“Dedication”, an excerpt from “Memory Thief: A memoir”
For Antonia, For Uncle Joe, & for the Memory Thief
Let me talk about Antonia. She was more important to other people. She had a sister and a brother. Her mother and step-father. She had many many friends, spread out over the world. We corresponded maybe twice a year for the decade, after having spent a few years together at the start of our careers. In the same space at the same time for a short stretch. I was not part of her daily life and she was not part of mine.
News that she had aggressive cancer was a shock, part of a mass email. I wonder whether I just barely made the cut or whether I was somewhat in the middle of the pack. I certainly wouldn't be in the inner circle. I hadn't seen her since a conference, a few years before. We had walked in the snow, during a break, to find time for each other, just talking about where we had been going, mostly in career, a little bit of travel and what life was like. It was the last of a tradition of sorts, meeting at conferences. Maybe going to dinner. We had found time to go to dinner this time too, earlier in the conference. We went to another part of the city, where we knew we wouldn't run into the conference goers in our too small field. We went to a Thai place I think. And then the last time I saw her, in person, we walked in the snow. She told me it was ok to quit and I told her that I was done. She had been awarded tenure, but with scars. I had seen the truth that this wasn't what I wanted with my life. It was freezing cold, a Chicago cold heading to a record cold a few days later. Everyone stayed in the hotel. We didn't want to walk far, so we walked in circles on a side street. Alone but for each other and the building facades.
The last conference we had gone to dinner at a steak house. She told me about her trip to China, about the furniture she had brought back. She ate her meat rare. I wouldn't have expected that. She was so petite. We talked about my kids; I don't think we talked about her cats, but it is possible.
As I said, she was important to many more people in a much bigger way.
It is egotistical to focus on my memories of her. It feels like theft.
A friend said that something funny happens in your forties. You start to lose people. Just a small number, but it comes out of nowhere.
Antonia was like that. The email went out in October or something. She died in the Spring, with the flowers just coming back. It was the week I had reserved to visit her, because she could only have one person at a time and to limit her exposure to possible infection. I didn't buy the plane ticket in the end. I knew I wouldn't be making that trip and so I put off the purchase. I figured I would drive the 12 hours or so if necessary. Or I figured I would go and if she couldn't see me I would wave from the street. It didn't matter though. I never flew or drove up there. And then I should have gone to the memorial but I didn't. I don't know why. Busy with kids and family I suppose. I think the reasons for not going made a lot of sense.
The people who knew her better wrote up a notice, managed a memorial, set up a fund. Her mom emailed me while I was at the music school where my son takes violin. A narrow hallow in the back of a church, classrooms for Sunday school, hard wooden folding chairs to wait on. I cried later. My mom was there, the taxi service for her grandson from school to violin, and asked what was wrong. My friend died.
Something happens in your forties Jen said.
It's egotistical to make things about yourself.
About a year later my uncle was walking across a parking lot after playing the organ at church and he fell down dead to the pavement. I knew when my mom called and as soon as she said my name. I've heard my name in a thousand tones. This one only means that. Not communicating the how, but the fact of the it.
I have three uncles by blood, one on my dad's side, two on my mother's side. One of the joys of growing older is recognizing how much you are not like your own father but in fact like all the most admirable parts of your other relations. Uncle Joe was the oldest in my mom's family, like me — I'm the oldest. I'm the oldest of all my cousins, with decades down to the youngest ones. Elder child syndrome on the grand scale. And from the time I was little I felt the comparison to “Joey”, from my grandmom and my mom, without saying it in any explicit way. I have his clarinet. I had it restored and sent him pictures of it. He had studied to get a Ph.D. in an obscure musicological subject. I got a Ph.D. in an increasingly obscure corner of academia. He switched careers radically in middle age. So too I find myself at a crossroads. Quiet but not. Polymathic. Learn-ed (pronounced with two full syllables). Rarely slender. It all checks some boxes.
I don't like priests much, but the priest at the funeral almost had me believing in something. He said that Joe was a godly man and the lord took him without pain. Quick, no anticipation. After doing something he loved. I suppose I'm not like my uncle in that. He was a model of good Catholic boy even as a grown man, so far as I know. (But what do I really know about relatives I've known for my whole life but see rarely?) He played at church, he directed choirs, he worked through music. He said that he was playing more gigs as a lawyer than he had when he was a full-time musician. That was before the radical career change.
I've stayed stuck in my job too long. Maybe I'm a rule follower. I suppose I'm like my dad in important ways too. Dependable. Loyal. Committed.
He made time when we came through town to meet us at our hotel. he was working late and came out to see us at the hotel on the drive up that year. And then on the drive back down we went out to his house, outside the city. That was the last time I saw him, at his house, with my aunt and my cousins some 20+ years my junior (he married late), when we stopped by on the way back on our long drive.
I'm going to make everything about myself again.
I learned somewhere that talking about yourself isn't polite. It's an affront to others to put yourself first. I paid a lot of money to a nice man to help me think about that differently. And there are days when I think it worked. Actually there are a lot of days like that, which I'm thankful for. Contentment isn't really interesting though, is it, when compared to pain and suffering and drama. The everyday is sort of boring and ordinary, compared to the punctuation of new and shocking events.
You start to lose people, she said.
In a world where I'm at the center of all thought I can only be thankful for these lessons. I was in an abyss, which you can't understand if you haven't been there. The words don't do it justice — melancholia as they used to call it is at least poetic. But it is a void and a chasm— I think now of the opening of the Theogony, the chasm at the dawn of Hesiod's creation myth, as a deep tragedy. Not simply a space, but a darkness that buries you. I doubt the Greeks thought that way. But Hesiod is a much more exciting read if you read it this way. Otherwise it's just a list of names of gods and bullshit that no one cares about anymore.
The preacher might say something else. We get reminders, that life is precious and short and that we need to gaze out upon it in wonder and thankfulness. I can't claim to always hear them.
But I was talking about Antonia.
In another life, in my egotistical fantasy, we might have been more than friends. That's a thought that one keeps close. A hypothetical both impossible and unacted, scandalous and disrespectful. A different story. To utter it aloud is to betray.
Others knew her better. People wander at the edge of our lives and that is the way things are.
I miss Antonia, and Uncle Joe. And others to whom I am even more marginal. It is egotistical to think of myself. There are days when I'm scared and days where I'm complacent, but a lot when I'm simply grateful.
Something happens in your forties.
I'm grateful for these memories, thieved, that I hold for my very own.