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Mt. Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge Massachusetts

Yesterday a group of us gathered at the Blue Spruce Knoll at Mt. Auburn cemetery, the burial site of Bonnie Horne. Bonnie died in January, and she carefully chose that spot as the place where she wanted her name engraved in stone. As was her deeply methodical and thorough nature, the decision was made with a decisive clarity. Even at the very end of her long struggle, she knew what she wanted.

A day spent in sober funereal thought was more appropriate than I could have known. Saturday was the last day of life for my best friend from my college years, Becky Abildskov Houck. Partnered by chance with Patrick Swayze, both were diagnosed with pancreatic cancer at the same time, and they died within weeks of each other. Like Patrick, she loved her work and didn’t want to stop. She was a professor of biology at the University of Portland, and year after year she was awarded for her inspirational teaching. She continued to teach while her body failed her, determined to keep doing what she loved most. On a Facebook page set up to keep everyone up to date on the news of her illness, hundreds of her students have written about how deeply she changed their lives. She loved biology, and she loved her students. In the spirit of my earlier posts about social contagion and the umbra of our influence on each other, Becky’s radiance was huge.

So this is a morning of mourning. A time to sit with the grief that comes from the loss of people who penetrated into my most interior realms—people I have eaten meals with, slept in the woods next to, shared suffering and celebration, people whose complexities and gifts put me in a state of cathedral awe. The best I have to offer to myself in this honoring is silence and quiet.

This morning my friend Andrew’s weekly email was full of the contemplative thoughts that come with a landmark birthday. I found his words well suited for the stream of feeling I am in.

What does it mean to turn 60? When my grandma Camilla couldn’t resolve a doubt or question, she would mentally shelve it, confident that with enough time it would sort out on its own. More by inattention than deliberate strategy, my own shelves groan now under decades of unresolved quandaries & qualms, a packed pantry of questions, virtual rows of mason jars preserving every conundrum, suspended in time like stewed tomatoes in sauce, home canned gristle, the indigestible peel or rind of scepticism, lazy half lies substituted for truth, cowardly retreats from light, all awaiting resolution. In one jar is the nature of time & matter & space. In another, how gods and matter came to be. In another, like a medical curio, my own brain suspended in a serum of impenetrable mystery.

At age 60 I feel entitled at last to pop the seal on some jars and see what I can make of the old contents that perplex me. The honored great – from Bergson or Nietzsche to Buddha or my Mormon heritage — point in various directions, like the goofy scarecrow with a stick up his spine, asked which way to the Wizard by the girl in the braids whose own journey ends sadly in addiction and distress: one straw-stuffed white glove points South to beauty, the other to the North Star and truth; then the stuffed arms rewind like a windmill, this time one glove indicating order and reason, the other glove dionysian excess. But at some point, as one’s allotted time approaches its limits, directions must be chosen based on one’s own intuitions. Perhaps at 60 it is permitted to worry myself into knots over the perplexities of existence, to my soul’s very content. That would be my birthday wish.


Deep, Bog, Night, by Fred H. C. Liang

I bought this painting by Fred Liang last year after my mother died. It was part of a gorgeous show of Liang’s work at Bernie Toale’s gallery in the South End of Boston. From the minute I saw it, I felt as though I had found the perfect repository for my newly acquired funereal sensibilities.

The image here is painfully inadequate; Liang is known primarily as a printmaker, so his layering of the paint is actually more reminiscent of a wood engraving, with elegaic lines reflecting the cross grain of wood and the surgical exactness that can be etched into that hard surface. There is an underpainting of reticulated white lines that is also hard to see in this image, as if the nappy velvet of the dominant black forms is still jockeying for dominance. Perhaps the white substrate is in fact another way to see death (a concept in several Asian traditions) and the black is more representational of what we know as the terrestrially material. And a small patch of mint green in the lower right quadrant (which is not delectable at all in this reproduction), subtly threads itself between the black and the white, offering another anchor of a completely different order.

To be truthful, assignation of significance for any of these forms doesn’t really matter to me. This painting, hanging close at hand and in my sights every day, is an ongoing source of mystery and awe. And every time I look into it I feel I am giving death a pass, offering it some familiarity in a life that, until recently, had little congress with its irrevocability.

My friend Bonnie’s service yesterday was just what she had outlined for herself over a year ago. She asked 4 of her friends, myself included, to speak on her behalf. Her husband Gerald also took a moment at the end to offer up his final adieu to his wife of nearly 50 years. As seems to be my experience with these memorials in the past, a few hours spent in communal remembrance of someone you love brings its own sense of completion. I came back home exhausted, but I did feel as if some arcs in me had completed their designated paths. Bonnie’s arc, one that spanned so many years of my life, has another home now.

A note for my readers who knew Bonnie, some of whom were not able to attend the service: Anyone who would like a copy of my tribute to her, please email me.

Tonight I said goodbye to my friend of 30 years, Bonnie Horne.

She was a hero in the truest sense. Battling not one but several cancers over the last 10 years, she defied the odds and the expectations of her small garrison of doctors at Dana Farber over and over again. She braved multiple operations, repeated chemotherapies and the slow decline of her healthy, sturdy body. And she went about this protracted struggle with a fortitude and a will that could at times almost blind you with the white hot intensity of her desire to stay on just a little longer. And during that time many of us learned from her—about grace under pressure, the power of the mind/body connection, the warrior’s tenacity needed to navigate the overwhelmingly complex rat’s nest also known as the American medical system.

Bonnie was unlike anyone else I know. She was one of those rare people who everybody likes. I have never met anyone who had a sour thing to say about her. Part of her “universal donor” appeal was because she so genuinely delighted in human beings of every stripe and size. But it was also because she had a masterful ability to be diplomatic without being disingenuous, candid yet tactful, an exceptional listener who also had an irrepressible wit. Each of my children had their own very personal relationship with her, one that did not come with that passive-aggressive, eye rolling “whatever” response that is the easiest dismissal of anyone over 30. None of that for Bonnie. She was cool. They all said so.

Bonnie’s friendships exemplify the tolerance and latitude of love that she lived in. She was as comfortable and easy with her MacArthur Genius Grantee pal Laurel as she was with the receptionist at the cancer center. Although she had a very defined sensibility and had strong opinions about many things in her life, she was not a judger of other humans. Aesthetics demanded a high bar, but the doorway for people was big and wide.

Over a year ago Bonnie read Barak Obama’s book, Dreams of my Father. She told us then that she had a hunch he would win. Back then that was a risky position and one that none of us were willing to take with quite the same level of conviction. So it was not without significance that she lived to see his inauguration, setting out on her own the day after this new era of our lives began.

The hole in me is deep and wide. As it should be.

My daughter Kellin with Bonnie Horne, Christmas 2008