Barking Kitten

Fiction, musings on literature, food writing, and the occasional Friday cat blog. For lovers of serious literature, cooking, and eating.


Close to forty. Not cool. Politically left. Atheist. Happily married. No kids.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Elegy for an anonymous friend

The following essay is creative nonfiction: Identifying characteristics and events have been altered to protect people's privacy. I am reporting what remember, but all of this happened a long time ago, and memory, as we all know, is imperfect.

I am publishing this as one long blog. Breaking it up into dickensian installments seems a disservice to those in question.

Elegy for an anonymous friend

You died early and in summer.
--Tess Gallagher, from the poem “Sixteenth Anniversary”

I started writing a story about someone else. After 100 pages I realized I was writing about you. Okay, I thought, I’ll write about you. But the narrative failed. The characters were lifeless, the sentences collapsed. Instead, this. When there is so much I cannot say. There are people out there in the world, a very few left now, who must be considered. People who have suffered enough.

I was not there for your final sickness and dying. I was only there before, when you were well, then a bit in the initial stages of your illness. I did not understand what I was seeing. I do now.

In life we did not get along until you fell ill: the sarcastic armor you adorned yourself with fell away. Maybe you were too weak to carry it, or realized it put off the people you needed so desperately. Sickness made you kind.

You’ve been dead six years this month. I know neither the exact date of your death nor the circumstances.

Well. I know you were in a nursing home, and that you were forty-five years old. We are—were—a decade apart. I did not learn of your death until a year later, in roundabout circumstances. I wept but could not explain to my husband. There are vast expanses of my childhood I cannot explain to him.

The tray, for instance.

I’d brought my husband breakfast in bed, as I often do on weekends. I used the brown plastic tray, which my mother had somehow inherited, then given to me.

Where did that come from, anyway? He asked.

I explained that you’d stolen it from a fast food place.


And so I told him about the day we rode to the restaurant on your Honda 250 motorcycle, the way you slipped the tray into your brown leather jacket in one smooth movement. How you said it was good I was along, because nobody would suspect a person with a kid.

You used the trays to clean pot, separating seeds and stems.

Why was I with you that day? I don’t know. I must have been around ten. I ordered a fish sandwich. Even then I disliked fast food burgers.

I remember the way you took care adjusting the tray, resting it against the banded bottom of your jacket lest it fall out on the ride home.

Now, twenty-eight years and two thousand miles from that day, I wonder if you invited me along with the express intention of theft. Being asked to accompany you anywhere was rare. Special. Doubtless my siblings have equally vivid recollections of equally mundane errands.

Another memory, little more than a snapshot. You, dashing around the corner of the house, laughing. You were having a watergun fight with my mother. I don’t recall who else was involved, only that you held my brother’s yellow plastic watergun, and that my mother needed to change her soaked t-shirt afterward.

If I write out each memory, render, distill, alter crucial details, what then? Will the words resemble a Victorian butterfly collection, meticulously pinned under glass, perfectly preserved, lifeless?

You saved twelve years of Rolling Stone magazine. You decided to get rid of them, offering them to me. Twelve years of crumbling, fragile newsprint. I forget the exact years—around ’70-’82.

I carried them home to my damp-walled little bedroom and read each issue. In this manner I learned about Richard Nixon, Rod Stewart, Viet Nam, David Bowie, Watergate, and Alice Cooper. I read William Greider and Ben Fong-Torres and Mikal Gilmore’s harrowing story about his brother Gary. I read about a man called Governor Moonbeam and his girlfriend, Linda Ronstandt. In this manner I learned a great deal of recent American history not taught in school.

The magazines yellowed and deteriorated. They took up a great deal of space. I cut up several for wall art, then moved the entire lot with me when my family left the Midwest.

Finally, not without reservations, I threw them away.

You liked cats. You had a grey tabby named Nils, an easygoing feline who accompanied you on your many moves.

Then came a time when you were between places, and Nils could not live with you. Your friend X. agreed to board him. You took me along, again on the motorcycle, to visit the cat.

X. was not home. You walked around the side of the house and lifted out the bedroom screen. Slid open the window. Crawled in, the put out your hand to me.

I hesitated. We were in plain view of the neighbors. And wouldn’t X. object?

He won’t care, you said.

Inside it was dimly cool. Nils stood patiently as you scratched the sides of his face, just behind the whiskers. You told me cats liked that.

Not long after our visit, Nils was allowed outside to roam and vanished. There were other cats after that, but you never stopped talking about Nils.

I cleaned house today. I’d been ill, so for two weeks the dust and cat fur gathered. Now I am experiencing that wonderful just-cleaned moment before you begin living in a house, dirtying it again.

I was in two of your homes. In one apartment, in lieu of wallpaper, people wrote and drew messages on the walls. One girl wrote “I love you ______.”

The second place was a rental flat in a midsized Northeasten city. My father and I visited, riding out on my dad’s new touring bike. You borrowed it for a brief spin, returning shaken. There had been a mishap. You would not elaborate. Much later, when your illness was named and constant, you admitted to an episode of double vision.

The flat was large, rather bare. The kitchen was enormous, with a basement running beneath the length of the place.

I was less interested in you than I was in your girlfriend.

You had decided taste in women: tall, lissome, delicate. There was one significant variation, a small, dark woman who carried a copy of Atlas Shrugged. It was intimated that the relationship was tumultuous, the woman unstable. I know you were serious about her. Mention of her name upset your girlfriend, A.

You met A. at a record shop. She was nineteen, tall, slender, with pale red hair curling down her back. She possessed great style without being a fashion plate. I used to study her mannerisms, her clothing, wanting to emulate her cool beauty. I coveted a winter jacket she wore; it was navy blue and cropped at the waist. I saved my babysitting money until I could afford a similarly abbreviated down jacket. Mine was beige, and I was quite proud of it until I stood waiting for the bus one frigid morning, my blue-jeaned legs growing numb in the sub-zero wind.

Of course my longings to be like her were misplaced. At eleven I was commencing years of awkward uncertainty that persisted well into my twenties. I was short, busty, overweight. I did not know how to dress. I chewed my fingernails and cuticles compulsively; I got along better with adults than my peers.

A., who surely recognized all this, tolerated me with gentle good grace. When my father and I visited, she treated me like a trusted girlfriend. We went out together, just the two of us, to see a movie. When we emerged, it was late—around eleven—and raining hard. As we were driving home, two guys began following us in their car, honking and waving. I was terrified. But A. was enraged. She thumped the gas pedal, driving erratically in an attempt to lose them.

I asked whether we should drive to the police station.

No, no, she fumed.

Eventually they gave up and drove off. In retrospect I see such events were likely commonplace for her. But I was not so pretty that men openly chased me: it was the glow effect. That night, seated beside a beautiful woman, some of the glitter rubbed off, casting me in a flattering if transient light.

You worked, at best, intermittently. The field you chose was nearly impossible, like acting, and you lacked the necessary talents to pursue it. At the time I wondered how you could delude yourself into thinking you might ever become successful, let alone make a living. Now I understand. First there is the awful business of admitting to oneself that the necessary talent is absent. Beneath that is fear, for if one isn’t fit to pursue the desired field, then what? The humiliation of failure, the corroding jealousy of others’ successes. And the soul-killing grind of a hated, meaningless, essential day job.

When I was twelve I developed appendicitis and was rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery. Once the worst was over, I was happy, because it meant A. would come to visit. She appeared at the door wearing plastic Groucho Marx glasses. It was Halloween, and she wanted to make me laugh.

In 1980 the two of you married. I know she asked you, not vice versa, and that your agreement was grudging. You had what we now call fear of commitment. Back then we just said you were jittery.

But you did love her, and went along with the small diamond she bought herself. You did not recognize what you had, her goodness, until it was too late. By then you were too sick to do anything about it. Now she is lost to all of us. But back to the past.

A.’s family did not like you. They held themselves aloof at the reception, polite but chilly.

A photograph of the day: the two of you with my family, all of us dressed up, you looking quizically into the camera. A. looks dazed, perhaps the result of being photographed all day.

Afterward there was a party at your flat, the real party. I smoked a tremendous amount of pot. Then, realizing I was too high, I went outside and stood at the end of the driveway, where it was cool and quiet. A’s brother came out to check on me.

Then you appeared. Some folks are doing lines in the bedroom, you offered. I declined, trying to hide my shock. I was thirteen.

I met a woman at a rock concert. She was young, perhaps thirty, and had what you did. She was exceptionally beautiful, her hair and make-up perfect. Her husband was with her. He had the aspect of a biker, hulking in his black leather jacket. I imagined him readying her for the show, hooking her brassiere, tying her shoes. Unraveling the mystery of mascara and foundation and eyeshadow, his big hands moving delicately over her face. He wore an expression of sad bafflement.

You know what’s going to happen to me, she said in that same echo-delay voice you once had.

I looked her in the eye. Yes, I replied. I do.

After the wedding you drifted out of our lives. There were mitigating circumstances. I don’t know the details; of the concerned parties, two are dead. The others have likely forgotten the reasons for enmity. It was all so long ago.

My family left the rustbelt city we’d struggled in and moved to the western United States. Six years later, A. telephoned. We were in the middle of eating dinner. At first my mother didn’t realize who was calling. Once she did, there was no question of finishing the meal.

It was quickly determined that the two of you would fly out to visit.

None of us has seen you since you’d become ill. Your former catlike grace had vanished. You walked by standing behind A., leaning against her back, your arms draped over her shoulders. She held your forearms, acting as a sort of human walker. Mostly, though, you lay stretched in my father’s recliner, speaking non-stop to whoever was in the room. Your vision had deteriorated to near blindness; even then it was evident the disease had affected your thinking.

A. was restless. She had never been to our new state and wanted to see everything.

She also wanted to escape you.

You had no desire to leave the house. This distressed my family: we took it as a sign of your refusal to fight. There was much encouraging talk, lectures about attitude. You were cheerfully dismissive, even as we grew irritated. We did not understand. There is no comprehending degenerative disease unless you are the afflicted or an immediate relation whose life must also bear the illness’ impact. We were neither. We loved you, were aggrieved. We meant well.

You were sick for a while before you were diagnosed. Perhaps you fought, secretly, for years. Maybe by the time diagnosis was rendered you realized the futility of resistance.

Illness allowed you to do what you wanted, which was not much. You smoked dope and cigarettes and listened to the stereo. Watching you light cigarettes was alarming. You tremored so much you had trouble keeping your weight up. Thousands of calories wasted on involuntary movement.

A. was reeling. Only months earlier she was waging a steady, losing campaign to have a baby. Now you were incapacitated, nearly blind, at times raving. You tried to use the toilet and fell, landing in the bathtub. Amazingly, you were unhurt. I was one of the people who pulled you to your feet. You were light as a child.

A. ran into the hallway and sobbed.

The two of you flew home. You went into the hospital, where the doctors flooded your system with ACTH. A. was taught to give you injections. She told me she practiced on oranges.

You were discharged in a wheelchair. There was no more walking with your arms slung about A’s neck. You went home and began to die.

Unemployed, unable to see, your fragile grasp on reality soon evaporated. This was exacerbated by the long hours you spent alone. A’s job was the sole source of income. There was some medical insurance, but knowing what I do now of serious chronic illness, I am certain the bills were appalling. The wheelchair. The ACTH. The needles and catheters and diazepam. The bleach for disinfection, the canned protein drinks. The plastic dishes intended to withstand a tremoring eater.

God only know what else you needed. Occupational therapists are brimful of equipment suggestions, rubber squeeze balls and stretchy bits of elastic and plastic transfer boards, none of it, nothing, covered under the insurer’s formulary.

I have only one more memory to relate. The final time I saw you.

The circumstances were either amusing, or grim, or perhaps both, as I was with the man who briefly and disastrously became my first husband. He was moving west to live with me. We were traveling cross-country, his possessions loaded into a truck. On the way, we stopped to visit you.

You were living in a handicap apartment, which was a mess. My fiancé and I were put up in the second bedroom, wormed in among an accumulation of stuff piled along three walls and spilling out across the floor. The fourth wall was taken up by an overflowing closet. We spread the quilts A. gave us amidst the junk and went into the living room, where you sat in your wheelchair.

You latched onto us with naked desperation, talking, talking, talking. Your topics were your illness and the rock band you now listened to exclusively.

We went to dinner at a chain restaurant. Just before we left, A. gave you an injection of ACTH. She warned us this would make you hungry.

This was before ADA and mainstreaming and ramps, before the disabled were out in the community. People stared.

People gawked.

The hostess led us to the furthest corner of restaurant, seating us with your back to the starers. Then the ACTH hit. You asked for a chocolate milkshake, downed it, asked for another. The waitress was startled. So was I.

A. put up a good front. She was affectionate, clasping your shaking head between her palms and planting kisses on your face. My fiancé seemed unperturbed, but then, he had only just met you.

I took a few photos: one of you, obviously ill but smiling. A. and my fiancé playing with a kitten. Their smiles are strained, the expressions of people tap dancing through disaster.

We left. Once again we fell out of contact, this time permanently. I began adult life, marrying that wrong man, divorcing him, attending college. Meeting and marrying the right man. Moving again, and then once more, to where I am now.

Because I was not immediately informed of your death, I never saw the obituary. I do not know where, or whether, you are buried.

Sometimes I think knowing these details would help. I would not think of you so much; certain songs would not evoke you. The reality of your death would be—the word that comes to mind is natural. A more natural mourning process.

I also think about A. She is nearing fifty, remarried and moved far from the place you shared your lives. It is difficult to imagine her middle-aged, her face lined, her red hair faded. Though these things must be. After all, they are happening to me.

A conclusion, then, a final sewing up.

Each of us has a story we tell ourselves, the ongoing story of our lives. We are certain our version is the truest, the best, the most honest. You exist at the edge of my story, a loose collection of memories refusing to integrate, to settle into their appointed places. Words are my sole recourse, and do little. I can only hope they act like straight pins, holding memories of you down and back, in the past, where they belong.

Nothing changes the fact that your life was taken from you bit by bit in an awful way. That you and A. suffered. That I am unable to paste in some pretty words about God or Jesus or Heaven, because I cannot believe in them.

That I could have done nothing then, and cannot now.

So, belatedly and far too early, farewell. I miss you more than either of us would have ever thought possible.

NB: The poem “Sixteenth Anniversary” appears in Tess Gallagher’s Dear Ghosts, published by Graywolf Press.

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