Friday, August 24, 2012

Damn Near

My job is to make her laugh at the most inappropriate times possible.  That's how we  always understand it, whether it is at the Hudson Valley Writers' Center, or at the Port Chester poetry festival, or at a reading, or milling about in a parking lot.  I tell the joke, it is utterly wrong, and Brenda assumes the face: one that says, "I know full well that joke was funny, but it would not be proper to laugh out loud here."

Brenda Connor-Bey is always the most elegant woman in the room.  Of course she'll put you at ease, or coax conversation from you, or make you smile.  If you are in the room, you are her guest, even when the event is not hers to run.  It's a certain orientation toward the world, one that radiates pure love, that is anchored in the mode of openness and kindness.  For if you are in the room with Brenda, more than likely you are there to celebrate poetry.  And poetry, Brenda knows, unites people, and erases differences.  It makes you a little more human.  And if you know poetry like Brenda knows poetry, it amplifies your spirit, and your spine—and yes, it brings you grace and elegance.

So it is always my pleasure to watch her face break when she takes joy in my humor, even when it's not appropriate.  And it was her, I know, that tapped me on the shoulder after the third lovely tribute in her honor, at her funeral.  "Hold it together, Rich," she said, finally getting a measure of comeuppance. "You don't wanna die at a funeral home."  It was all I could do to keep from laughing out loud. 

Not that we didn't laugh from the things that were said. 

I think Jim Miller knows he's a quiet man, not necessarily because he was born that way, but because he's been told this by everyone who knows his wife.  If you know Jim, and you know Brenda, you know the drill: Brenda walks in and spins gold out of thin air with sheer charm.  Jim shakes hands, and is polite, and possesses an air of wisdom that doesn't require him to express it.  And then he'll become quite unobtrusive, either in his own seat, or standing up, and he'll observe the room.  You'll watch him and know that he is observing everything, and he is sizing up everyone.  And you'll know without having to be told that he is in love with his wife.  Sometimes he'll jostle her, or she him, and sometimes they'll exchange looks.  But you know that behind those looks is something pure and beautiful. 

At the podium, Jim spoke more words than anyone in the room had probably ever heard from him.  His voice was strong and sure, and through tears he was able to deliver one of the most heartfelt tributes I've ever heard anyone deliver, from a man who has clearly studied his wife, not as one in nature, but as someone in love, who respected her, and was invested in her.  "I'm someone new in her life," he joked at one point. "I've only known her 30 years."  They have always been newlyweds.

He asked us all to look around and talk to the person next to us, rightfully pointing out how mixed and various the individuals in the chapel were.  Here were gathered teenagers, adults from every spectrum, every race, every ethnicity, every economic circumstance, every location and background.  This was Brenda's gift: bringing people together through empathetic gestures, through spirit, and through poetry.  He reminded us also that she was a gift to American literature, not just to the people in the room.  And he reminded us of the true power of poems, the power that Brenda wielded every time she stepped into a classroom, or behind a microphone—the power to create life, to sustain life, and to cause us to live a life of contemplation, never one of powerlessness or inertia.

He closed his tribute with the last section of the poem "Thanatopsis," by William Cullen Bryant, a section which by some coincidence, it seems, contains that same character he's only known for 30 years.

So live, that when thy summons comes to join
The innumerable caravan which moves
To that mysterious realm where each shall take
His chamber in the silent halls of death,
Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night,
Scourged by his dungeon; but, sustain'd and soothed
By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave,
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.

I've loved incompletely.  My thoughts these last few weeks drift back and forth between worries about career, craft, and the empathy I need to show to my loved ones.  I'm not always good at that, but it's not because I don't know how.  I was raised with care, and with faith, and with the knowledge that God is always watching and willing to guide us into our own strength.  I don't pray in desperation anymore, and I don't pray vainly for things I desire.  For better or worse, God made me a poet, and that means, as the pastor said, that my brain is teeming with ideas that need to be put on paper.  It also means I am capable of loving the way I saw at that funeral home: actively, as a verb.  And empathy, I realize, is not an object to be taken like money, but an orientation that leads into faith.  So, when it comes time to pray, the prayer is a humble recognition that what I seek is already found, is already within me; that the dream I had last night is as real as Brenda's voice in my head, as the voices I miss some days, as the people I love with my entire heart. 

Of the words I heard at this service, there were several phrases that stood out especially, because the truths contained within them seem to follow me wherever I go, in the heart and the mouth of my beloved.

I Corinthians 15:51:

"Behold, I shew you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed..."

[People are energy.  They don't die.  They transform.]

Psalm 23:

"Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over."

[Worry is always wasted energy.]

I Corinthians 15:58:

Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye stedfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labour is not in vain in the Lord.

[Doubt is self-destructive.  Your only limitations are self-imposed.  Nothing is more important than love and truth.  Pray with faith, knowing that the victory is yours.]

The last phrases I remember were written on the back of the program, and I don't have the program anymore, and I don't have the poem memorized.  It was a love poem from Brenda to Jim, one of the most beautiful ones I've ever read, and it describes how a woman sees herself in the heart of a man, as a reflection, not as an image.  I may be projecting, but I think it has to do with how two people bring out the best in each other.  I know I will get this poem back.  I have faith.

I know because on my way out of the funeral home, I was crossing in front of a car full of people I hadn't met, who were there for Brenda.  The man at the wheel asked to see the picture on the front of the program.  I handed him the program, and he handed it to another woman in the car, and she showed it to a woman standing beside.

"Are you family?" I asked.

"Damn near," the man replied.

I let them keep the program.  "He's clearly one of Brenda's friends," said the standing woman. 

That I am.  Present tense.

The poem will come back to me, and when it does, I will show it to you, too.

1 comment:

JL said...

Beautiful, Rich. It was a privilege to be among lovers of Brenda yesterday. She was there.