Monday, October 10, 2011

Eulogy for Susan Barrett Newhall

My Eulogy for Susan Barrett Newhall, (1934–2011)
Given on October 10, 2011

Over the past few weeks––starting, in fact, around the time Barrett went into hospice––my friend Marz and I have been reading out loud the children's classic Charlotte's Web. You might remember it's about a spider, Charlotte, who saves the life of her friend Wilbur the pig by spinning words into her web, such as terrific and radiant.

Last night we finished the book.
At the end, Wilbur is remembering Charlotte, who has died long ago. Though he had loved many spider friends since, Marz read:
“…none of the new spiders ever quite took her place in his heart.
She was in a class by herself. It is not often that someone comes
along who is a true friend and a good writer.
Charlotte was both.”
“A true friend and a good writer”? I couldn't believe it! I jumped up and said, “That's Barrett! I'm going use that at her celebration tomorrow!”

I don't remember Barrett ever mentioning Charlotte's Web. She was more likely to quote someone such as Marcel Proust,
the Frenchman who wrote a 6-zillion page novel Remembrance of Things Past.
(Maybe you've read it? I could never get past page 12.)

A couple weeks ago, I was visiting Barrett in hospice with two other friends.
Between morphine and fatigue, Barrett couldn't fully join in the conversation, so we visitors were telling stories about her life while she listened, reclining on the bed.

At one point she sat right up and said, "Someone should be writing this down.”
And she wistfully said, "Maybe you'll say something nice like this about me at my memorial?"

As if I wouldn't! I didn't have anything prepared at the moment, but I knew just the thing to say.
"Barrett," I said, "I'm going to say you had l'esprit, like you told me Proust wrote about."
At that, she smiled a smile of satisfaction.

L'esprit is French for "spirit." I have no idea what Proust meant by that, exactly, but godknows Barrett had spirit.
She brought her spirit to her work as a mother, an artist, a musician, but I mostly connected to her in the spirit of a word-spinner, a storyteller, a writer.

I first met Barrett in 1991, when she joined the staff of the MCAD library, where I worked. Our first day together, our boss set us to inventory books in a certain section of the library. We should have averaged an entire bookcase in an hour, but when our boss came back to check on us after a couple hours, we'd inventoried maybe one shelf of one bookcase.

Of course, we'd been talking.
Or, Barrett had been talking, and I'd been listening, enthralled, to her tales of riding a motorcycle around the West Bank, back in the 1960s, or moving with her kids and her cats and her lover to the Atlantic and throwing their last pennies into the ocean, or the time she interviewed to be a secretary for author Norman Mailer but told him she couldn't take the job because it would interfere with HER writing...

Our boss said, "Could I ask you two to talk after work?"
And so we did.
For the next 21 years.

We had our ups and downs, and off and ons, as longtime friends might. I imagine Barrett's spirit as a cat that didn't appreciate having her fur rubber wrong. (And I have my prickly side too, of course.) For instance, once we fell out over one of her favorite authors, Arthur Koestler, and didn't talk for weeks.

But no matter how long we went not talking to each other, I always knew that she would take me back, and I trusted that she knew I would always welcome her back too.

And, as it turned out, this past spring, we hadn't actually talked for more than a year. I was preparing for a walking trip: a pilgrimage across Spain, from the mountains to the sea. On my blog, I'd invited people to write out and give me words––prayers, hopes, dreams––to walk to the lighthouse at Finisterre, which means Lands End, or the end of the world. There, like pilgrims of old, I would burn them.

Two days before I left for Spain, Barrett e-mailed me:
Dear Francesca,

I see you are leaving for a pilgrimage. This is one of those moments of synchronicity for me.
Last fall I had a dream: I woke up and wrote it down.
It never occurred to me it might be prophetic.
Now the cancer has come back and I don't have very much time left.
I love life, I don't want to leave, but death is a part of life
and I would like to know my dream is being carried to the end of the world by you.
Somehow this ceremonial end––or beginning––of my dream of death
has become of great significance to me.

Love always, Barrett
I was honored to be her messenger. I contacted her before I left and told her she had to live until I returned in July so we could meet in person again.

I carried Barrett's words with me for 550 miles. And when I got to the Atlantic––the other side from where Barrett had thrown her pennies in so many years ago––I walked out on the promontory past the lighthouse, and read them out loud to the little group of pilgrims with me, to the sound of their tears. 

This is what she had written:
There was an explosion.
I was thrown violently into space, thousands of feet above the earth.
With my arms straight out in front of me, as if I were diving,
I plummeted downward into an enormous golden cone.
I'm leaving this earth, I realized, leaving forever!
After I spoke these words, I noticed a small black dot at the bottom of the cone.
As I got closer, the dot became larger and I became acutely aware
that I was going away from all I had ever known in my life,
away from the anchor of my own reality.
I wasn't afraid, I wasn’t frightened, only awed at the way this was happening.
A blanket of calm acceptance enfolded me as my eye remained fixed on this
Approaching mysterious blackness.

Then I woke up.

I read Barrett's words. I burned them. And, out on the rocky edge of the world, I offered the ashes, Barrett's spirit, to the spirit of the sky, and the water, and the earth.

Barrett and I did get to spend a lot of time together when I came back. Toward the end,
I asked her if the calm acceptance of the dream had held, and she said it had.
She said she wanted to be remembered as someone who faced her cancer with grace and humor.

Did she ever.

The last time I saw her, just hours before she died, I told her I would always remember her that way, as someone with grace, and humor, ... and spirit.

After all, as Wilbur discovered, it is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer.
Barrett was both.