I’ve had an embarrassingly easy and lucky life so far. None of my close family members have died, so far the closest thing to a death in the family was when our golden retriever Buster died. Hopefully it stays that way for a long time.
My first experience with death was when one of my best friends, Thomas Vance, died. Died isn’t the right word, he was killed, struck by several cars while walking onto the onramp for I-95, only one of which bothered to stop. It’s hard for me to talk about all the ways his death affected me when I think about his family. They’re some of the nicest people I’ve ever met, so I consider it wrong for me to go on about my experience. They were his family, I was just his friend. It’s enough to say that even today I’m horribly shocked and distraught about what happened to him. I’ve thought about him every day since my friend Mike called me at work and told me what happened.
That was my first real experience with death. I just recently had my second.
I met Gertie Poole while I was working at Borders bookstore. Gertie came in to do a signing. Authors usually came by on peak days like Saturday or Sunday, stay for an hour or two then leave. But Gertie did two signings every week, Tuesdays and Fridays, and would stay for around three hours. I think I spoke to her first.
She was a publishing fantasy author, I couldn’t help admiring her. Here was a person who didn’t just talk about writing, she did it, lived it. When we talked, she was kind to me. I don’t remember how I learned she was blind, it wasn’t as obvious as you might think. She walked without a cane, mostly unaided. It never bothered her, wasn’t even a nuisance, as far as I could tell. She did what she loved to do. Clichés aside, she inspired me to write.
That was when I stopped talking about writing and started writing. Gertie agreed to read and critique my writing. I had my first publication not long after. I owe Gertie for that and for my subsequent publications. That was my routine, write something and mail it to Gertie. She had some program read it to her, and then she’d mail me her comments. I started looking forward to her comments; partly because she was insightful, in part because she was one of the only writers I knew who would actually give me feedback. She did it because that was the kind of person she was.
Eventually I read her book Realm, which was published locally. The polite and dishonest thing to say here would be that her book wasn’t my cup of tea. The truth is that I had to struggle through it. I thought that the writing was sloppy, the characters were one-dimensional, and so on. I made a few oblique and unhelpful comments about her book that she could probably tell were dishonest. I couldn’t tell if she could tell. She never changed, gave me the same warm smile. We were good friends. I even got in trouble at work a few times for talking with her too much. The two of us must’ve looked funny together, a twenty-one year old and a woman in her mid fifties.
Once I got my life together, I quit Borders and went back to college. I graduated not too long after, was on the Dean’s list every semester with mostly straight A’s. I kept getting published, won some awards and contests. At some point in our correspondence Gertie told me she had brain cancer. I wasn’t prepared for that email, I don’t know how anyone could be. I sent an email back, linking shocked and apologetic and remorseful words into a few bumbling sentences. I felt like I had when Tom died – like an intruder, some idiot who’d stolen hours of her time from her family. I thought it was best to go away, so I did. That was the last time we spoke.
Every few days or so after that email I ran google searches on her name. A few weeks ago I read her obituary. Is there a difference between vehicular manslaughter and brain cancer? Stupid question. The more I think about Gertie now, the more I realize how extraordinary she was. No, that’s probably a trivial way to describe her. We always build palaces and shrines of someone when they pass. I knew Gertie as a writer, a reader and a friend. When I think about her in those terms, I feel ashamed.
Sure, maybe I can dissect her writing and trash it, find a million flaws in it. What kind of publisher would print this? What kind of writer?
A purer writer than me.
Someone who wrote because she loved to tell stories, the stories she had in her heart. That was my perception of her. Her book, Realm, drips with the kind of raw enthusiasm that’s inimitable. Something that’s probably lost in some of my own fiction, which is sometimes overwrought.
I think back on when I read Realm. I was stupid, immature, cruel, nearsighted. I’ll probably never have the generosity or clarity of purpose that Gertie had, but that doesn’t mean I can’t try.