It’s never easy to hear that someone you care about has died, especially if you’ve kept that person alive in your mind for a long time because a good fiction is sometimes better (well, maybe not better, but certainly easier) than the truth. For more than four years I’ve told myself that my friend Barbara probably moved away from her apartment in Edina (Minnesota) in 2015 and forgot to send me her new address.
I met Barbara in the spring semester of 1996. I was finishing my degree at Augsburg College in Minneapolis and she was my advanced nonfiction writing professor. She’d come out of retirement to teach the course, however “retirement” for Barbara, then 70, was hardly like most of us imagine.
We became friends that semester, and when I moved back to Pennsylvania later that year, we began a once-a-year correspondence that lasted nearly twenty years. Every Christmas, we sent each other a letter detailing the events of our year. Some went on for pages, and hers often read like mini-memoirs. Hands down she led the more exciting life. She traveled the world, each year to a new country, and when she was 80, she climbed Kilimanjaro.
In the early 2010s, when she was in her late 80s, her handwriting became more difficult to decipher and her once long correspondence filled only the blank inside of a Christmas card, but her tone never changed. She was always upbeat and joy-filled, never a word of complaint.
Except for the sympathy card I sent her in 2011 after I read in that year’s letter that her cat of nearly twenty years had died, we didn’t respond to each other’s letters except at Christmas. That was part of the unspoken understanding of our friendship. We were bound and committed (almost in defiance of the pithy nature of email) to writing once-a-year epistles that were meaty, vivid, dense, and time consuming, both in writing and reading. I looked forward to her letters with almost childlike anticipation, the kind that Christmas invokes, and I always saved her previous year’s letter to refresh my memory before reading the new one. I also mentally crafted my letter throughout the year, noting the big stuff, of course, but more importantly, the little things, like the details of a moment working in the garden or rocking a grandchild, a habit she stressed all writer wannabes should adopt.
In 2015, I was excited to tell her that, at 52, I’d started a master’s program in composition and literature, and that my decision was largely based on her example of not letting age define her. My letter wasn’t returned to sender, but neither did I receive a letter from her. My first thought was that she had become physically unable to write anymore, so I resolved that I would keep up my end of the correspondence. In 2017, when again I didn’t receive a letter, I allowed myself to think, for a few seconds, that maybe she had died, but I chose not to find out. I kept her 2014 letter in my Christmas card basket, just in case, and I imagined she was living somewhere, perhaps in Ireland, with a new cat.
Writing the Acknowledgement page for my book* last week, I included Barbara, and in typing her name, I knew it was time for the truth. I wrote an email to the alumni association at Augsburg and they forwarded it to a professor in the English department, someone I knew vaguely from back in the day. In his email this morning, he confirmed that Barbara died in 2015 after several months in hospice care.
As I formally grieve my friend, I remember and honor the role she played in my writing life, not only through her teaching and encouragement, but in how she lived and wrote about her life. Her writing was exemplary, often a model for some of my columns and blogs. While she is no longer here in the flesh, her influence will be with me for as long as I write.
Still, I will always miss her most at Christmas.
* Tentative release date for my first book is December. I will have more information about it in the upcoming months.