Two Birthdays and a Funeral

September 26, 1999

There are two basic styles to the on-line journal. One is the daily chronicle of a life, what I call (not unkindly) the “I Had a Pork Chop For Dinner Diaries.” The other is a collection of essays and observations on subjects which engage the writer’s interest, often because a daily event has sparked the thinking, but just as likely because it is an area of awareness in the writer’s professional or spiritual or psychological life.

The Silken Tent, specifically this area of it, tends to be of the latter type. Regular readers of this space will know that for the last week I have been exploring a single event — my recent experience as a juror in a criminal trial. These pieces have demanded a great deal of my writing and thinking energy, so that creating them has taken on the characteristics of a professional endeavor. Right now, it’s all I do.

If I were not so caught up in that process, and if I wrote more of the daily chronicle stuff, I would be writing about two birthdays and a funeral taking place this weekend. Those three events are so important to both my outer and my inner life, however, that I decided to squeeze an extra piece in, just because I want to say these things.

Birthday 1 — Friday, September 24, Shawn Kevin Dugan turned 29 years old. Although I haven’t seen him in five years nor heard from him in more than four, he is never long out of my thoughts, especially when I sit at my desk, where I can see his picture with just a slight turn of my head.

The picture was taken the night he graduated from high school, in 1988. I met him as he began eleventh grade, in September of 1986. I was returning from a year of child-rearing leave, and had, with all the ambivalence any working mother has, placed my almost one-year-old in day care to resume my teaching career.

I fully expected that school year to be a routine one. I’d been teaching for twelve years, and I figured I could do it on automatic pilot — stick with what worked before, use the gimmicks and prefabbed lesson plans that come in the Teaching Kit, and pretty much treat the job as if it were no more engaging than being a cashier at a supermarket. That, of course, is Telling, not Teaching, and I would learn, not for the last time, that it’s just not my style.

Shawn visited my room twice a day, once for my standard American Literature class, and once for a specialized one-semester trek through world mythology. He was the classic introverted loner. He dressed in black from head to toe, had few close friends, was possessed of a keen intellect and a passion for Celtic mythology, culture, and fantasy. Through the journal he kept for class and some conversations held during study halls, we formed a bond, and I came to know more about him than most people did (and that, I must say, was precious little).

Our relationship was firmly established by the time he graduated, and I regarded him as something of a virtual son. (His relationship with his family of origin was, to put it mildly, fractured.) He joined the Marine Corps the day he turned 18, and for the next six years we kept in touch, sporadically, through letters and visits during furloughs. He served in Japan and Somalia, as well as the Gulf War. The last time I saw him was in September of 1994.

When he left the Corps in January of 1995 he moved to Florida because, he told me, “my fiancée lives there,” and I suspected then I might never see him again. I had several letters from Florida. A letter I sent him in January ’96 came back undeliverable, and the phone number he’d given me was no longer connected.

It is not unusual for Shawn to move in and out of the lives of those who love him, to keep himself aloof for long periods of time, to surface suddenly as if nothing were unusual. In 1998 I asked one of his classmates to help mount an effort to find him. That campaign was unsuccessful, and, as the friend wrote me, “Shawn is as elusive as ever.”

This much revelation about him and attention paid to him would appall Shawn. Nevertheless, I miss him, I think about him every day, and I wish him a happy birthday. It’s said there are only six degrees of separation between any two people — maybe if someone reading this knows someone who knows someone, I’ll hear from him again.

Birthday 2 — Today, September 26, my daughter Lynn turns 14. Her picture, too, is in my study. It’s one of those “artistic” shots taken by a Very Expensive Children’s Photographer when Lynn was four. She’s seated on a white floor in front of a white drape beside a white rocking horse. She’s barefoot, and wearing an outfit (largely white) that I made for her, and beside her is her beloved SnuggleBear, a bit more ivory than white and a bit less compact of fur then than he is now. (He still sleeps with her but no longer comes to breakfast.)

I used to say in those days that I wanted to find the magic pill that would keep her four years old forever. I said that when she was two, and six, and every other age she’s passed through. And every year I tell her that it’s good I didn’t find the magic pill, because I like the person she is this year as much as I did the one she was before.

That’s still true, but these days the need seems more urgent. Every time I look at her I think I’m watching a Kodak commercial. Where are you going, my little one, little one, where are you going, my baby my own? During one eight-minute ride to her flute lesson last week I thought at least three different people had been sitting beside me in the car: the child who wondered if people in heaven are cured of all their sicknesses, the adolescent who insisted that she does not like a particular boy, they are just friends, and the strong young woman athlete who is pleased with the way her physical fitness has improved since she’s been playing field hockey.

The sculpture garden at Yaddo, an artist’s retreat in New York, has a marble rendering of a spirited youth named Christalan who embodies innocence and victory over mortality. The figure symbolizes the Trask children “who built this house.” I think I’ll be taking Lynn back to the Very Expensive Children’s Photographer this spring, and the next and the next, so that I can amass images of the spirit who has built this house and infused it with so much joy.

The Funeral — Louis Forsdale, a retired professor of communications and education at Columbia University, died suddenly last Wednesday night at his home in Santa Fe. I can’t point to a picture of Louis in my study or anywhere else, for I have never seen one, nor, alas, did I ever have the opportunity to meet this extraordinary man face to face.

I called him Louis, although he was a generation older than I, and my intellectual superior by a far greater leap than that. I knew him by way of our mutual participation in several e-mail discussion groups devoted to the work of Emily Dickinson. He joined the lists almost two years after I did, a fact I did not realize until I checked the archive today. So valuable and thought provoking were his contributions that I thought he had always been a fixture in these communities.

The ED discussion lists have among their members some of the most authoritative voices in Dickinson scholarship. Louis’s first post to Emweb asked advice on establishing a base of Dickinson knowledge — which editions of the poems, which biographies, etc. That he went from inquiries about which books were valuable or necessary for the ED aficionado to being regarded as a learned elder on the list so quickly tells me much about his habits of mind.

Few days went by on the lists without a note from Louis — an URL for a provocative article on some aspect of literature or language, a deeper or more original reading of a poem than anyone else had advanced, or the answer to a question about an obscure point of nineteenth century history or culture.

When I started appending my website address to my e-mail signature, Louis’s natural curiosity led him to click on over. After several weeks, he let the other members of the lists know that they might find something worth reading in The Silken Tent. I was deeply honored by this notice. Louis continued to read my work from time to time, and not infrequently sent me private e-mails encouraging my endeavors.

Louis was a man of grace and wit. He had a base of knowledge that was broad and deep. He was generous, warm, and caring. His death triggered dozens of messages to the lists expressing profound grief and extolling his many virtues. Almost no one who wrote had actually ever met Louis. If his character could be so indelibly impressed through the fairly sterile medium of e-mail, imagine what he was like in person.

Because of the nature of the discussion, personal information about listmembers comes in small scattered bits, usually when it has a bearing on the matter at hand. Thus I knew that Louis was a widower who had moved to Santa Fe to be near his grandchildren, but not that his daughter had the same first name as mine.

Likewise, I knew that he was well-versed in the traditions of the widely-established world religions, but not what form his personal spirituality took. Nevertheless, when I had to name yesterday for my fourth grade Sunday School students someone who strengthened me in my faith, I did not hesitate to say Louis Forsdale, a man whose every communication illustrated for me Paul’s words to the Corinthians: Keep alert, stand firm, be courageous, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love. (1 Cor 16:13)

I will never forget Louis. I will think about him, and invoke him as a spiritual teacher for the rest of my life. I end this with some words from our mutual teacher:

Bereavement in their death to feel
Whom We have never seen —
A Vital Kinsmanship import
Our Soul and theirs — between —

For Stranger — Strangers do not mourn —
There be Immortal friends
Whom Death see first —’tis news of this
That paralyze Ourselves —

Who, vital only to Our Thought —
Such Presence bear away
In dying, —’tis as if Our Souls
Absconded — suddenly — 
                        — Emily Dickinson

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