28 April 2008

My First Reader

Let us go to the banks of the ocean
Where the walls rise above the Zuiderzee
Long ago, I used to be a young man
And dear Margaret remembers that for me
~The Dutchman, by Michael Smith

Carolina's sister, Tree, wrote me yesterday, that my dear friend could no longer speak. Could no longer speak. I could not digest that. My friend who spoke a mile a minute to catch me up on the goings on in her family, whose excitement bubbled up and flowed over in descriptions of places she loved, food she cooked, and Sean, whose words, written down and read out loud, were prose poems and spoken songs. Carolina cannot speak.

A bit more than three years ago Carolina and David came up to a Parents' Weekend at Conn College. We had fun, more than I had had in years. I thought it was the beginning of a new time of being together more often. We talked of getting together whenever we came out to see Ches which would have put our get togethers at four or fives times a year instead of a once a year holiday or vacation trip when we saw them for a meal squeezed in between relative visits.

How many years ago we met. I was out of college, looking for the avant guarde. She had just moved to NYC from Utica. We did a class together, joined a theater workshop together, formed a free ranging theater group together, and read to eachother. When did we start reading? I don't remember. Damn, how can I not remember? I am the only one who has that capacity now. Early on, we started reading to eachother. Plays, stories, ideas, novels, scrap of wishes and secret dreams. If all our writing wasn't biographical, we talked about our families, we became our families. I knew her brothers and sister and she knew mine. It was as if we had grown up in the same neighborhood, the same attachments to immigrant elders, the same Catholic grammar schools, the same listening to aunts and friends speaking in tongues that we only vaguely understood. All this was background music, firm foundation for a “rest of our lives” friendship that was supposed to close on two crazy old ladies sitting in rockers on a big porch that I imagined in New England and she in New Mexico and then Seattle.

At first, we always met in Brooklyn in the appartment that Caolina found and still lives in. It is a block from the Park and on hot days the big windows in the dining room turned study ushered in any stray breeze in the summer. Later, there was airconditioning in that one room, that one room only. And in the winter, those same windows rattled as breeze turned to fierce stormy winds. Later, when Cheshire was born, Carolina travelled to me in the East Village. We were still reading and I was wiping my baby's chin as we all sat around the kitchen table that had come from my mother's house. We joked that Cheshire was surely learning all our editorial tricks and that a far flung spoon or an especially loud rasberry was surely a critique of the serious essays that she was writing or the silly kids' stories that I was attempting.

Somehow the year we lived in Brooklyn, just four blocks apart, we were both too busy to meet and read. How busy we always were, going, doing, striving for dreams, art, theater, books, jobs, degrees, careers. I remember having dinner once or twice or three times and that was all. How we squandered time then. We owned it. Time. We wasted it as if we would live close by forever.

And we didn't.

David and I moved to Indiana for law school and then life. We made trips back East to visit. Sometimes, when I was done with law school and the first few years of cleark, Carolina and I found time to reinact the ritual of our reading for an hour, just moments really, during a visit. We kept in touch – long phone calls widely spaced, long emails spaced likewise. After all, we had time. One day we would visit in Seattle where Sean had settled and they would show us the splendors of the northwest. One day we would tour Italy together, and I know she would love the mother of our Alice, and the three of us would get together for London theater weekends.
But Sean's wedding the summer before Ches started college and that first Parents' Weekend were the last times we were to spend together with both of us in some semblance of right minds. During the next visit east to see my sick father, I met Carlina downtown for tea and talking. But she had trouble finding me in the city that she knew, and she needed to be put on the subway train to go back home. Phone calls got weird. We seemed to have nothing much to say. She didn't ask me about my parents, my siblings, our in common friends, my garden, my writing, my crazy boss – people she always wanted to know about. When I asked her about the network of her life, the answers were vague or single words. I wondered if she was angry at me, at our much too long long-distance relationship because Carolina never answered in single words.

She and David came down to Thanksgiving at Lisa's that year. As always, we cooked and laughed, drank wine and coffee and tea. Talked, chatted and shared. And I didn't notice anything strange. I asked her if she was angry and she denied it. For a short time, I saw our relationship righted again. She was having health problems but they were working out, and possibly it was just me needing more from our relationship than she had time to give. But then, she had trouble playing Apples to Apples, the silly game that she had taught me that summer while we were all relaxing between wedding events. She couldn't seem to get the rules of the game. Rules that are almost nonexistant in that game. She acted almost silly drunk, but not drunk. After Carolina went to bed one night, David told Lisa and I that Carolina's health problems were still a mystery and that whatever the problem was, it was responsible for the confusion, the times when she could not remember, could not respond, could not share in something so simple as that silly game.

Alzheimer's was not mentioned yet. And when it was, it was first by Tree, who swore me to secrecy. Carolina was embarrassed by the diagnosis. This was a big secret between us, the biggest ever, and I confessed how I knew when she told me herself. Her memory was not completely intact but she was still talking about writing, although she was not able to teach anymore. I still thought that there was time because now she had the time, that we could write together again and share our thoughts on a private blog I set up, that we would have weekends in Chicago where I had an apartment, that she would follow our journey to China and I would ask her and David to be Julia's godparents.

None of that happened.

She would consider traveling to Indianapolis or Chicago for time together but never come, she could not remember that we were going to China, she could not remember where we lived, she remembered Cheshire only as a little girl. When David and Julia and I came out east for my father's funeral, we took time in Brooklyn to introduce Carolina to Julia. Carolina was not interested. This woman who was the best mother that I ever knew, who loved her son, her granddaughter, and my Cheshire as much, as much and more, did not even try to connect with my then-wild Chinese child, did not bend down to greet my little girl.

We've talked on the phone infrequently in the last 18 months. I could ask about her cats and David and Sean. She would say yes or no. When she talked, she complained about her life, she was angry and unhappy. I had no words, any comfort I offered washed over her without notice. And I have not been a good friend. I did not call every week. I did not spend enough time on the phone when I did call. I did not find time to visit when she still was speaking and I would have known that she remembered me. And I miss my friend, my first reader, my sister from another mother and father. I miss her words.


tumbleintodreams said...

What a beautiful tribute to your beloved friend......and a bittersweet reminder that time is not always there. I'm sorry for your sadness. sherri

Bobbi Jo said...

Oh my, what beautiful words you have written. I can't imagine your sadness, or your friend's frustrations with life. What great times you had together, memories that must live on deep within her soul, even if she can't recall them easily or put them into words. Thanks for reminding us to take time to love each other now.

Traci said...

I'm sorry for the pain that you're feeling. Your friend would surely enjoy this tribute if she could.

Thank you for the reminder...I'm picking up the phone right now.