“My dear friend,
Getting older is such an interesting experience. For me, it’s stretching too long. yet, it touches such a deep cord- who am I? I can’t see the rest of the family [due to coronavirus]. I miss them. Alone for the last two weeks, in total isolation.
I feel I have nothing to say, nothing to learn, nothing much to feel. Strange. Nothing is that important. As if I already died. I’m so irrelevant. A kind of numbness. I sit and turn the pages of large Art books. I love the beauty of the Artist’s perception. Japanese art moves me deeply. My old familiar friends- Rembrandt + Titian. I love them. I studied them for years+ now, they are here for me. I feel they know me.
I can cry. Who am I? A wave of love fills me. Once, I studied, once, I knew. Once I was touched, desired. I love this old, frail woman. Gently. I’m touching the end. I think of you on and off. A wife, a daughter, a teacher. Offering your life to others. How do you touch yourself. How do you look back?
My dear Eve, thank you for being in my life. I truly love you. I think that short conversation will be nice. I’ll let you know in a week. Happy New Year to you. To the world. I hope and pray that transformation will result after this strange experience.
All my love. Take care.”
The email was written by a close friend, Levana Marshall, a few months before she died last year in her London home. Her heart was bad towards the end and her breathing very labored, but still she was ready to have one more short conversation by phone. She didn’t balk at saying goodbye; she made a point of it. Her passionately loved husband had predeceased her by over a decade, and she was ready to go. Today is the first memorial of that death.
Her loss marks me in a way few deaths have and triggers thoughts of other such losses, where people went so under my skin it’s hard to say where they end and I begin.
Yesterday was gray, windy, and cold, and I thought of Levana when I replied to an exquisite email from her daughter. I woke up this morning to blue and yellow skies, but my heart felt hollow.
How many of you have had the privilege and love of an honest friend looking straight at you, seeing every wrinkle, every evasive turn of the eye, catching a cagey hesitation or an ambiguous silence, contemplating how the corners of your mouth turn, challenging you to look at yourself fully without turning away?
She loved Rembrandt, as I did, and specifically his self-portraits, as I did, and we talked about his self-portrait as a man of 63 that hangs in London’s National Gallery, which I saw on one of my visits to her: the bulbous nose, the spots, the warts, caverns under eyes that won’t look away.
Her eyes wouldn’t look away, either, and they challenged me to do the same. I’d arrive at the house, we’d hug, she’d take my coat and lead me into the living room, check if I needed food or drink, we’d sit down, she on her chair and I on the sofa, and we’d talk as if we’d just left off an hour ago, as if I’d last been in London yesterday rather than two years ago. We talked about our families, our work, politics, and poetry, but most of all we talked about ourselves.
There was no hiding from her, she was relentless in her questioning and her gaze, and at times that pissed me off no end. I didn’t want someone to see through the fictions and self-deceptions, especially hiding behind the easy lies of spirituality. Can’t you give me a break? I wanted to say. Do I have to undress at every conversation and expose the silly fears and sly self-centeredness that I can hide from others (more or less successfully)? It was as if she was painting me like Rembrandt, pushing the canvas to my face again and again, and saying: Here, look! Look!
And having seen me better than almost anybody, she loved me. She was fierce, and she loved me. She fed me (a terrific gardener and one of the best cooks I’d ever met) and turned out the bed in the guest bedroom. She paid off the taxi drivers that brought me to her and took me back to Heathrow, she bought tickets to theater. It was she whom I was supposed to visit one long November weekend after several days in Switzerland; she bought us tickets for a Pinter festival. Instead, she got sick and emphatically told me not to come. I returned home instead, disappointed, and Bernie died that Sunday. She was sure she’d gotten sick so that I could go home and be there when he left.
Once, after confessing something to her that I can’t remember now, she nodded and said gently: “You did it for love.” I can say the same of her. Everything she said and did, she did for love. It’s how I feel now about Bernie and others in my life. What they did, they did for love. Sometimes more skilled, sometimes less.
A bear visited two nights ago and went for the bird food. It destroyed two birdfeeders and damaged a third. Soon I’ll bring the remaining feeders into the garage for the night, fill them first thing in the morning, take them out one last time, and that will be the end of feeding the birds this season till winter comes. The birds and squirrels may miss it a bit, but it’s almost May and they’ll be fine.
What we do, we do for love.
She wrote me the following missive very soon before she left:
“My dear Eve
The Daffodils and the Camilla in full bloom were in a shock when it snowed here. Crazy.
I have a full-time carer now. Sleep in. Strange and very difficult for me. My home is looking like a hospital now. I sit and supervise the cooking…Skins of identity are being shed like an old Onion. Who am I? Talking is very laboured. Sorry. Let’s talk when u return from Israel.
My dear Eve, love you, miss you, wish you were nearer. Let me know when you are back. Meanwhile, take care, keep warm and safe.
She left before we could talk again.