On a Saturday in mid-March 2016 my writing teacher died. Susan was fifty-four. She had not only lived fourteen years longer than the doctors had predicted, she had lived her days as if she would never die—full of optimism, determination, humour and sometimes rage.
In the fall of 2015, two weeks before my 68th birthday, I signed up for a creative writing course being offered through the local seniors college. The journey began with a locked door on a frigid Thursday afternoon. The church secretary had forgotten us. We stood, seven or eight of us, backs to the wind, crumpled inside our insufficient clothing. I looked at people’s shoes. What type of older woman wears bright pink Mary Janes or fashionable but stalwart brown leather hiking boots? I had on my perennial Birkenstocks—with socks.
Twenty minutes later, the apologetic late-comer opened the door. Susan’s friend helped her and her paraphernalia—computer, briefcase, refreshments—into the classroom..
Around the long table we sat. Introduced ourselves. An artist. A businessman. A teacher. A traveler. Not surprisingly, the artist wore the fuchsia Mary Janes, the traveler the brown leather boots. Susan’s turn came. A published writer—poems and short stories. Wryly funny. Knowledgeable. Articulate. I knew that I was going to enjoy these Thursday afternoons.
When we read our work, Susan read hers. Bits and pieces came together. A car accident at sixteen. A quadriplegic. The illnesses, hospitalizations, pain. She never dwelt on those. Always the elfin grin, the bright eyes, the optimistic spirit. These were what we saw. Not the withered body. Not the twisted limbs. Not the wheelchair.
Susan bubbled information. Best books for memoir, poetry, story-telling. Writing workshops, publishing, writers’ groups. She inspired confidence. Guided our journeys. Proof-read. Edited. Made suggestions. Laughed. Mused. Pontificated. She wrote not of suffering or pain, but of beauty and joy—the perfect “amethyst day.”
After Susan died, I stopped writing. Two months passed. Then, I dreamed of three women. One lost in grief; one lacking self-confidence; one unable to commit to anything. The grieving woman had given up waiting for me and left. The woman short on self-esteem reminded me of my youth—the little girl who could never do anything well enough. I needed to let her and her uncommitted friend go. I needed to be courageous, determined, confident. I needed to open myself to joy. I needed to be like Susan.
Sometimes only heartbreak allows us to see the truth of a relationship
Parallel to the south shore of the island, a rural highway meanders for miles and miles. Fifty or so years ago, in those places on the water side, where the land broadens into the sea, small cottage subdivisions sprang to life. Seven years ago, my husband and I bought a house opposite one of those tiny communities.
The man whose house we bought said that, despite the word “private” on the sign beside the lane that led through the subdivision to the shore, we were welcome to walk there. Just to be certain, on my first amble down that dusty road, I met a resident and inquired if I were trespassing. She laughed and said, “Of course not! That sign is meant for strangers—not for neighbours.” The affable woman introduced herself and invited me to enjoy the “most glorious sunsets” from one of the two Adirondack chairs that she and her husband had placed in their yard—just for that purpose. “Don’t come to the cottage and ask. Just use them,” she added.
Over the years, on rambles with my little dog, I became acquainted with most of the residents. A smile, a wave, a bit of news. Gardening tips, construction advice, or, the maritime favourite, weather observations—“The farmers could sure use some rain; they say the snow’s gonna be pretty bad this year”—were freely exchanged. A stronger familiarity grew up with some of the owners. We drove each other to workshops and meetings, and enjoyed lunches and walks together. One babysat my dog for several days and that same warm-hearted woman comforted me when my mother took ill and then died. Decorating ideas, artistic preferences and family stories flowed among us. More recently, a few months after a pandemic had washed over the world, two of the women and I enjoyed a movie together—physically distanced of course—while sipping half-glasses of chilled white wine.
She said I couldn’t walk there.
She said I was trespassing.
She broke my heart.
On a large lot abutting the western perimeter of the genial subdivision, is the home of a widow. The widow and I became friends and, after a time, engaged in some evenings of chit-chat and word games.
Last week, in the midst of a Scrabble-like game, the widow announced that I was not permitted to walk in the subdivision. I was trespassing. I was not a resident. I had no right to be there.
A few short, sharp sentences revoked an invitation of seven years standing. A carpet of cordial relationships was ripped from under me. I walked home that night believing myself a criminal. Never had I felt lonelier. Every one of my relatives and many dear friends lived thousands of miles away. Covid precluded non-essential travel. Covid canceled book clubs, yoga classes, restaurant lunches, museums and excursions. And now, the friendly people across the road were off-limits too.
The delivery of the indictment—harsh and unexpected—pained me as much as the accusation. I was blindsided. For three days, I grieved. For three nights, I cried myself to sleep. I considered phoning one of the residents and apologizing. I wrote a letter of apology. Never sent it. Thank goodness. On the evening of the fourth day, as I was watering the flowers at the front of our house, an acquaintance from the subdivision strolled up our driveway. Before she said a word, I burst into tears. Shocked, she told me that the express reason for her visit was to assure me that the new, much larger, private sign that had just been erected at the end of the lane did not apply to us or to our neighbours. We were welcome there, as always. I cried even more. Then, she did a miraculous thing. “What the heck, I don’t have Covid” she said, and wrapped her arms around me. She held me while I cried. Tears of perfect relief and unimaginable joy.
The good-will ambassador informed me that the widow, who owned no property in the private community, had no authority to speak on the behalf of the homeowners. I was baffled.
I phoned the widow. Told her what had transpired. Asked what had prompted her prohibition. She said, “It’s been that way for years.” No. It had not. I asked why she had never mentioned it before. She said, “I have.” No. She had not. Surely I would have remembered such a brutal injunction. I told her that for three nights I had cried myself to sleep. She replied, “Don’t be silly. Come over and have a game.” A game with her was the last thing I wanted. I wanted time—time to process all that had passed. I said it would be a while before I saw her again. I told her I would forgive her because I knew she had a good heart, but, I needed time for the hurt to heal.
Days passed. I thought perhaps there would be an apology. “Oh, Prairie, I’m sorry I hurt you. I never meant to.” None came.
Sometimes, only heart-break allows us to see the truth of a relationship. As I looked back over the years, I realized that the widow and I had little in common. Our diets, pastimes, intellectual pursuits, exercise preferences, health care choices, and spiritual beliefs differed vastly. The thread that united us was the Scrabble-like game.
I further recognized that our time together was peppered with the widows’ dismissals of my emotions and my accomplishments, and those of my family. These I had let pass. Because they were only “little hurts”, I could handle them. The last, the “big hurt”, the “Don’t be silly” hurt, allowed me to let the widow go.
I’ve been told that some “people of her generation”, the one preceding mine, armour themselves against pain and suffering. That “Don’t be silly” is a frequent admonition. Be that as it may, I prefer to forgive and be kind to those people—from a distance. To seek companionship elsewhere. With empathetic people. People who can climb out of their skin and into mine and feel my joys and my sorrows, share the pride of my achievements and the misery of my failures, without reference to themselves or their particular situation—past or present. I have a number of friends like that. I phoned a couple of them. They understood. They didn’t counsel me. They just listened. With their hearts. How blessed I am.
The women in the photos are some of my longest-standing “empath” friends.