This past summer, I fell in love with a dead woman.
Or, at least, I fell in love with a woman who previously lived on the earth and no longer walks on it. Whether dead people actually live or die on the deep soul level I cannot know for certain until it’s my turn. My suspicion is they live on, love on, roots too deep to terminate. My suspicions have been semi-confirmed by several exhibits that, while they wouldn’t hold up in a court of law, are quite compelling in the moment; but that’s not what I’m talking about here. What I’m talking about here is the fact that every day for a couple of weeks in June, 2018, I was connecting deeply to a woman who was no longer alive. And get this: we were texting.
It started the way all good love stories do, stumbling onto something. For me it was a Modern Love article in The New York Times titled, “You May Want to Marry My Husband.” This was my first brush with Amy Krouse Rosenthal, who typed the hilarious and heart-wrenching words from her couch, in between morphine naps, while dying of cancer. She wrote it part in jest, part in sincere hopes it would give her husband permission to go on and live another love story in her impending absence. She left a literal blank space at the bottom of the article, which she encouraged him to fill. By the time I read the article, Amy had lost her battle with cancer, her life, and her dear husband had written a follow up to the article and given a Ted talk.
For a couple weeks in June, I started the mornings with a cup of coffee and her last memoir, Textbook Amy Krouse Rosenthal. One morning I sat listening to a recording she made on an old cassette tape in a New York apartment with the poet Kenneth Koch. The poem, You Want a Social Life, With Friends, was one of her all-time favorites, and she brought me into the room where it happened, down to the bittersweet glasses of grapefruit juice he had sitting out for the both of them to enjoy. Her story ended with, “He died a year later. This recording is one of his very last.” She died, as well. How strange, I thought, that a person can be speaking of another’s death and, because they are on tape, we in the future know they, too are dead. The recording is one of the very last with her presence on it, her unintelligible breath in the background. She didn’t know, did she?
It makes me ask, what is to be done? What is to be done with life and death, with how inevitable, how inextricable both of them seem to be? What is to be done with the mundane magic and rapture of our days and the cruel, inescapable reality that our days will end, much of the time, quite brutally? No one close to me has had a pleasant death. I don’t know anyone who went without pain or some bodily sign of revolt, of violence and struggle. I have seen death’s slight of hand, experienced the shock and awe of death catching me or my beloveds by surprise. Even when it’s a long-term lingering disease, the end comes too soon, it’s still such a shock to the system. What do we do with all of that? What do we do when death comes way too soon and takes our best and brightest, whispering to us, “I’ll see you later” on it’s way out the door?
I live in the tension between the loss of my dad and all of the beauty of his ghost. I live in the liminal space between his death and what I perceive as a resurrection of his presence in my life in odd-shaped ways. I have lost grandparents and I have lost friends. I now add more weight to that tension because of Amy K.R. As silly as it sounds, she captivated me. This complete stranger became a dear, beloved friend, confidant, co-conspirator, and guide. She was squirrely and wild, creative and free, hilarious and zany and sharp as a tac. Each day I spent with her “Textbook” memoir, I learned something new about the art of being alive, being in my life. I’d talk to my husband about her at the end of the day and try to process through the strangeness, “I’m supposed to be speaking about her in the past tense, because her body is no longer here, but she’s so real and alive to me right now..” What a cruel and fantastical paradox: I learned how to be more alive from a woman who is no longer. Which makes me think: Somehow, if we share ourselves, we live on.
I’ve texted Amy K.R. one of my deepest wishes, two if you include my wish for her family to be well in the wake of the loss of her. She wrote back. I kept thinking about them, about her family. I kept imagining what I would be doing if I had lost her, if such a shimmering soul would have been living in the same four walls as me, blood to me, one of my beloveds. I think I might be doing the same thing I did in June – reading the words left behind, sending text messages and getting back responses that have such an active pulse I’d swear she was still out there somewhere.
Of course, there were those text messages that made it sad and obvious she’s gone. There’s an offer in her book for a swap of stories; she tells one and then you share yours, and the 100th submission gets a pie, baked fresh by Amy herself and Fed-Ex’d to your door. Knowing she was gone made the particular exchange sad, yet she still gave a small reward – a photograph of the pie she did make, online. Then came the saddest exchange: Amy rental. The page reads like this:
Would you like me to show up at your door by day’s end?
Perhaps you need a sous chef for your dinner party.
Or you’d like me to be the tail in your citywide bunny hop.
Send an idea that would prompt me to run upstairs, pack my bags,
and race to the airport.
I’ve always wanted to do something dramatic like this.
First, text Amy rental.
My throat lumped up when I texted, knowing how impossible it was but also not wanting to give up on the progression of interactions in the book, and got the response, “This experiment has ended, but I’d still love to hear your ideas!”
I took a deep breath, knowing “the experiment” had, indeed, ended.
Nevertheless, the exchange we shared bordered on intimate. Like when she suggested maybe we should get matching tattoos, author and reader forever bonded by ink, and asked me to send my idea of a tattoo out to her. She sent back a youtube video of her and one of her readers, a grey-haired librarian from Wisconsin named Paulette, getting matching tattoos. She actually did it! She and Paulette! Her body was laid to rest with the word “more” tattooed on her arm. Which means she, Amy K.R., my new dear friend, died asking for more. Even in the wake of a death come to soon, her wish is fulfilled, she continues to give – and I hope, somehow, receive – more.
The morning I finished the book I sat wiping tears with both hands at once, a real blubber-fest, as I stared at her last words. I went from shyly sending my first text (feeling silly, knowing she was no longer alive to write back), and gasping when I got a response, to turning my head sideways when she shared a photograph of a bowl of unshelled peanuts, to laughing out loud when she revealed a drawing of a stick figure bending down to pick up one of those cards that falls out of magazines (just read the book, you’ll get it), to weeping as I read her final goodbye.
All these months later, I can’t get over one thing: her generosity. The reading felt intimate because of how much of herself she shared, her stories, her inner monologues (both random and elegant), her favorite people, even her family. I have now seen her family on video, thanks to her. I’ve heard her daughter’s voice. Even more, I have heard and seen Amy. Each offering she gave felt like a sacred pact between dearest childhood friends, like we pricked our index fingers and rubbed the small read beads of blood together. It felt like love.
I fell in love with a dead woman. I texted and laughed and cried with her. She gave me back a sense of whimsy and hope, of possibility and perspective I was starting to forget. She taught me what real writing could do – leave the reader fully companioned, needing nothing more from the writer apart from the hope of a someday hug. My eyelashes were wet as I sat that last morning, holding tight onto the book, wishing I could give her something, somehow get a message out to her, but I didn’t have the faintest idea where to find her. All I could do was kiss her picture on the plastic, library laminated dust jacket of the book, and echo back her own last words to her:
Bye. Thank you. I love you.