I could care less about most celebrity deaths. I don’t mean to sound cold, but other than a “Gee, that’s too bad,” the death of a movie idol or pop star has little impact on my world. Frankly, I find it abhorrent that the demise, however regrettable, of a drug-addicted, overpaid narcissist routinely garners more attention than the hideous deaths of thousands from famine, disease, and violence.
I have one categorical exception to my not-mourning-the-deaths-of-individual-strangers rule. Authors. Again, these are people with whom I may never have had direct contact; we have never spoken, exchanged words, or even glances. Yet, in many cases, they have touched my life in a way that no actor or singer, or even casual acquaintance ever could. I think the difference lies in the honesty. An actor or musician is, by definition, performing his art. One never knows the person behind the public face. For an author, however, the art is entirely revelatory. It is impossible for an author to write a decent work of fact or fiction without sharing his voice, and a bit of his soul.
The downside to maturity is the watching of beloved faces pass from our lives. As we cross into adulthood, those who have shaped us leave forever, and are replaced by those who have not yet made a mark. In recent years, I have mourned not only the deaths of loved ones, but of beloved writers.
I’m not necessarily referencing luminaries like Updike and Salinger. These greats have contributed to the society at large, but their loss, for me, is a more general and more gentle regret. The literary figures I mourn are not, perhaps, the giants or geniuses, but theirs are the voices that provided the narration for my life.
As an awkward, bookish, introverted girl, I identified with Madeline L’Engle’s Meg Murray and Vicky Austin. I read L’Engle’s books until the spines cracked and pages frayed, clinging to the belief that at least one person in the world understood me, that she was writing just for me. If I could escape into A Wrinkle in Time or A Ring of Endless Light, I could see a future beyond the limitations of junior high and high school, beyond the walls of my own insecurity.
I first met David Eddings (or at least his books) my junior year of high school. Pawn of Prophecy was loaned to me by a girl with whom I desperately wanted, yet somehow never quite managed, to be close friends. She, too, seemed to grasp that our high school was a soul killing place in which to mark time, and yet, she was far cooler than I. Eddings’ books had that same witty coolness. Escapist fantasy, tales of once upon a time, but with a smart-ass humor that appealed to the teenage rebel who did not dare to show herself.
Dick Francis passed away yesterday. I sent a text to a friend almost immediately. My mother initially hooked me on Francis’ mysteries. Horseracing, British mystery novels – what was not to like? Mom and I connected through books during my teen years. Ours is a family that discusses ideas, not emotions. But, Dick Francis carried me across the gulf between adolescence and adulthood.
It had begun as an awkward parting after an impossible, fantastic night of the sort peculiar to college life. Over two decades later, the scene is vivid. He hesitated in my doorway. I clutched the bookcase trying to come up with something witty, something memorable, something that would allow me to see this guy again.
“Well, it was good to meet you…”
“Yeah, maybe we’ll see each other at the party.”
“Yeah, I’ll try to drive over.”
It was excruciating. Each word shoved from the depths of adolescent insecurity. Both incapable of expressing by day, the connection we had found the night before (no, not that sort of connection, this essay is rated PG.) Then,
“Hey, whose Dick Francis books?” He grinned up at the bookshelf.
“Those would be mine.” The connection was made.
When that relationship with the man who would be my first love ended, I muffled my heartbreak in a return to Madeline L’Engle. A Ring of Endless Light nearly disintegrated that year. Fortunately, I discovered L’Engle’s autobiographical Crosswicks Journals. She understood the transcendence of love, and the complications of loss and friendship. You see, over 20 years later, that guy in the doorway is still my best friend. It was he that I texted yesterday the news of the loss of an author whose books have been Christmas and birthday present mainstays for many years. And it was he who introduced me to the man who I would marry.
My then fiancé, now husband, first introduced me to Robert B. Parker. I can’t remember if I was rendered bedridden by the flu, cramps, or the exhaustion of clinical rotations, but I do remember my first Spenser novel. Mike had tucked me into his bed, propped with pillows and tea. “Here, I thought you might need something to read. You like mysteries, so I got this for you. That TV series Spenser for Hire was based on these books.”
It was a hardback copy of Walking Shadow. I was still a student; hardcover books were a rare luxury. I stared at the black silhouette on the bright cover and knew that this man loved me. Several pages in, my ailing body rocked with laughter. The early years of my marriage were peppered with passages of Parker’s novels read aloud to explain fits of giggles. Sixteen years and three children later, Robert B. Parker’s books claim an overflowing, double-rowed shelf of their own.
My marriage returned me to my relationship with Eddings. My husband and I have read and re-read The Belgariad and The Mallorean together more times than I can count. As our children have grown in both maturity and attention span, story time has been devoted to books loved by their parents. Mike spent months reading Eddings’ books at story time, complete with voices. Our oldest daughter identifies a bit too closely with Silk.
In my early 30s, I discovered Madeline L’Engle’s adult novels. Her linked tales of the complexities of love, family, and faith carried me through a year of deep depression – a year in which I felt that I had lost myself to motherhood. As life stabilized, I discovered again the relish of Robert B. Parker’s rapid-fire, erudite, and somewhat snarky wit. His focus on the essentials of life and relentless mockery of those who take themselves too seriously blew fresh air across the stifling demands of career and parenting.
The gaps in our lives fill in with new loves if we open ourselves to them. Even now, other authors are working their ways into my mind and heart, but I still mourn the loss of my “old friends.” Rest in Peace, Madeline L’Engle, David Eddings, Robert B. Parker, and Dick Francis. You gave us joy, wit, entertainment, and insight. Thank you.