A single flame flickered beneath a portrait of Anne at her funeral. One candle. A few flowers. Her soft face painted along with a strand of pearls sneaking out from under a blue dress.
Those were things you could touch. But Anne, the woman who had mentored me, who had called me a “writer” before I believed it myself, had worked in public radio. So I wanted to touch her voice.
I kept looking for her in the pews of that old Baptist church, finding her in the sweet hazelnut eyes of a relative, behind the wet cheeks of her mother.
“If she were here,” one reverend said, “she wouldn’t want us crying.”
If she were here, I wouldn’t cry. I would weep. I would run straight up the aisle, grab hold of her, and tell her I’m sorry she was 44 and had been so strong all her life and then, at the end, too weak to speak.
There are times you need to be alone. When I heard that Anne had lost her battle with colon cancer, I knew where I had to be: squished up against the edge of a hard pew, hearing Anne’s deep voice, perfect for the airwaves, in my head—even as the pastor preached with gusto.
“Don’t be in the way, Taylor!” she once warned before I tagged along with a team of producers on assignment. She must have been teasing. She knew I was too intimidated to make a sound.
“Write me something I can use,” she admonished after I sent her a clip without a news peg.
And most recently, she’d written in an email, “We’re ready for the novel. Stay on your mission.”
To be alone, I left Paul and the kids and flew to Chicago last weekend. In one trip, I would both say goodbye to Anne and meet my newborn niece, Mynne. The space where I grieved would be the space where I adored perfect eyelids and nostrils so small you could miss them.
Laughter helped. It served as a buffer between the highs and lows of emotion. During Anne’s service, I waited to see how the pastor would weave Jesus into public radio. Black preachers do that, you know. They’ll fit Jesus into a bucket of chicken, talkin’ bout, “He was the Original Colonel” and “Taste and see that Jesus is better than all the spices-uh!” Give a preacher the chance, and he will run with NPR’s program lineup, as in: All Things Considered, Jesus is Real, and Jesus Breathes Fresh Air Into Your Life, and Jesus is the Talk of the Nations-uh!
Anne would have laughed. Anne probably laughed.
After the service, I climbed into the driver’s seat of my sister’s car and exhaled. I was struck by the simplicity, the finality of it all: Anne was gone. That was the memorial. There was nothing left to plan. Her awards, though incredible, would be packed away. Her title given to another producer. Even President Obama’s letter of condolence to her parents would never breathe on its own.
I wanted to take something with me. Not a program. Not a slice of cake or cup of punch. I didn’t even want a resolution to “Live every day like it’s my last” because I have an anxiety disorder, so that makes me nervous.
Reflecting on the service, I found life—evidence that Anne’s work and wisdom still move among us—in the stories shared by her colleagues, family, and former interns. Most narratives, when stripped of time and place, told us these things:
Seven hundred miles away from my home and family, dressed in all black and sitting in a borrowed car, I began to see the lines come together. The corners sharpen, and the pictures form: An empty pitcher, a drying bucket at the well. A patch of ground saturated with water, the feet of Jesus cleansed for burial. Three words seemed strong enough to hold all the heartbreak, all the prayer, all the love, and all the loss I’d felt over the past month.
Pour It Out.
How could I give my all? How could I live in such a way that no matter when I died, folks wouldn’t mourn what could have been?
Anne had found ways. She’d coached and encouraged her interns long after they’d left the cubicle across from her office. She’d made time to call her parents from her desk in the mornings. And in a profession that requires you to produce under pressure, she’d been known for her laugh.
I couldn’t mimic Anne. I’d have to find my own fab-u-lous way, as Anne might have said. But as I drove from the crowded church lot, I realized that maybe loving Paul and raising our two kids in a college dorm isn’t a bad place to start.
Here, between cinderblock walls and paper-thin ceilings, in the smallest space we’ve ever shared as a couple, we have found the space to grow. Paul and I had previously experienced life with all the bells and whistles. Two years into our marriage, we moved into a new townhome with hardwood floors and stainless steel. We had too much space and worked to fill the three levels with furniture we didn’t need. This is where we’ll raise our kids one day, we said, to justify each purchase.
Now we work to get rid of anything we don’t need. Let Paul find a pair of socks I haven’t worn for a week or a half-empty bottle of Benadryl. He’ll give it away to “the veterans.” I have no idea who these veterans are. I picture them as copies of my 7th grade shop teacher, sitting around smoking and playing backgammon in a cellar. They’re arguing over an episode of M*A*S*H when someone shows up with our donation—a bag of baby teethers, old sneakers, and an Introduction to Swahili workbook.
I still have to practically climb over Tophs’ crib to pee at night and store my extra tampons in the freezer. But even with the toothpaste falling into the toilet and the trashcan doubling as Tophs’ walker, I would do it again. We are doing it again. We’re staying in the dorm another year. We’ve never been forced to simplify this much—to clear out the clutter and find what matters—and we like it.
Here, in the same group of dorms where I stayed for freshman orientation, I’ve also had to face my biggest fear: that I failed. That I graduated with honors from a university I adored and then wasted it all. That if I had just chosen the right major or the right internship or been more extroverted, I could have been the next Katie Couric. At some point this year, while living and socializing among students and academics, the idea that I am “just” a stay-at-home became someone else’s problem, not mine. Somewhere between Elie Mae asking to hold my hand in the car and Tophs stretching the collar of my every shirt and Paul taking me on a date to learn the Foxtrot, I fell back in love with my life. As is. The unhealthy, unmet expectations I had for myself melted, draining into the storm sewer at the bottom of our hill.
Here is the place, where, once at peace with myself, I met students. Here I hung out with Christina, a graduating student who wore her hair in a bun and an engagement ring on her finger. She reminded me of my fourth-year self. As Elie Mae and Tophs played with their toys, we talked and paused and talked some more, and I realized she didn’t mind silence. I learned I could enjoy conversation with a twenty-something without wishing I were a twenty-something again. I could share my life with students without becoming an extrovert.
Here, in a city historically stratified by race, Paul and I have dug deep for our kids. We’ve researched and prayed and nagged to find a diverse preschool for Eliot, where she’ll start next week. We’ve managed to celebrate Tophs’ first birthday with a room full of tykes who don’t share a complexion. Here we’ve remembered the options our parents had when raising us and have arrogantly hoped for more.
I spent last weekend in Chicago saying goodbye to Anne and hello to Mynne and wondering what we do with the life in between. I listened to the story of Anne being baptized in the hospital, and I helped my sister bathe Mynne for the first time. I saw the empty face of a mother missing her baby and the tired but joyful eyes of a mother getting to know hers. I set out for closure and for doting, and I only accomplished one of the two. I still don’t know what closure is.
But I didn’t leave that church empty-handed. I left with a picture, with a prompt—to give more than I store. No, to give it all. To pour myself out for my family, for a student, for a stranger. I don’t even know if that’s possible. All I can tell you is that I’m in the right place to try.