A few weeks ago, I went to a memorial service for my friend Doris. She had died in January, of cancer, at the age of 82. I was in Sri Lanka at the time, and it was such a disconnect. There I was, sandy and salty, having just eaten a beach-y kind of lunch of a prawn omelet and a banana milkshake. It started raining suddenly, so I ducked into an email place to get onto the computer and wait out the rain. Mostly, I was expecting that I'd hear about an annoying freelance project I didn't want to be working on while at the beach (though I was grudgingly doing it). But there was an email from my friend Susan, with the subject, "Sad News from Home," and I knew exactly what it was.
It was pretty much the opposite of when I lived in Delhi in 1994-95 and three of my four grandparents died in a six month period. The first grandfather died in June, and the fax from my parents arrived the day after I'd left to go up to the mountains for 3 weeks. I got it when I returned to Delhi, and the fax telling me of my second grandfather's death arrived a week later, so it felt like I'd both lost grandfathers in the same week. That was a different kind of disconnect--being so far away while things were happening at home and really feeling the distance.
It's a different kind of strange to be so far away and know immediately that something bad has happened. It was a small comfort, at least, that I was in Sri Lanka visiting Sonia, because Sonia had been with me the first time I'd met Doris and Dorothy in 1996. We spoke on the phone that evening (she was working in Colombo while I was at the beach), and she advised me to go to the old Dutch Reformed Church in Galle Fort and spend a moment thinking about Doris. Obediently, I did.
I had known that Doris had been frail for the last few years I knew her, but I hadn't known that she was so sick. I immediately flashed back to our last real visit, more than a year earlier. It was late summer, and Doris was having an allergic reaction to something, so she'd been exiled from her house to a friend's cottage to make sure that she wasn't allergic to their 3 dogs or multiple cats. (She thought this unlikely, given that she'd been living with animals for so long, but she had gamely agreed to the exile. ) The cottage was by a lake, and we sat on the porch in back and looked at the water and talked. There had been an article in the NY Times the previous weekend about female to male transsexuals, and we spent a long time talking about that. Doris thought that actually changing your body parts indicated a "lack of imagination," and when I finally left, I was just tickled that I'd had that particular conversation with my then 81- year- old friend. Although I'd seen her briefly once or twice after that, I was glad to have that as my last memory.
I was grateful, also, that the memorial service wasn't happening right away so I could attend. It happened on a perfect spring day, sunny and windy and warm, and the auditorium was nearly full. At the entrance was an enormous bouquet of flowers from Richard Gere, who had been one of Doris' students at UMass and who continued to hold her in high esteem. The memorial service was, basically, perfect. An interesting selection of people from different parts of her life spoke--old friends, former students, colleagues. One of her poems was set to music, and there was a string quintet along with a small chorus to perform it. One man played the guitar (an arrangement of an Emily Dickinson poem set to music), and another the piano. There were many very funny moments, and I was amazed to hear how many people Doris corresponded with--many people mentioned her steady flow of notes. She wrote to me at least a few times a month for most of the time I knew her, and it made me realize that I was just one of many, many correspondents for her. (It seemed that we were all equally amazed and saddened that there would be no more notes signed, "love from D and D and the menagerie.") At the end was a slide show of photos from her life and her long relationship with Dorothy, and the last slide was a shot of her study with its empty chair. (There could not have been a dry eye in the auditorium by then.)
I was going to write all of this earlier, right after the memorial service, and I started but got sidetracked. And then a week ago, I got an email from Karen Templer at Readerville asking if she could publish on the web the essay I'd written about Doris and Dorothy and their bookstore, which I originally wrote for the print edition of The Readerville Journal in 2003. As a writer, I see things I'd change, but the rest of me is glad I wrote it when I did so that Doris and Dorothy could read it.
It's called "Uncommon Readers," and it's here. I'll also link (though it's also linked at the end of the essay) Doris' wonderful Boston Globe obit.