January 12, 2004

On Friendship and Forgiveness

Susie D was my one longtime friend in high school, an all girls� private day school in Connecticut. From 8th grade, when I started, through 11th, when she left for boarding school, she was the one person I could count on to be loyal and accepting, even in the dark days when my other classmates were beginning to laugh at me and dub me �the zombie,� because I stared blindly into space and wouldn�t respond to conversation, not even a direct question.

A tiny, birdlike thing, with pipe-stem limbs, an oval face, and thick wavy hair, Susie had large, dark, hyperopic eyes, magnified only the more by her thick lenses. She was by the far the smartest girl in my class, having skipped a grade in days when that was virtually unheard of, and was especially talented in music � composition, violin and piano � and languages, though frankly she was good at everything she undertook. Even when, for unknown reasons except general disaffection and unhappiness, she refused to do any schoolwork and her motivation slipped, her grades plummeted, she still easily got into Columbia (Barnard in those days), and missed Harvard only by a hair.

Then, just before she turned 21, she took an overdose of pills and alcohol in her dorm room, and died, the first suicide at Barnard in nearly a decade. I know this because though Susie and I were only exchanging letters at the time, with rare phone calls in between, my father saw the article in the New York Times and announced -- to one and all, but his intentions directed at me, sitting as far away from him as possible in the dining room -- �Guess who died!�

Naturally I had no idea. �Who?� I grudgingly responded.

�Susie D--� he said, with what seemed like a certain gloating satisfaction.

I felt my heart go cold and dead. Now what had I done? Why hadn�t I known she was in trouble? Why hadn�t I saved her? Hadn�t I walked by her house during school vacation only a few days earlier, or so it seemed, and not stopped to say hello, mostly because at 80 pounds I felt I was too fat to be acceptable? I�d even crossed the street and hid my head lest her father, working in the pachysandra outside, recognize and invite me in.

In the days and weeks that followed, Susie was with me everywhere. In my dreams, in my fantasies, even seemingly in strangers I passed on the street. The pressure of my guilt kept me up at night, and during the day I saw everything with the eyes of the newly grieving. I never let an hour go by when I didn�t think of her, desperately afraid that were I to slip and forget her, even for a moment, that ultimate betrayal would push her away forever. I often woke from sleep thinking I could call her to chat or even just to get her expert help in solving the notoriously difficult Sunday Times doublecrostic. I forgot she was dead. It seemed to me that if I kept her in my thoughts, she was still truly and actually alive, and I did all I could to keep her that way, refusing to accept the stone-hard fact of her death.

One particularly troubled night, I went to bed late and when I dreamed I dreamed of Susie, as I so often did. I describe this episode in my book, and so won�t ruin the suspense by relating it here, except to say that I woke feeling better than I had in months, certain I�d had a visitation and had been advised by Susie herself to let go of my feelings of guilt and understand she�d chosen to do what she did. Most important of all was her �message� that I was not to follow her to the grave, but was to �join the party,� continue living my life.

I never forgot her, though she died over thirty years ago. And every so often late at night I�ll find myself writing a poem, yet again about her or to her. But this is not unhealthy. Susie was my friend. Why shouldn�t I still remember her, her wittiness and intelligence and loyalty, with fondness and affection? In some sense it *has* kept her alive, if only in my memory, and for that I am both glad and grateful.

What follows in a three-part poem I wrote about Susie several years ago that was published in the Tunxis Poetry Review�s final edition, �Three Poets.�


1) Grieving and Staying

The dead do not need us
to grieve or tear our hair
or keen extravagantly.
Stepping free of flesh
a double exposure (one ghost
rising from bed, another napping
at mid-day), their spirits follow
the curves of their late bodies,
rehearsing again and again
what we�re always too late for.
Just so, my friend Susie,
scrubbed clean of life�s debris,
twenty years later returning
in my dream of the dead
returning and I can�t let go
my guilty retrospection,
the arrogant suspicion
I could have saved her.
Now, though I know no dream
will return her utterly, I cling
to this one: Susie and I at twenty-one
standing before two doors,
how she points me towards the one
where a celebration is taking place
then disappears through the other
marked No Exit, as if it has to be,
as if it�s fair, as if either
of us in this world
has ever had a choice.

2) At the Lake, Under the Moon

In memory, the moon�s always a new dime,
glinting off the dark chop, ticking the night away

ruthless and indifferent as a parking meter.
As always, the lake shimmers, ebony splashed

with silver and we�re sitting there at the end
of the dock, thirteen, dangling our bare feet

above the water�s corruscating skin. We barely
ruffle the surface but it�s enough

to shatter the still shaft of moonglow,
potsherds of mercury, dancing tesserae, a mosaic

of light illuminating the water.
Is it possible we don�t yet suspect

how things must turn out? We shed our clothes
to swim shy and bare-skinned, silvered bubbles

rising to the surface like stars
of the wayward constellations

by which we�ll navigate our separate lives.
What we know is this: the sleek water

rolling off our skin, the frangible sand, schools of
glowing nightfish nosing amid algae.

We can�t guess how fate will interpose
its coups and tragedies, how far in ten years

we will have traveled from that night.
I never got to say good-bye.

I scatter your white ashes,
moonlight over dark water.

3) In My Dreams You Are Not Silent

Time heals nothing
but the space left behind
is filled, little by little,
with the critical minutiae
that make a life: shirts
at the cleaners, supper
in its pots, a half-read book
overdue at the library,
lying open, face down,
on the table.

Here endeth my 11th blog entry.

Posted by pamwagg at January 12, 2004 05:02 AM


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