1976, a “girl” (25), Kathryne, loses a love, Gary (27), because the boy returned to a doctoral program (already half-finished) a continent away, as she’s beginning hers. The passion of mental growth in the life of each separately causes them to reconcile to time. He was supposed to return, but didn’t. Decades later, each one’s partner died, but neither knew that about the other. So it goes.
End of May, 2010 (34 years later), I wrote to her about a paperback edition of an anthology she edited (not giving any thought to her partner status—not fishing for an Affair of Letters). I was a little effusive, which is my philosophically-idealistic bent. I ended with a wise crack of hers from our time living together, which was vain, I knew, because I hadn’t earlier in my note said anything outside the idiom of academic inquiry by a stranger—like, “Surprise!” But surely it was the harmless ending of a genuine query to an esteemed Professor of English.
Kathryne didn’t reply.
I was shocked this past Monday, March 5, to find out that, three months after I wrote her, she threw herself over the railing of a bridge into an icy river. Her remains weren’t found for many months, amazingly on my only wedding day (June 1970) to a girl in Kentucky I grew up with (so to speak), Linda, whom I always called “Katherine” (a favored name of those times), because she felt I saw her so uniquely—though the relationship ended mid-1974—several months before I met Kathryne. (I met Kathryne in Berkeley through a post-marital lover of Linda’s from L.A., a very bizarre, long story.)
Before I found out that Kathryne is dead, someone unloaded her library at a bookstore. A grad student, Johanna, bought a used copy of Diaries of Franz Kafka, which had in its pages a saddened love letter to Kathryne from me, May 1976 (still in its addressed envelop).
She was so affected by the letter that she Googled ‘Kathryne’ and some keywords in my letter, hoping for local information, so she could return the letter to Kathryne. (Surely the letter wasn’t intended for inclusion in the sold book.) She found that Kathryne “is” a local professor, then that the esteemed professor was dead by suicide. Johanna wanted to understand why. Finding few details of Kathryne’s life, Johanna searched for me, hoping (I suppose) that I’d remained in contact with Kathryne through the decades and might provide insight about Kathryne’s life, since Johanna is nearly the age of Kathryne, 1976, along with other shared details.
She found me and e-mailed about what she’d found—but didn’t mention the death. She assumed I knew. But I was stunned and couldn’t reply at first.
Yet another person I loved didn’t reach out to someone who would keep her from choosing to die. I eventually replied to Johanna (who was worried about herself) in terms supportive of her passion for her program in History:
Kathryne didn’t have “exactly the life [you’re] trying to get,” you know quite well. But I know what you mean: How does one keep the passion without being consumed by it? Do not disown your passion. Learn how to use it to your best advantage—for your personal flourishing—but also for your mastery of prudence. Don’t let your imaginability smother you.My point isn’t well made. I was improvising for a spontaneous email. High capability can become its worst adversary. High capability for positive possibility can be undermined by that same capability in terms of negative possibility. But neither lives nor valid histories are really dialectical.
The appropriate complement of aspiration is pragmatism, including patience and compassion toward yourself.
But generalizations like that can’t be especially relevant to a particular circumstance of a given life. That calls for appropriateness of response to detail, not spontaneous emails.
Anyway, I’m a creature of history—well, evolving, you know—so, I cut off my pretense of advice to her and continued in a typically-effusive manner (I’m embarrassed to admit, but apparently can’t escape)…
History! O, history.... I was nearly overwhelmed by the account from Tony Judt’s wife, in the current issue of the New York Review of Books, about his passion to do great work even as he was quickly withering from ALS. God, to be a brilliant mind—like Stephen Hawking—but withering away, yet not giving up the passion. Brilliance isn’t wholly vested in the light, but in one’s ownmost balancing—employment of the light for where you can go, step by step.I’m really not a didacticist at heart. Anyway, the thought is secular (and even more effusive): We are the highly-evolved intelligence of Earth, graced by leading minds.
I express a lot of literary idealism in my online writing. It goes back to my 20s, and was especially embodied by Kathryne’s aspirations. (Being Romantic at heart is so beyond romantic—and beyond Deconstruction.)
Anyway—anyway, and then—last week, I didn’t want to accept news-account presumptions of suicide. In a “daynote” (now deleted), I wrote:
Wednesday, March 7
She might have slipped off the bridge by accident, leaning too far back over the rail as she took in the vista across the highway, not realizing that nothing was suddenly available to grasp, if her feet slipped. Johanna’s distress was partly about the possibility that Kathryne’s death was intentional. But there’s no evidence in the news that Kathryne’s death was suicide. However, accident may seem implausible (though the bridge has low railing!). Which narrative does one choose to hold as “true” (most credible), which one fiction? (So, too, for “history”; what is the history that we settle on?)
So last night, I wrote a P.S. to my earlier reply to Johanna and sent it:
The past few years, I’ve gone through a process of appreciating very much, relative to my own life, that being 25 or so is really the heart of oneself, such that a life which stays true to the best in oneself from one’s most inspired years is very likely to feel like a good life in later decades.
I know that I was true to myself in my mid-20s. I know that I really knew Kathryne. That and information online about her very engaged academic life causes me to conclude that she died by accident. She was an aesthete at heart. She was the kinda woman who would want to take in the season from a literary point of view. She would readily think of stopping on that bridge which she had stopped on during other seasons; and want to take in the seasonality of the river. She would lean back from the crystalline beauty of the vista or, turned around, lean into the expansiveness of the river. She could easily not realize that the sidewalk is so wet that she might slip, as the literary woman leaned into the idea of the river or the vista she knew so well. She fell by accident because her heart was always releasing itself into feeling.
There was no suicide. People like easy drama. She was in control of her tenured life. She would have taken care of intimate details, had she thought of suicide. She was not some crazy lady who, having a successful life with many friends who cared about her, suddenly jumps into a river. No, her keys were still in the ignition because she just intended to stop a second and witness the immanence of a season.
Friday, March 9
But I was wrong. I’m the fictionist. A close friend of hers answered my query at length. “Yes, it was suicide. I don’t think anyone here doubts it. …”
Back to Thursday, March 15
Thursday of last week, I became very ill with flu (despite having had my annual vaccination months ago), which has never happened before. I suppose it was because of stress-induced immune-response depletion, I don’t know. But the middle of last week was emotionally difficult.
Several of Kathryne’s departmental friends have responded to my queries. Johanna and I continued some exchanges. I may want to say more about that later, maybe not: about my life before and after her (Katherine to Kathryne, never re-marrying, but settling into a comfortable partnership that ended in suicide, too).
How good lives lead to suicide is beyond us. How good lives may go that way but don’t is what we can do to understand.
I’m grateful to Johanna. But now I just want to get back to what I love.
Spring is immanent!—life’s answer to winter.