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A Last Time

In my stack of still-unread holiday cards, I was looking forward to Chuck Vandersee’s Christmas letter. His were the only ones I’ve ever enjoyed.

I read it last week, not knowing he was dead.

I found out just a couple of days ago that he died Jan. 2, from a heart attack.

You might read the column and figure you know something about me. But what do you know or why would you care about my friends? And it’s not as if Chuck were a close friend, either. Not even geographically—he lived in Charlottesville, Va.

But we were friends. And he died suddenly. And I’m not sure how to mourn.

I worked for him as a research assistant when I was in graduate school at the University of Virginia. He, along with several others, was editing six volumes of Henry Adams’ letters.

I’m not sure how we became friends. I didn’t like him at all at first. I thought he was snippy and aloof. But over time I grew to know him. Grew to respect his commitment to his students, to the university, to his church. I grew to admire that he valued friendship, as I do. He wrote and visited lots of his former students and friends and family scattered across the country.

I loved how he loved words. And learning. And watching others learn.

He loved eating. I remember a peach-and-cream tart I’d made to bring to a party. He’d eaten it—a lot of it—with hungry pleasure. He’d eaten it as if it were words. Every time I make that tart I think of Chuck.

My girls and I had dinner with him a few years ago when I’d finally gone back to Charlottesville after a long time away.

Madeleine didn’t remember him; she’d only been a toddler when he’d first seen her. That time, he’d taken us all out to brunch, sat her on his lap and fed her spoonfuls of chocolate mousse. She’d liked him then, all right.

But over our dinner in Charlottesville, Chuck and I talked about books. About poems. We all ate too much. But the girls were a little restless. Who was this strange man their mother was talking to?

And Chuck was a bit strange. He embodied most of the professorial clichés—a slight shabbiness in dress, forearms not accustomed to muscling through more than pages, some facial hair, though damned if I can remember whether it was mustache and full beard or what.

But it wasn’t only his physical presence. Chuck spoke a string of words uttered on an audible exhalation. He was excited by what he studied and assumed his excitement was infectious.

Why wouldn’t you find St. Gaudens’ memorial to Henry Adams’ suicidal wife a subject worthy of a pocketful of snapshots? Why wouldn’t you want to read a Christmas letter contrasting the merits of a book by Anne Lamott (not great) with one by Zora Neale Hurston (great)?

He once sent me a set of hand-wrapped brooms in varying sizes accompanied by an elaborate explanation for why they had literary significance for me—apart from their obvious household uses.

From time to time I see older people who are close friends and one of them is failing. One of them may be losing her memory or her ability to look after herself physically. And then her friend—her friend of many decades—once a peer, now becomes a caretaker.

The caretaking friend may smile at me when her friend says something incomprehensible in a moment of dementia. She smiles at me gently, the way she would smile at a child speaking with only the barest knowledge of a language yet to be learned. But she is not smiling about a child; she is smiling about her friend and a language she has forgotten.

Or she is helping her friend to dress herself—not because it is her wedding day and she is smoothing the peau de soie skirt or straightening a sash—but because her friend can no longer manage to hook her own bra or tie her own sturdy, orthopedic shoes.

Sometimes I see, between tenderly caring partners, one of them playing midwife to the other’s decline, knowing as if instinctively that the surest way to preserve dignity is in continued, unabashed affection.

These images fill me with a strange brand of bittersweet curiosity about what is to come:

Will I be cared for by a partner who once knew me as an equal in passion and wit and competency? Or will I swab the mouth I’ve kissed or dress the body I’d known as fierce and vital?

Will I be old and helping one of my dear friends to dress herself? Will I be spooning her little bites of ice cream and wiping away what trails behind on her lips? Or will one of them be doing the same to me?

Even though bittersweet, those are images of connectedness, or presence with one another.

Even if I had lived in Charlottesville, I was not a close friend of Chuck’s; I would not have been a caretaking friend. Nor did he decline slowly. His death was sudden and he died without need of caretakers.

But I find I don’t know how to mourn my loss. He was an absent presence in my life, always. That’s how it is with friendships that are warm, but distant. They are, perhaps, the easiest to take for granted, since it’s always expected they will continue in their comradely and sporadic fashion.

Perhaps those friendships are also among the hardest to mourn. I want one last conversation, one last meal together, so I can be reminded that any meal and any conversation, anytime and with anybody, can be the last one.

I want to say what friends who are not close friends say often, but usually not with the intention to make it happen: I wish we’d seen each other more. Because this final, unheralded absence, in a friendship where absence was the norm, makes me wish I could have given him some care. Makes me wish that just once more I could have handed him a fork and watched him take with relish, just a bit, just a final little bit, of peach-and-cream tart.

—Jo Page

 You can contact Jo Page at jopage@graceniska.org.


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