique, the meaning will be muddy, or lost entirely. But Peter taught me about the meaning itself.

After a shaky fall of feeling lost in the crowds at a big state school, I was beginning to regain my footing. In the winter of my first year at UMass, I made this entry on the last page of my journal,

“I emailed Mr. Greer tonight, nervously and carefully composing a two paragraph note. He inhabits such a strange place in my heart, at some great depth there. I miss him, and I worry about him, but I don’t know how to tell him any of it. He spoke to that same thing when he wrote to me, saying he knows what I mean; the current underneath my words is what I send him, and he hears it, and I gratefully continue writing.”

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Arrivals and departures

My small pond has been going through freeze thaw cycles for the past two weeks. November weather turns freezing one day and rises to 60 the next. In this shoulder season, things creep up on a person.

Spring is different. Spring is full of conspicuous firsts. One night, you open the window to listen for wood frogs and hear nothing. The next night, they’re raising a cacophony of quacking. You never notice the last night they sing though. One night, some days or weeks later, you remember that you haven’t heard the wood frogs in a few days.

The first phoebe of spring swoops in and lands on the clothesline outside the window one day and holds itself bolt upright, abrupt and jarring after a phoebe-less winter. When they go in fall, I couldn’t say which day I last saw one teetering on the top of the dogwood shrub.

IMG_5094In early fall, I’m susceptible to a kind of sentimental farewell to these creatures. I watch the old snake with his scarred tail wind himself under the rock by the pond and think, “This might be the last time I see this snake until spring.” But then a warm day follows a few cold ones and I see the snake again, and don’t bother to mark it much at all. “You again,” I take to muttering. But the snake’s out of sight for good now, and he’s an old snake, so it may be, truly, that I have seen him for the last time and I don’t even remember the day.

A month or so ago, I ran into a friend of mine at a coffee shop. He’s had an indolent, waxing and waning cancer for years now, but his kind of cancer generally does end in a terminal crisis. When I hugged him, I laid my cheek against his cheek and it felt cool. His hair was gone. We had only a moment to speak, and he murmured that he was undergoing a new treatment, and with a jolt, I felt certain that he was dying now. I meant to write him a note right after, and kept moving the reminder to do so from week to week in my calendar without ever doing it. Waiting to find the right stationery, I told myself. I could search my whole life long and never find the right stationery for this purpose.

Today, I found out that he’s gone home for hospice, and I dashed off a different version of the letter I meant to write, my hands trembling in a sudden panic that it would not get to him in time.

I hope to see him at least one more time, though I wrestle with the cowardice most of us feel, facing the death of a friend. Balancing his privacy, and his family’s need for time with him, with the knowledge that he would want to see his friends too. Not knowing, of course, what to say, but knowing at the same time that that doesn’t matter all that much. I don’t have any grand farewell speech planned, of course, and I won’t be with him right at the last either. But I won’t lose track of whatever time there is left the way I do the phoebes, the wood frogs, or the snake. If I am fortunate enough to see him again, once or twice, maybe, I know that when I rise to take my leave, each leavetaking will be freighted with the knowledge that it will likely be the last.

We see things differently when we think it’s for the last time, though we may not say things differently. A meeting in a coffee shop, a meeting by a bedside, either way, “It was good to see you, goodbye,” I say. It’s a mercy and a burden to know that this time, it’s for keeps.

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