I don’t like saying goodbye to the people I’ve worked with at The Sun — not after we’ve spent years together drinking too much coffee and meeting impossible deadlines and struggling to make the magazine better and trying to be better people ourselves. But sooner or later they leave. A spouse gets a job offer in another city, or graduate school beckons, or it’s simply time to move on. We promise to keep in touch, and often we do. So it’s goodbye, but not really goodbye.
Not until I went to Canada to say goodbye to Carolynn.
In 1989, The Sun was looking for a new business manager. I interviewed one applicant after another; one after another, I turned them down. I hated to disappoint them, but as Somerset Maugham wrote, “It is a funny thing about life. If you refuse to accept anything but the best you very often get it. . . . It is as though Fate said, ‘This man’s a perfect fool, he’s asking for perfection,’ and then, just out of her feminine willfulness, flung it in his lap.”
One afternoon, Carolynn Schwartz walked into my office. I liked her from the start. Maybe it was her eyes. (I know: eyes can deceive, but so can a résumé.) She had short dark hair and a friendly face. No makeup. Clothes chosen for comfort rather than style. At thirty, she looked like the kind of physically vigorous woman who might have been happier working outdoors all day than in an office. She told me she had just moved to North Carolina from Winnipeg, Canada, with the man she loved. I told her The Sun was about to move, too, from the dilapidated yellow house where we were sitting to a larger building just around the corner.
The cool of the morning was already gone, and the sun shone through my open window. We talked for a while. I liked her warmth and intelligence. I liked the way she held an idea and turned it and turned it, trying to see it from all sides. Her prairie wholesomeness was tinged with a quirky sense of humor; I liked that, too. Though she’d been trained as a geologist (she called herself a “recovering scientist”), she had once managed an office and knew her way around computers — a good thing, since ours were frequently breaking down.
I warned her we worked hard at The Sun, that I couldn’t pay her what she was worth, that I was a compulsively neat boss who didn’t like to see paper clips and postage stamps socializing in the same tray. Could she live with that? She said she could.
As business manager, Carolynn was responsible for all the mundane, unglamorous, noneditorial aspects of putting out the magazine. This isn’t a side of The Sun most people think about, any more than they think about a restaurant’s hot, steamy kitchen when they go out to eat. But whether she was packing a carton, writing paychecks, or handling a subscriber problem, Carolynn did what needed to be done without complaint and with meticulous attention to detail. She was one of those unsung heroes who keep the world on track; without them, no independent magazine survives for long, though the accolades usually go to others.
Increasingly, I turned to her for advice. Though eager for The Sun to grow, she was wary of cynical marketing gimmicks. And when I decided to drop advertising from the magazine in 1990, I couldn’t have hoped for a more enthusiastic response. A different business manager might have raised an eyebrow, encouraged me not to be such a headstrong idealist. But Carolynn was a headstrong idealist, too.
Sometimes we enjoyed acting silly together. At the end of a tough week, we’d empty our straw wastepaper baskets, then turn them upside down, put them over our heads, and parade around the office. I’d kid her about her Canadian accent; she’d respond by mimicking a Southern belle. But she turned more serious when our fickle computer network broke down. The longer it took her to trouble-shoot the problem, the angrier she’d get. And the angrier she got, the louder she’d curse. (Our nickname for her was “She Who Makes the Floor Rumble When She Roars.”) Unfortunately, I knew as little about getting her to calm down as I did about computers. If I suggested she call a consultant, she’d scowl and insist she could fix the problem herself. And usually she did.
She was a big help to me when my own circuitry flickered. In 1991, during a difficult time in my life — The Sun’s future uncertain, my marriage in trouble — I started having panic attacks. (I don’t like the phrase; it makes the experience sound manageable and contained, like a sneezing fit.) I’d be sitting at my desk, writing a letter or reading a manuscript, when, for no apparent reason, I’d suddenly be filled with a sense of dread. Then a wave of terror would engulf me: primal, unreasoning, a tidal monstrosity sweeping away everything in its path. I wanted to run; there was nowhere to run. I’d stumbled into an emotional hell realm where the devil called the shots. I didn’t believe in the devil; I knew that these panic attacks had to do with my deepest fears of loss and abandonment. The devil wasn’t impressed.
My wife, Norma, was studying to be a doctor. Medical school had been grueling for us; residency was worse. We knew that four-fifths of married medical students got divorced before they finished their training. I had a theory. My theory was that the lucky ones, the ones who stayed married, had unusually self-reliant partners — people who didn’t fall apart merely because their spouses were seldom home. My theory was that I wasn’t such a person.
Norma and I were seeing a marriage counselor, for the same reason you’d dial 911 if your house were in flames. Each week, our therapist joined us on our narrow ledge high above the ground. This was my third marriage; I knew the danger of being up this high, and the folly of looking down.
Carolynn encouraged me to look up instead. We started taking regular afternoon walks, ostensibly to talk about The Sun’s troubled finances, but mostly to give me a chance to unburden myself — if not of my fears, then at least of my shame at being so overwhelmed by them. We’d meander through the working-class neighborhood near the office, past the small houses with their carefully tended gardens, past teenagers shooting baskets — sometimes getting lost in the maze of winding side streets as I talked on and on about how lost I felt. Carolynn had never been in therapy and didn’t use the same vocabulary as some of my more psychologically oriented friends. But she was an attentive listener, open-hearted and open-minded. Though she was surprised at how dependent I was on Norma, I never felt judged, nor did she pretend to know what was best for me.
Eventually, my psyche stopped terrifying itself with rumors of its imminent destruction. My marriage survived. The Sun survived. I survived, if a little the worse for wear.
My walks with Carolynn weren’t intended cultivate a closer relationship, but they brought us closer. I learned that she was a voracious reader who always had a stack of books nearby; that she sewed many of her own clothes and was a pretty decent carpenter; that she played trombone in a swing band. I learned that winter was the season when she felt most alive. She had grown up under the dome of a huge prairie sky and, now that she was living in balmy North Carolina, she missed hard weather. I’d never known anyone so enamored of snow and ice and cold that cuts to the bone. I also learned a little — very little — about her relationship with the man she’d followed to North Carolina. Though they were legally married, she referred to Mark as her “housemate” rather than her husband, and they lived separate lives. For the most part, this seemed to suit Carolynn, who cherished time alone, though I sensed that she might have preferred a little less of it. I shouldn’t worry, she once told me, if I didn’t understand the relationship; it was as enigmatic to her as it was to her friends.
I knew Carolynn would be leaving the U.S. when her visa expired. At the end of 1992, it was time to say goodbye. She was sad to leave The Sun, she said, but she missed her family and friends, and those harsh prairie winters. “I expect you’ll be a regular at the kitchen table in my head,” she wrote me in a goodbye note. “Pull up a chair and settle in. I’ll put the coffee on.”
I’d call from time to time. She preferred to write, from a cafe in Winnipeg or from her cabin in the woods. She was happy there, watching the snow whip past her window. She once wrote that, halfway through a forty-five-minute walk on a forty-below day, she had to stop and stuff an extra pair of mittens between her second and third pairs of pants because her knees were starting to get frostbite. “On the theory,” she added, “that there’s no such thing as weather that’s too cold, just clothing that’s inadequate, the next day I added more clothing. Worked fine.”
She changed jobs a few times, then started her own business as a computer consultant. I chose my words carefully when I asked how that was going. Over the years, our contact became less regular, but we never lost touch. When she wrote, in September of last year, that she and her husband had separated, I wasn’t surprised. But the rest of her letter stunned me. She’d been in and out of doctors’ offices all summer with an undiagnosed ailment. Now she had the diagnosis: cancer. She’d been operated on twice. The prognosis wasn’t good.
That night I called her, and we spent a long time on the phone. I tried to be encouraging, but she had cervical melanoma, a rare and deadly disease. She wanted to be among the 5 percent who survive, she said, but she couldn’t deny the facts. She had quit working full time to be able to enjoy the things that mattered to her; her doctor had told her not to wait. Yes, she was afraid. Though she felt supported by family and friends, she knew she walked this road alone. It was one thing, she said, to know you’re going to die one day — but this was like having the tip of a knife pressed against your nose.
For the next few days, I couldn’t get Carolynn out of my mind. Her news left me sad and bewildered. I wondered what I’d do if l had just received a terminal diagnosis. Work less? Meditate more? I had no idea. Maybe I’d move to Hawaii. Or maybe I’d spend a year writing a poem. Maybe I’d start giving tens and twenties to beggars and whistle at every pretty woman who walked by. Or maybe I’d go to every clinic that promised a cure, drink nothing but wheat-grass juice, and give myself coffee enemas twice a day. Maybe I’d bolt the windows and lock the door, try to convince Death I’d moved to another city, no forwarding address. Or maybe the way I’m living, I thought, is exactly how I’m choosing to spend whatever time I have left. We think we know something about the arc of a life. We know nothing.
Carolynn and I talked frequently over the next few months. For the time being, she felt healthy. She had recovered from the surgery, changed her diet, joined a cancer support group. She knew that, if the cancer metastasized, there’d be nothing the doctors could do. But she accepted this. And she didn’t want to waste the rest of what might be a very short life searching for a healing miracle; the scientist in her was skeptical of many alternative therapies, and she’d grown weary of trying to sort out the conflicting advice. The cancer might recur, or it might not, she said. In the meantime, she was going to live as deeply and exuberantly as she could.
She said she was still planning to come to The Sun’s twenty-fifth-anniversary celebration, though that was months away. I thought about making a trip to Winnipeg to see her. But all I did was think about it.
Then, last February, Carolynn wrote to say that she’d received “another blow, the worst blow”: her sister Betty Rose was dead — killed instantly when a tractor-trailer slammed into her car. Carolynn’s family was devastated. They’d thought Death was napping in the corner, waiting patiently for Carolynn. They’d thought Carolynn was the one. But Death had stood up suddenly, clearing his throat. Death always sleeps with one eye open.
Again I considered flying up to Winnipeg. But I was busy. I hated flying. The trip would be expensive. My reasons lined up like soldiers.
On May 1, I got a call from Carolynn’s sister Diane. Things had taken a turn for the worse, Diane said. Carolynn was too ill to call, but she wanted me to know the cancer had spread to her lungs. She might live another few months, the doctors said. Then again, she might live only a few weeks. I booked a flight right away.
As the day of my departure approached, however, I started feeling increasingly anxious. The truth is, I wanted to go to Winnipeg, and I didn’t want to go. I wanted to honor our friendship. I wanted to be there for Carolynn in a compassionate way. But instead of feeling compassion, I was feeling more and more afraid: Afraid of flying. Afraid of making the trip alone. Afraid of spending a weekend with a dying friend.
On the day before the flight, the devil returned. He swaggered through the door, knocked me down, put his knee on my chest, dared me to get up so he could knock me down again; dared me to get on the plane and defy gravity; dared me to pretend I had anything to offer Carolynn when my own fear of death was so great. Desperately, I started looking for a way out: Maybe I’d talk Norma into coming with me. Maybe I’d drive instead, or take a train. Maybe I’d put off the trip for a week or two. I’d call Carolynn; she’d understand. How disgusted with myself I felt: Carolynn was dying, and I was the one having the panic attack.
What was going on? Instead of mourning the fact that Carolynn was dying, I was pushing my sadness away. I was a man who could talk about sadness, and write about it, but actually to feel it — in my chest, in my belly — was often more than I could bear. Some men distanced themselves from sadness by getting drunk or starting a fight. I attacked myself. It was an old, familiar pattern: I was afraid of being sad, and ashamed of being afraid. Each emotion blanketed the one beneath it, and I was trapped underneath those blankets, struggling to breathe.
I almost picked up the phone and called off the trip. But I couldn’t. I needed to say goodbye to Carolynn — and not in a letter, and not with a phone call. Somehow, I managed to throw off the blankets and get on the plane.
I flew into Winnipeg early on Saturday and drove to the neighborhood where Carolynn’s mother, Phyllis, lived. Carolynn wanted to die at home, not in a hospital; Phyllis, a retired nurse, was caring for her with the help of other family members and friends. The strain of the past few months showed on Phyllis’s face: one daughter dead, another dying. Phyllis said Carolynn’s health was deteriorating rapidly. She’d already lost one lung to tumors. It was good that I’d come when I had.
Carolynn was asleep in an upstairs room. There was an oxygen tank on the floor, a stack of books near the bed. I stood beside her, listening to her labored breathing, studying her pale, gaunt face. After a few minutes, she stirred and opened her eyes, then smiled warmly and stretched out her hand to greet me. I leaned over to hug her, careful not to squeeze too hard.
She was too weak, and too woozy from painkillers and sedatives, to be able to talk for any length of time. She’d be lucid for a few minutes, then slip away. After twenty or thirty seconds, she’d open her eyes and ask how long she’d been gone. Sometimes I needed to remind her of what we’d been talking about. Sometimes she mumbled something I couldn’t understand, then asked, “Am I mumbling again?” This was disconcerting at first, but I got used to it. It was like talking to a very stoned friend.
She said she wasn’t afraid of dying, but that she was sad to say goodbye to everyone and everything she loved. She said she had tried to accept her fate — not always gratefully, not always gracefully, but she had tried. She paused. She wasn’t afraid of death, she insisted. But she was afraid of dying painfully, gasping for air. When she said this, her face showed it, her dark eyes big with fear.
We talked about her family. She was worried about how they would be affected by her death — her mother, especially. She was also concerned about her husband, Mark. They had reconciled, and he was helping to care for her. But he was burdened by the past and full of self-recrimination. And he knew that, no matter how dutiful a husband he was now, he was about to lose Carolynn for good.
Sometimes I just held her hands or rubbed her feet; touching seemed important. I reflected on the distracted, hurried kind of contact I often had with people I cared about. Well, there was nowhere to rush to now. She dozed off for a while, then opened her eyes and said she’d dreamt about a “Victorian death scene,” in which those who loved her were gathered around her at the end, touching her, cradling her body as she peacefully drifted away. She asked me to visualize such a passage, to “invite” it from the universe, as we used to invite more readers for The Sun.
Carolynn asked for a glass of juice, then wanted to know if it had sugar in it; she’d cut sugar and meat out of her diet shortly after getting her diagnosis. I must have looked surprised. “I bet you’re wondering why I care at this point,” she said. I admitted I was. She smiled mischievously. “Consistency,” she said.
That night, after I got back to my hotel, I lay in bed and stared at the ceiling. I thought about these bodies we call home: how amazingly reliable and how appallingly unreliable they are, such miracles of nature and such natural disasters. Whether we praise them or take them utterly for granted, follow the rules or break the rules, eat low-fat or high-fat, sooner or later something goes wrong. At the end of a long hallway a door opens. Someone calls your name out. No, there’s been no mistake. The mistake was in imagining this would never happen.
I was thankful Carolynn had come to terms with death, but I knew I hadn’t. Making this trip had certainly reminded me of that. Despite all my praying and meditating, despite moments when I’d actually reached through the veil and touched something real, death still felt to me like the greatest injury, the deepest insult, the stupid punch line to God’s dirtiest joke.
I’d read the required books. I’d done the required drugs. I recognized, philosophically, that nothing really dies; that separateness is an illusion; that death is terrifying only because of my attachment to my ego; that my ego isn’t who I really am. Yet the illusion of separateness was no less beguiling just because I knew it was an illusion. I might as well have been a fish who recognized, philosophically, that it was possible to stand upright and walk on dry land. But here I was, still swimming in circles.
The next day, I got to spend more time alone with Carolynn. Mostly, I just kept her company while she slept. The window near the bed was wide open; fresh air made it easier for her to breathe, she said. So I sat there shivering a little, watching her life ebb away.
When we’re sick or injured, I thought, we can usually look forward to a day when we’ll be feeling well. But when someone is in the terminal stages of cancer, what is there to look forward to except a relatively quick, painless death? And I knew Carolynn might not be allowed even that reprieve.
I choked back a sob. In the presence of a dying friend, death seemed more real to me than anything else — certainly more real than all my philosophy. A breeze blew through the open window. My beliefs were like that breeze, I thought: wispy, insubstantial. I imagined them drifting out the open window, sailing out over the rooftops of Winnipeg.
How ironic, I thought, that at home and at my office, I surrounded myself with reminders of impermanence: quotes tacked over my desk; religious art on the wall. But I hated to be reminded, by life itself, that nothing lasts.
Carolynn was still asleep. I glanced at the stack of books near her bed, books she wasn’t going to finish. I recalled the stubborn young nonconformist who owned a car but took the bus to work each day. (“I believe in public transportation,” she said.) I recalled her joking about becoming an eccentric old woman who’d live in a house with a dozen cats and thumb her nose at society’s norms.
I stopped trying to hold back the tears.
Here, finally, was the sadness I’d been running from, the sadness I’d thought I wouldn’t be able to bear. But as I sat there weeping, I realized that my sadness was more bearable than my fear of being sad. Here was grief, and here was my love for Carolynn. Here was her ragged breathing, and here were the shouts of children playing in the street. I felt close to some elemental mystery, to something sad but tender, sad but beautiful, sad but achingly alive. I didn’t pretend to understand it. All I understood was that Carolynn was dying, and all that mattered was that I was here. I wasn’t wishing that I was back in North Carolina. I wasn’t worrying about whatever heartache awaited me next week or next year. Despite my fear of flying and my fear of dying, despite my fear of living, I was here.
Carolynn opened her eyes. She said it meant a great deal to her that I’d come.
I said it meant a great deal to me, too.
She looked at me more intently, the way she had on those walks years ago.
“It’s all right to cry,” she said.
Diane called me in North Carolina a week later to tell me Carolynn had died. The end wasn’t peaceful. Carolynn died gasping for air, just as she had feared. She was extremely agitated — despite the painkillers and sedatives, despite dying at home surrounded by loved ones, despite their good intentions, despite everyone’s prayers. Despite everything, Carolynn was dead.
It was almost ten years from the day when Carolynn and I had helped move The Sun from the ramshackle yellow house where we’d met to its new location. We were just getting to know each other then. I spent the following weekend at the new office moving furniture around, hanging pictures, fretting, rearranging, trying to make everything as beautiful as possible. I looked forward to Carolynn’s arrival on Monday, when she’d tell me what she thought. I imagined she’d smile and say something encouraging. She knew I was always trying to create beauty, yet often ignored the beauty around me. Carolynn rarely made that mistake. To her, a field covered with freshly fallen snow was more beautiful than any arrangement of furniture. Nothing could be better than bundling up in three layers of clothes and taking a walk in the moonlight. Twenty below and growing colder. Seeing her breath in the cold winter air.