We had never met although we had friends in common, interests in common, were about the same age and lived in villages just down the road from each other.
Now I was never going to know her. So I thought.
+++ +++ +++
I got the text from a mutual friend, who knew I might be interested in some of Ruthie’s books. She introduced me electronically to Ruthie’s daughter. They were selling the house and everything had to be out by the end of Friday, so I rearranged my schedule to drive forty-five minutes up the lake to her place.
On the way I thought about what had happened to Ruthie. She hadn’t died, but you might have thought that she had, the way everyone was speaking about her in the past tense. I guess that’s one effect of getting early-onset, rapidly-progressing Alzheimer’s Disease. These days, Ruthie–a writer and voracious reader–could barely speak, much less read or write. I tried to imagine what that might be like. I tried to imagine how hard this would be on her husband, her daughter, her close friends.
I prepared myself for meeting her daughter, imagining the appropriate compassionate remarks. I will admit, part of me was dreading the whole experience, and I wondered why I was doing this. I mean, a complete set of Merton is a great thing, but I had plenty of books already.
I think that I kept going on that gloomy December day because, in my conversation with her daughter, I’d caught a glimpse of the feeling that if no one wanted Ruthie’s books, that meant no one valued Ruthie’s life. That seemed too cruel to contemplate.
+++ +++ +++
I found the house on an icy side street. Ruthie’s daughter met me at the door; we spoke briefly and softly, as if someone were ill in the next room. Then she escorted me through the darkened remains of a living room into the kitchen. Here the lights were bright and two people were energetically packing up cupboards. It was a holy mess, like every time I’ve ever moved: drawers hanging open, newspapers crumpled and spilling off counters, open boxes everywhere. It took me a minute to realize that one of the people to whom I was being introduced was Ruthie.
She grinned at me across the kitchen. Throwing her arms wide as she walked toward me, Ruthie said, “Oh, honey.” Then she drew me into her embrace and held on. All my thoughts of being a comforting presence vanished; I felt drawn into a deep place where we dwelt in the shared losses and loves of life. I had the distinct feeling that she was consoling me for the distress I felt about her diminishment.
Then Ruthie drew away from me. Throwing her arms open again, she invited me to take in the chaos and absurdity of the present moment. She cheerily said, “What the fuck?” Then she waved one hand in a gesture that obviously meant, What can you do about it, anyway? and lightly said “Oh, hell.”
From behind me, Ruthie’s daughter said, “Okay. You’ve got the entire vocabulary now.”
+++ +++ +++
I left, that dreary December afternoon, with four large boxes of books. While a few of those volumes now reside in my own library, most have gone to friends across the province. I wanted to spread Ruthie broad and wide. I wanted to share what I had experienced–Ruthie’s glowing, poignant, boisterous joy. No longer a stranger, but rather as close as my own heart. What the fuck, eh?