I participate in a round-robin letter with four older cousins. I’m not sure which “order” or degree of cousins they are: I’ve never figured out the “third cousin once removed” business. All I know is that their mother was my grandfather’s sister.
It is the only snail-mail letter I write these days, though my cousins have been doing it for decades. I got into the circle when my mother died and I took her place.
The way it works is: From California Cousin, I receive an envelope containing four letters. I write my letter, put it with the others, and forward all of them in a single envelope to Missouri Cousin No. 1, first having removed that cousin’s letter from the group. She writes a new letter, puts hers with the others, and forwards the set to Missouri Cousin No. 2, having first removed the last letter from MC No. 2. In like fashion, the packet goes to South Dakota Cousin and back around to California Cousin, who removes my letter before forwarding his and the other new ones to me.
My cousins are up in their 90s and don’t get out much anymore, though all were avid travelers in their younger days. I try to fill my letters with news of the wider world. Recently I shared the photos I took of the Chihuly glass exhibit at the Dallas Arboretum. My cousins responded with enthusiasm.
“‘Deby,’” wrote one, “we are so blessed to have you share with us things we would never see otherwise because we probably will never get farther than the grocery store or church.” Another added, “I have been studying those beautiful pictures you sent, of the amazing development of glass as a fine art. Those designs seem to be impossible to me to be blown from glass. … That Dallas Arboretum must be a truly marvelous place to go.”
It IS marvelous, and I would not have seen it nor the Chihuly exhibit if a thoughtful friend had not invited me to go with her. Since the death of my husband nine months ago, I’ve mostly wrapped myself up in our home. Gene designed it and built it with his own strong skilled hands. The home he gave me is my refuge, and in all this world it is the place I feel closest to him. If not for friends inviting me out, I’d almost never leave it.
I’m grateful to my persistent friends who make the effort to draw me into their activities. Part of me knows that I am foolish to live in self-imposed isolation when the wider world is out there, offering much to see and do. If I live to the age of my cousins, I may wish I’d done more adventuring before the damnable infirmities of elderhood tie me down as they have shackled my cousins.
For now, though, I remain in a sort of limbo. During the past nine months, I have often felt that life is not livable. Gene and I together made one highly capable person. Without him, I feel empty. I no longer know what my role is.
Does Anybody Out There Need Me Now?
Sometimes, I do glimpse the part I play in other people’s lives. My letters bring a little joy to my housebound cousins. My reliability is a boon to my neighbors when they need a dog-sitter. My determination to find the perfect new owner for Gene’s 1987 Toyota Supra Turbo has paid off handsomely for the professional mechanic who bought it—he got a great deal on the car of his dreams. And not least, my experience of grief has deepened my love for a friend who is also mourning the loss of someone who meant everything.
Too, there’s my professional life. As an editor, I help writers write better. As a biographer, I’ve kept at least two figures of historical importance from slipping through the cracks. As a reader and a book buyer, I’ve supported the work of other writers. As an indie publisher, I’ve shared what I’ve learned with other aspiring independents. As a novelist, I’ve entertained readers and hopefully given them something to think about regarding the immoral and unsustainable abuse of Planet Earth.
Does it take a major life trauma to force busy people to stop and assess what our lives mean? Before the death of half my life, I was far too busy to think about my role or roles in this world. The loss of the man who made me complete has forced me to search for new meaning in a world that now feels largely pointless.
I continue puttering around The House That Gene Built, getting through the days with little projects and sometimes great big projects (like sanding and painting the porch). Recently I’ve bestirred myself to plan a visit to far-off friends who have lately had their own brush with mortality, though thankfully theirs has had a happier outcome: in their case, unlike mine, he who fell ill is recovering.
Meanwhile, as I putter and cocoon, I rely on my friends to draw me out. If I occasionally say no, please ask again. I depend on your persistence to get me through this.
Besides, if you don’t invite me along on interesting and beautiful outings like Chihuly, or (hint, hint) Bernini at the Kimbell, what will I write to my cousins about?