I got kicked in the stomach by a book last Wednesday.
I’ve been reading Against Wind and Tide: Letters and Journals, 1947-1986 by Anne Morrow Lindbergh off and on for the last month. Reading this book has felt like coming home to me like no other new book in my memory. I started reading Anne’s letters and diaries when I was 17, and was struck by how fully she was able to explore her faults, her joys, the world around her, by writing. No writer in the world makes me want to set the book aside and write like Anne does. No writer I recall looks at herself with the same warts-and-all attitude.
So it shouldn’t have surprised me when I picked up Against Wind and Tide on Wednesday night and read:
“Looking back now, one can see her life in more proportion. The dimension death gives is not a phrase. One suddenly sees people’s lives in better proportion, not as a flower growing upward toward the final bloom of those last days; more like the length and breadth of a tree that has been felled. One sees it all of a piece: the continuous grain of the wood. The last days, the final illness (whether of days, months, or years, as it was with her) is seen in undue proportion until death gives life its perspective.”
Wednesday morning we woke to a text message: our friends’ grandma had passed away. June had been unwell for some time — she’d had Alzheimer’s and other health issues — but as everyone always says, nothing prepares you for that actual moment when someone is gone.
We’d never known June at the top of her game, unfortunately. We laughed and played along a year or two ago when she introduced us to her grandson and his wife (who we’ve known since 2007). We oohed and ahhed over the gorgeous red-headed baby she was holding but whose mother she couldn’t find. But we knew her as well as we could — we knew she was a firecracker.
That night, as I was mourning June’s loss, Anne came along again and, in her reaction to the death of her mother-in-law, gave me perspective. Illness absorbs the end of life in many cases — it obscures the person inside — it turns them to a diagnosis or a life expectancy — but death allows us to regain the perspective. Illness is only a small part of the story.
As we gathered for June’s wake and funeral, I listened to family and friends bring June back to life through their stories. The tree of her life stretched long, past the halls of the funeral home or the church or the straight lines of white tombstones at the cemetery. All through their stories, she traveled and danced and defended her grandkids and called the White House weekly to complain while her son was in Vietnam.
On the way home from the cemetery, I realized that I was mourning now, in part, for myself: I would never know this spirited and lively woman as her family had. I had missed her.
One of the many, many remembrances of Nora Ephron I read this week echoed the same idea: while these dynamic and interesting people are alive, we hold out hope that one day we can get to know them, that one day we’ll be invited to a Nora Ephron book party or similar. When they die, we’ve lost our chance, and it makes their death all that much harder to take.
Nora left her movies and essays. Anne left her letters and diaries. June left her amazing family, this wonderful loving clutch of people who have made me and Mike and Erin feel like one of them. We feel her love through them. And we will get to know her more the best we can through them.
One writes not to be read but to breathe…one writes to think, to pray, to analyze. One writes to clear one’s mind, to dissipate one’s fears, to face one’s doubts, to look at one’s mistakes–in order to retrieve them. One writes to capture and crystallize one’s joy, but also to disperse one’s gloom. Like prayer–you go to it in sorrow more than joy, for help, a road back to ‘grace’.
— Anne Morrow Lindbergh (War Within and Without: Diaries and Letters of Anne Morrow Lindbergh, 1939-1944)