Death Doesn’t Give Do-Overs

A Cynthia Gift
Amber: old fire old rage old death

Any life that’s well lived has many treasures. I’m no different. There’s the painting a Spanish artist gave me when I lived in New York; a bowl my aunt gave me that belonged to my grandmother; carnival glass plates my mother left me; a necklace with a heart my husband bought for his mother when he was twelve and she passed on to me; Cliff’s treasured Wyeth print we framed and hung . Nearly everything has a story, and because of the story, a treasure. But I want to write about is this necklace. I chose it because I recently wore it for a birthday celebration dress up, and when I wear it, I always think of my friend Cynthia Alexander, who found the antique amber necklace and gave it as a birthday present because it looked like me, she said, and who died too young, almost ten years ago, and because I’ve wanted to write about her for a long time but never found the pattern or the vehicle or the voice to do so except in a poem. I don’t even remember which birthday it was, but I remember her.

We met on the night of George McGovern’s ignominious defeat by Richard Nixon. We both worked on the campaign and saw each other in passing, but that night as the map grew red red red, except for one, small, blue Massachusetts blot, we decided to leave campaign headquarters and walk the dark and silent streets of Temple, Texas. And we talked — music and books and movies and life and dreams and travel. They’d moved back to Texas from upstate New York’s cold, bleak winters. “I hate cold,” she said. We talked into the night. I probably wore out first. I usually did. We didn’t go back to the headquarters, but by the time our walk ended, we’d become two young women in their late 20s who were best friends.

Cynthia and her then husband, Peter, had an apartment in town, a second floor apartment at the front of a house with gauzy white curtains at the windows. I was often there in the afternoons, either after finishing with classes or after work at the art therapy building out back of Scott & White Hospital. Year? Early 70s. We joined a consciousness raising group together and began working on women’s issues together. Understand that this is forty plus years ago and my memories spotty.

I do, however, clearly remember one afternoon when Cynthia was curled in an old, green, over-stuffed chair in front of the window, sunlight streaming across her shoulders and gauze curtains fluttering around her head. A picture branded in my less than stellar memory. She’s there, in front of me, and I want to reach out, wrap my arms around her. We’d had a gathering of women for some reason, I know they were present although I can’t see them in my memory. I only see Cynthia when she oh, so casually mentioned she was African-American. She’d been telling a story about a time in New York when she’d walked into a bar to meet Peter. The men with him had looked at her and one said, “See you got yourself a high-yella,” high-yellow a slurring term for light-skinned African-Americans, women especially. Her neck grew long as she lifted her shoulders from the chair and tossed back the luxurious, dark wavy hair I so envied.

The other women were as shocked as I. Nothing more said, but on the drive home, my mind roiled in turmoil. My best friend was a Black woman? I’d followed the Civil Rights Movement. With two young children, all I could do was stand at the side and cheer, but I’d known African-Americans in the unit where my husband was a soldier. How could I have missed the wider nose, the wide, luscious mouth, perfect white teeth, exotic eyes? I only thought she was the most beautiful woman I’d ever known. Could we still be friends? Would she want to be my friend? I stewed. A few days passed. Gathering my courage for “the talk” I went back to visit.

“I need to ask you something. Does this change anything? Can we still be friends?” She laughed. We could and we were.

Now, instead of watching the Civil Rights struggle from a distance, I was up close and personal. She’d grown up in Austin, Texas, her father an attorney in state politics, her mother in real estate in Los Angeles, her grandparents in a big 1950s house that rambled into a backyard with fig trees. She told of an early shock while riding on a bus to Houston with her aunt and being directed to a “colored only” drinking fountain. And with her wearing her best, shiny, black patent leather shoes and fancy white socks! Her neck grew long on that story too.

∼          ∼          ∼          ∼          ∼

She and Peter moved to an A-frame set on the lake outside of town. Peter needed a quiet place to write away from town. I’d load the kids into my old station wagon with a “hole in the back floorboard big enough to stick your foot through,” my sons remind me. The hole? Yeah, I knew it was there. The car old and rusty but it ran. I put a wide piece of orange carpet across it. I didn’t know until years later they’d pull the carpet to one side and take turns sticking their foot down to see how close they could get to the blacktop. At the Lake House, where we’d always arrive without broken ankles or legs, the boys went swimming while Cynthia and I sat on the deck in the shimmering limitless light off water.

We joined the Texas chapter of the National Women’s Political Caucus and went to the women’s conference at the Rice Hotel in Houston. We laughed and told stories and cooked and drank wine and dreamed our future.

Too fast, too soon, my husband received transfer orders for Germany. Our nest torn, ripped between the going and the moments left. How will I  live without Cynthia?

The day I finished packing for the movers, I waited on the front porch and watched the yard fill with monarch butterflies on their migration to Mexico. The kids were at school. Cynthia had taken over my job at the art therapy workshop. I sat alone. The gold and brown fluttering stormed the yard. Never had I ever seen so many at one time. I’d lift my shirttail and wipe my eyes clear of tears to watch. Going to Europe! A dream come true after all those novels…but no more drives to the lake house…old station wagon totaled running a curve too fast…

And what would I do without Cynthia?

∼          ∼          ∼          ∼          ∼

I wrote her often; she never replied. She hated goodbyes, and she didn’t trust I’d return. In 1976, when I did return, nearly three years later, I took a bus to Texas and flushed her out. In Waxahachie, Texas as a dancer artist-in-residence. I returned to Manhattan, Kansas to enter K-State, a sixty mile drive from the farm and my folks, and when they returned from their winter trip to Hawaii, Dad bought me a 1967 cream and tan Bel Air. Freedom!!! I could be Richie Havens as I drove Highway 77 to Austin. And I could roll a cigarette with my wrists balancing the steering wheel and my fingers free. Every break I got in or between semesters, I’d drive to Austin where she’d moved when her grandfather became too ill to stay at home alone. We were both divorced. Grandfather died. The house filled with plants in the front window and Billie Holiday on the turntable. The wood paneling dark and deep and cool on summer days. She had a big kitchen to cook in, a wide mahogany table to seat people, and a job as events director for parks in Austin. One summer, she produced Man of La Mancha. We spread a blanket on the crest of a hill above the stage, and we gloried in the songs and the possibility that love was real even if almost impossible.

On one of those summer nights, Cynthia and I met Bill Joyce, a dashing and charming poet who spent the first night talking books with Cynthia at the Pecan Street Cafe. When he called with an invitation to dinner, I was shocked it was me and not Cynthia he wanted.

When I dithered, Cynthia said, “What do you want on your postcard?” our shorthand for what do you want life to send you. We both wanted love. I moved to Austin; she hooked up with Dean, another artist. I found a little rock house not far from where she lived; we saw each other nearly every day. Those were magic and happy years: we were both in love; both boys were with us again; we each had a home. And thanks to her work, her house, which was bigger, played host to an endless stream of dinners and music and talk and laughter. It was like we were back at the Lake House times 10.

Times of Sons and Lovers
Times of Sons and Lovers

And then, Bill got a notice: this one a summons from the landlord of the apartment he’d deserted to move in with me — well, that’s not exactly how it happened. He got into a fight with the landlord and escaped. Not far enough as it turned out. I’d just made a movie and earned my SAG union card. One son had graduated and moved into his own apartment; second son had moved to South Dakota to live with his father; and Bill had to get out of town. We moved to Los Angeles. A disastrous decision, all in all. We went back to Austin but the little rock house belonged to someone else.

Cynthia and I kept believing in love. Sometimes a shaky belief, but we did. And we kept having dinners and music and laughter.

Bill applied for a job as a poet-in-residence. We moved to New Orleans and then New York. Cynthia and I both kept trying to make love work. And we both lasted about ten years at that task.

And then I was cast in a movie, went to Mexico to make it, and stayed for three years. I traveled up to Texas once and visited her, stayed one last time in the big house, and went back to Mexico. Bill traveled back and forth from New York to Mexico on his breaks from teaching.

∼          ∼          ∼          ∼          ∼

 Her mother moved from Los Angeles to Austin and pushed Cynthia out of the grandparent’s house, and then sold it to the University of Texas in some expansion they were doing. The house was demolished. Cynthia moved to a small house with Dean, but that relationship was as fraught with chaos as mine. By the time I moved back Stateside, to Washington D.C., we were both single…again. I’d visit her whenever I could, but my life expanded, and hers got smaller. I went to Hawaii and then to Georgia and then to Santa Fe. We saw each other often in the Santa Fe years, but then she moved to an even smaller apartment when she lost her job with the city. Her anger grew while mine subsided. She still had all the art we’d found in various places, but most of it in storage. When she came for my ordination in Santa Fe, she looked older. I was beginning a new stage in my life and she was ending hers. But I didn’t know that.

And then I moved to Kansas and took over managing the family farm and my own mother. Cynthia’s bitterness at her mother for taking and selling the grandparent’s house ate at her. She went into the hospital with pancreatic cancer; I went to Austin to care for her. My care-taking made her crazy. Those early years of the new millennium filled with crazy. I didn’t know how to help her; I traveled weekly three hours to visit Mother in the nursing home; Cliff and I decided to make a life together but he was in chaos; I did banquet waiter and made barely enough to pay rent; my son and his wife had moved to Kansas and lived down the block; I had grandparent duties. And then I crashed my car on a visit to Mom as she was dying and my body, while not broken, was fiercely rattled. I could barely walk. And then Mother died. And then Cliff moved from Santa Fe. And everything rattled.

If I could do it all over, I’d find a way to bring her to me, or at least near me where she could begin again, but we don’t always get do-overs. And anyway, she wouldn’t leave Austin.

When the call came that Cynthia was found dead in her apartment, I choked on grief, but the family asked me to come to Austin and preside at her funeral. I went, but I couldn’t walk up to the casket, couldn’t see her dead. How would I live my life without her in it?

Loss shapes us as much as gain.

That was in November, 2001. I brought back a piece of art from her storage unit that we’d found together. I collected small things, things I could pack all together in one box and move on. She collected big things. We choose our path and live it, or perhaps the path chooses us and all we can do is forgive.

If I know anything about purgatory, she taught me. She’d come to me in dreams, first from a dark underground parking lot where I’d walk down layers of steps to search for her, then from a higher level, finally up to a light-filled room where she pointed to a postcard on the refrigerator, a sunny scene, water shining serene, limitless, and in the only time she spoke to me in the dreams, she said, “Remember.”

Two Women
for Cynthia Alexander 1948-2001

In silence, seeing your eyes as you smile,
I enter the dark framed by dark, and see us
in this mirror drawn from thirty years:

your face, in my memory, still the same face
a few white hairs to reflect the white of mine
a few more lines around your smile, perhaps,

than in our springtime lives, bright blossoms
unfolding, bright promises
shared as we shared two children

now grown, moved on as we moved on
through loves and losses, changes unplotted
building our mirror one dream at a time,

one story at a time, through dinners and wine
and Keith Jarrett on the turntable—
our souls holding a moment of wonder

as we stopped for that one perfect note,
perfect like the smoke in Billie’s cracked voice—
the dream delayed, the mirror’s smoky surface faded—

but not in your eye’s new smile
in the knotted memories like rose prayer beads:
Hail…hail…two women full of grace.

 

 

 

10 thoughts on “Death Doesn’t Give Do-Overs

  1. I started reading about Willy, and ended up here. This piece so beautifully honors your friendship as it spanned decades, and describes so honestly your efforts to keep it in tact, when time, distance, and circumstance created such challenges….. your poem, so moving. Thank you Janet.

    1. You’re welcome. Thanks so much for taking the time to read all the way to the end. Some deaths you can grieve as you need and step away from. Her death is one I’ve not been able to step from. We first met in our 20s and gave each other council until she died. By then, we were both in our late 50s. Other than when my mother died, I’ve not had to grieve deeply. And it’s odd now, as I inch into my 70s, to see those my age who are dying. We write and we write and we photograph and we make songs, and death walks along. It’s always a surprise.

  2. Wow, Janet. I just found this when cleaning out old email and it is such a wonderful piece. Thank you! I hope you are well! Hugs, gail lerner-connghan

  3. Oh my goodness, here I am again-crying. That was a tear jerker and I feel so bad that your wonderful friend died too young. I don’t know how you managed to move so many times. I’ve been anchored to one spot since 1963 and do not want to move. I’m not one for adventure but I do have one long time female friend but we stay in touch by phone mostly.Her health is the pits. In the past we’d go on flower and birding field trips. Now we talk about butterflies, plants or.birds.

    1. I’m so sorry your friend is ill. I know how difficult it is to not be able to DO anything about the ache. It’s taken me ten years to write about Cynthia’s death other than a couple of poems, but I’m glad the above piece was heart felt for you.
      Perhaps it’s time for you to write about your friend and your life while you can still share it with her. Butterflies, plants, and birds aren’t a bad way to start.
      Thank you so much for reading and letting me know how this touched you.

  4. Ah, Jacqueline. I’m so sorry. And yes, death is almost always surreal, regardless of how it comes. Perhaps you can help your friend put down her regrets. Maybe he kept working because that was his choice, not hers. No place for regrets when those we love make choices that may ultimately cause US pain. The only thing we can do is honor the choice and accept the pain. Anger is also a part of the grieving process. Yes, there’s a lot of tragedy in life, but remember, the other side of the mask is joy. We get to choose which we find more important.
    I expect you are also in pain for your friend. And that’s a gift, not a tragedy.

  5. Hello Janet, I enjoyed reading your post. It’s a very moving tribute to your friend. I’m curious about who is in the group photograph. Is that you on the second left?

    1. Thanks so much for reading! The line up is oldest son, Stephen, me, Cynthia, second son Nathan.
      I usually don’t put my son’s names in my writing because …. well, because I’m Mom.
      This was taken in about 1980.

      1. Thank you for replying, Janet, and for commenting on my cartoon.

        Life is sad. Your article is very poignant to me as a family friend died yesterday unexpectedly in the middle of the night. His poor wife, who is a good friend of mine, had to phone us to tell us the news. It all seems very surreal. Most of all, she regrets that, although he had the chance to retire a few years ago, he decided to continue working.

        I try to write escapist humour to counteract all the tragedy of life, but I admire the truthfulness of your posts. Thank you! Jacqueline 🙂

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