Eight weeks ago, I began what should have been a three-day project to empty my studio, clean and vacuum, spray for spiders (I know, but the studio’s been infested with black widow spiders, and I have a zero-tolerance policy on that score), then sort and replace the contents.
I worked for the three days, and then realized it was a bigger project than I’d imagined. It’s not uncharacteristic for me to start something and not quite finish, but I usually get back to it sooner rather than later. Alas, the clutter wizard has been absent, and so the piles have neither diminished nor disappeared.
Other things have been on my mind. In mid-May, we had a call from my friend, Andi, telling us that her husband, David, had been in a lot of pain, and had been diagnosed with bone cancer. We all knew it wasn’t good news; Mike and I made plans to meet them and some other friends at the family cabin on Lake Superior a month later. But then it was over. A week before we were to leave, Andi sent word that David was gone.
I met David and Andi in Indiana when she ran the large press camera at the Ball State University student newspaper and he was studying architecture. I was in the journalism and political science departments, but worked one summer at the newspaper doing paste-up: running long strips of positive film though a machine that waxed the back of the strips, then positioning the words and photos onto large layout pages. When a page was finished, Andi photographed it and made plates for the press. (Newspaper production has come a long way in 37 years.)
David graduated and joined his father’s architecture firm in Fort Wayne. He and Andi bought a tiny brick farmhouse built in the late 1800s in the mythical town of Thurman.
The two of them and my husband, Michael, met in the early 1970s at Southside High School in Fort Wayne. In 1981, Andi and David introduced me to Mike. He was studying for his PhD in mathematics at University of Wisconsin Madison; I had graduated from Ball State, and left Muncie for Fort Wayne. Mike made the drive across northern Indiana often while we courted.
In the spring of 1984 we spent time at their farm, hauling junk, mowing and cleaning out the old barn. After our wedding ceremony there—just over 31 years ago—Mike and I moved to Sharon Center, Iowa, another mythical town outside of Iowa City. Two years later, we came west to Flagstaff. There were fewer trips back east, but it always seemed as if no time had passed when we did visit. The friendship was (and continues to be) one of the pivotal relationships in our lives.
After a few years, David drew up plans and built an addition to bring their farmhouse into the 20th century. They raised their son, James, there. Critters abounded: potbellied pigs, chickens, dogs, cats and peacocks. They gardened and planted thousands of trees on the property. They created a prairie to the south, between the creek and the house. Almost 30 years ago, I designed and made my first quilt for them to hang in that house.
Last month, instead of driving up to the lake cabin, Mike and I went to Fort Wayne and the farm, hoping to help Andi and see some old friends. The lush green humidity of the place and the rhythms of our friendship felt instantly familiar, though we hadn’t been there for 12 years. Fireflies blinked out over the prairie at dusk. Even with David gone, reminders of him were everywhere.
One morning, Andi asked me to sort through David’s clothes and see what might be worth saving. Mostly what I found were relics of a well-lived life—the usual collection of shirts and socks and pants, gloves and shoes and hats. But then I came across the beautiful London Fog tweed coat he wore for years. I remembered how handsome he looked, and how he always wore a tie to work “to balance out his ponytail” in the eyes of architecture firm’s clients. I found a threadbare T-shirt with a faded photograph of Andi and David on it, a souvenir from their honeymoon in New Orleans almost 40 years ago.
All this reminds me that we’re all in the process of dying, just at various, unknown rates. The minute we’re born, we begin to die. We don’t think about it all that often—it would be too painful, I suspect—but when death rises to the surface of our thinking, the fact of our own mortality spreads like oil over water.
When I emptied my studio, I took everything off the walls, even the little reminders I post on the design wall; after they’ve been up for a while, I stop seeing them, so it’s good to rearrange periodically. One paper that floated to the top with this iteration was a quote from Annie Dillard:
“How we spend our days is how we spend our lives.”
This morning I lit a candle on my desk and said a little blessing for us all. I know we can’t and won’t stay sad forever; the answer, perhaps, is to celebrate all the lost lives and do justice to the one we’re living now. Take the moments we have and string them together purposefully. Pay attention, instead of marching ourselves through life like we have all the time in the world. We do. And we don’t.