Sunday, March 20, 2005

A sad anniversary 

Last year on this date, my mother's friend Helen was shot to death by a man whom she had never met. It's hard for me to believe that this vibrant, talented, loving woman has been gone for a year. I've been trying to write something about this, to come up with some way of understanding her loss, but I have nothing. I am at a loss. I ache today for her sons, her granddaughter, her other family and her many friends. I miss Helen.

Since I have nothing new, I'll share something that I wrote a year ago today on Paul vs. the Squamous Monster. That was the day that I realized that writing had become an important part of my life. After Mom called with the news about Helen, I told Paul, and I cried for a long while. Then I said to Paul, "I need to go write." I like to think that this urge to write would've pleased Helen the English professor, the writer, and the inveterate reader.

Random violence, that nasty bastard, wandered into our corner of the universe today, and took one of my mother's closest friends. At about the time that I was writing this morning's post, Helen was shot in broad daylight, at a busy gas station in an upscale Houston neighborhood. My mother called tonight to tell me.

My parents met Helen when they were all students at Rice University. She and her family have been part of my life for as long as I can remember. While she was married to Ben, they were in the monthly 5-couple dinner club that my parents have been part of for almost 40 years. (Ben got the dinner club in the divorce.) We went to family parties at their house. I babysat for their sons, Mark and Neil. (Neil, the younger son, and I share the same birthday, a decade apart.)

Helen was the first of my parents' friends to treat me as if I was becoming an adult. I called her "Helen" when the others were still "Mr." and "Mrs." An inveterate movie buff, she took me to what was probably the first R-rated movie I ever saw, "Coming Home." Seventeen-year-old innocent that I was, I felt uncomfortable watching the sex scene between Jane Fonda and Jon Voigt's characters, especially while sitting next to my mother's friend. If she could tell (and I suspect she could), she never let on. We talked about moviemaking, and acting, and the war.

Helen was an artist and professor of literature. Her work, some of which is shown here, was serious and thoughtful. Some of it was dark and rather scary. When I first saw some of the darker pieces, I hadn't learned to appreciate art that was disturbing. I'm better at that now. Still, I like her portraits best, especially the self-portraits and the ones of her companion Charlotte and son Neil.

Helen was one of the friends who came to California to celebrate Paul's and my wedding. She brought her camera, and photographed our family and friends during the weekend. Shortly after the wedding, she presented us with a small photo album, which contains (even given our photographer Joshua's amazing shots) some of my favorite photos from the wedding.

I last saw Helen about a month ago, when Paul and I were in Houston to go to MD Anderson. A cancer survivor herself, she stopped by my parents' house to offer us support, wry humor and hugs. Had I realized it was the last time I would see her, I would've said more to her about, well, about what I'm writing here.

In a recent NPR commentary, a chaplain at a cancer clinic here in Seattle talked about her discussions with oncology nurses regarding their own mortality. She was surprised to find that, if they could choose the way in which they would die, they all would choose cancer... because, they said, modern palliative care is good, and cancer allows time to say goodbye.

God knows that I would not wish cancer on anyone. However, I do wish for the chance that I, my parents, all those who loved her did not have to say goodbye to Helen.

When my sister and I graduated from high school, Helen gave each of us a book of poetry. Melanie's gift from Helen was a volume of Yevgeny Yevtushenko's poetry, a perfect gift from a lover of language to a sensitive young student of Russian. My mother gave a eulogy at Helen's memorial service. In it, she included my words about Helen's first treating me as an adult, and these words from Yevtushenko.

In any man who dies there dies with him
his first snow and kiss and fight.
It goes with him.
They are left books and bridges
and painted canvas and machinery.
Whose fate is to survive.
But what has gone is also not nothing;
By the rule of the game something has gone.
Not people die but worlds die in them.