Jane Martin Walters never attended a single Elizabethtown High School Class Reunion, and Dr. Norman P. Will no longer attends college graduations as a president emeritus at Florida State College at Jacksonville. Yet, they both linger in my memory though Jane died in her mid-twenties and Dr. Will in his late-fifties. I have vowed to get rid of memorabilia in anticipation of down-sizing one day, but I can’t – I just CAN’T – part with the pieces of paper that attach their memory to mine.
Jane was smart, very smart, and excelled in college prep track classes in high school. Unlike mine, her learning appeared to be effortless. And her home life quiet and orderly too. After a snow day off from school one winter Jane remarked that she loved snow days because her Mom would pop popcorn, and she and her family would sit by the fireplace and read or play games. In contrast, after the thrill of sledding on traffic-free roads passed, our house was noisy, no hearth for refuge in sight.
You might get the impression I felt envious. But I didn’t. Jane was poised on a pedestal in my eyes, and I admired what appeared to be her calm cadence through life. When I heard she married and worked at the Library of Congress in the Congressional Reference Department, I was pleased. Maybe I’d visit her in Washington D. C. some day. But some day never came. She died of cancer shortly after after her marriage and at the beginning of a promising career. Aunt Ruthie told me, “She ate a nice dinner with her family, said her goodbyes and died in her sleep that night.” I was devastated.
I admired Dr. Norm Will too, though in a vastly different way. An English professor had become a college president: All’s right with the world! College operations purred along smoothly with Dr. Will at the helm. He advocated free thought, offering friendly evening colloquia for faculty on diverse topics like current ideas in neuroscience and the health of Florida’s St. Johns River. But on the first day of Convocation in 2005, Dr. Will did not appear. He had died the night before while sipping wine and reading The History of God by Karen Armstrong, a text I later happened to reference in my paper for The Oxford Roundtable.
In her piece “Dealing with the Dead” (The New Yorker, October 11, 2010), Jennifer Egan discusses the deaths of three close family members and observes that she has kept an article of clothing from each: her grandmother’s 3-tiered necklace of fake pearls, her father’s navy-blue wool V-neck sweater, and her stepfather’s gray and burgundy argyle sweater. Though the pearls eventually broke as she rounded a corner in the East Village, Jennifer vows to wear the sweaters “until they unravel into shreds” because she likes their feel against her skin. Author Egan shares wisdom gained from loss as she opines:
- “Wearing the garments of a person I loved was like being wrapped in a protective force field.”
- “When the clock stops on a life, all things emanating from it become precious, finite, and cordoned off for preservation.”
- Keeping items from those who have passed on “is a way of keeping them engaged in life’s daily transactions—in other words, alive.” [Italics mine.]
I will add a quotation of my own from Shakespeare’s King Richard III: So wise so young, they say, do never live long.” And then from Scripture:
“So teach us to number our days that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.” Psalm 90:12 KJV
Have you experienced loss? Is your story like any of the stories I tell or very different? Here’s the place to share it.