(This will be long. I can't tell the story any other way. The tenses are also a little confused and I've added things as they come up. I've written this over time and no amount of editing will make it exactly right.) At this time, May 8, 2012, everything seems under control. I know that at some point, whether soon or down the line, this diary will be posted in memory of a woman who touched many lives. Over the weekend (May 5th), I wrote a diary asking for prayers for her. I only had part of the information, but the word “hospice” was enough to get my attention.
On May 10th, just eight days after the last email from her, I got another email from her daughter. The time is near. She is “transitioning.” There is only palliative care now, just keep her comfortable. Through my tears, I offer what little support I can. Later, I get this:
I told her you loved her and you said goodbye. She's terribly fuzzy...but she knew who you were and she smiled and managed to say, "That's very nice of her."
Ah, she's reverted to the proper Victorian lady she was raised to be. “That's very nice of her.” Charlotte is always proper, but if she gets upset, she might let harsh words fly. She is just too educated and erudite to resort to cuss words, although she graciously puts up with mine now and then. There are plenty of excellent descriptive words in her prodigious vocabulary to cover any and every contingency. I knew she was really angry with someone if she called them a “stinker.” :-)
In 2009, I stumbled upon a diary about reading vs. talking books. As one who's enjoyed talking books while traveling, I was drawn into a conversation with the diarist. She is a voracious reader and deaf, so she only knows what people have told her about books on tape/CD. I venture in with a comment. There is some discussion about the relative merits of reading vs. listening. The conversation soon went off in its own direction(s). We continued to talk via the comments in her diary until we couldn't comment anymore. Neither of us was savvy enough to know that the comments would be cut off and we hadn't made any arrangement to contact each other via email.
Two long months of searching and asking questions of the patient folks at DK got me no closer to contact with a woman I now considered my friend. I'd always pooh-poohed my students who talked about their online “friends” but here I was, looking frantically for a way to reestablish connections with a stranger I'd met online. I'd finally been reduced to just searching on her name every time I logged on, just in case she'd posted a diary or comment. I'd almost given up when another diary appeared. We did not make the same mistake again and quickly established email contact, which we maintained until Wednesday, May 2, 2012, when I received her last message. (She'd made a mistake in her meds which caused her to be a little “off” for a day or two, but she last wrote that “recovery has set in.” As it turns out, not so much.)
The years since then have seemed long and rewarding, yet much too short. She was 95 when we met, so this was never going to be a decades-long relationship, but it was easy to forget her years when exchanging emails. She thought young and “talked” young. She reminded me more than once that she had children older than I, but most of the conversations were as if between contemporaries. Many of the daily exchanges were pretty mundane. I always looked forward to seeing her name in my inbox. I'm told that it was the same for her. We'd made arrangements that if either one was offline for more than a day or two, we'd have someone contact the other to let her know what was up. (Imagine my surprise when I first got a note from her daughter, Emmet, that mentioned “Bad Betty”! I can't even recall right now what that was about, but the Elizabeth that I knew was really quite nice. Emmet also informed me that at some point shortly before I met her, Betty had decided she was too old to be called Betty. Elizabeth was much more dignified and venerable.)
Charlotte introduced me to new authors and reintroduced me to many old ones. My hard drive is loaded with things from The Gutenberg Project: Chesterton, Trollope, Sinclair Lewis, Upton Sinclair, Tarkington, Dreiser, Tolstoy, and on and on. (The latest is Thackeray. I can't get into Vanity Fair, but I'm having a good time with The Book of Snobs.) I will never read them all but I have them at hand, just in case. Her kids kept her Kindle well-stocked with favorites that she could reread, thanks to the ability to adjust the font size and lighting. A couple of times, we were reading the same thing, but I could never keep up. Even with her failing sight, she could out-read me without effort.
I'd write about whatever was going on here – my job, my friends, etc. - or about politics. I'd send her links to diaries and op-eds that I knew would be of interest to her. (She loved to read Hunter and Dante and brooklynbadboy. She enjoyed her comment exchanges with Laughing Planet and others.) She wrote about similar things and about her struggles with assembling and posting diaries. Sometimes, her difficulties were the result of her computer. Sometimes, she just clicked on something without realizing it. Often, she lost hours of work and couldn't retrieve it. I never knew her to give up. She'd spend more hours recreating what was lost. DK4 just about did her in, but she persisted. It was a pretty ordinary relationship, really, for two people half a continent and three decades apart, but it filled a need for both of us. Talk of gardens and weather and candidates and wingnuts was standard fare. Floods in the Midwest and drought and fires in California became real for the one who'd never experienced them. It was all so ordinary, and so special.
She came into her own with her amazing travel diary series. Not only did her experiences span several (normal) lifetimes and continents, but her way of telling the stories engaged a real following here. Even on journeys which might be characterized as package tours, she managed to connect with locals. Her narrations of these encounters showed a real interest in and connection with the people she met. It was personal. She managed to take us there in such a way that we felt the air and saw the beauty, even smelled the people and markets and landscapes. It became a real vacation for those of us who are more earth/home-bound. We were there.
Her last series was about presidents of her lifetime. As I write this, it remains unfinished. Even so, just knowing someone whose first memories of a president are of Warren G. Harding is an amazing gift to us all. This isn't history from a book. This woman is telling a story from her own life. Yes, what a gift to us all...
Charlotte never really appreciated what bright light she was, either in my life or on Dkos. Her genuine humility and child-like wonder at the world made her a good friend and a special person. She is dying now, and words fail me yet again. I want to be there. I don't want it to happen, but I know it's time. She's been telling me for weeks, months, but I didn't want to hear it. My heart is breaking and yet I have been so incredibly lucky to have known her at all. Her beautiful family have included me on the list for updates on her condition. I will never be able to thank them enough for that great kindness.
For all of you who expressed your love for her in the May 5th diary, know that she was told of your kindness and remembrances. Her daughter told her about some of them and wrote to me that “she [Charlotte]was embarrassed and then pleased.”
Having lost my own mother over 25 years ago, I thought I was "over" feeling like this. I played for my first funeral when I was 14 and have done hundreds since, including both my parents. One great regret is that I cannot be there to give that last gift to Charlotte. I'm just too far away. That, and I'd probably fold in the clinch and not be able to see through the tears....
Goodbye, my dear friend. I know that God will be waiting there to fold you in his arms. Your long life has been a blessing to all, right up until the end. You continued to give of yourself no matter the challenges you faced. We should all be so lucky. I am lucky - lucky and indescribably, overwhelmingly sad.
A couple of versions of the sending forth song in the Requiem of the old Latin Mass, each beautiful in its own way.
In Paradisum (chant)
In Paradisum (Libera)
Finally, the theme from one of her favorite classical works, Dvorak's New World Symphony:
Update: The diary by Emmet about her mother's wonderful life is here.