Biff America: Writing an unseen friend (column)
Last night I spent the evening reading letters from a dead gal. Being an optimist, I decided to write her back.
For two years Karen Casey and I shared our fears, joys, loves and secrets. This was despite of the fact — or more likely because of it — we had not seen each other for over 40 years. She was a fiercely private person who suffered great losses and amazing success. Being raised in a strict home beset with mental illness by stern and taciturn parents, little was expected of her but status quo and obedience.
The oldest of three children, two of whom were in and out of institutions, she was expected to be satisfied with simply being of sound mental health. Karen kept her ambitions a secret from all but a few. Most assumed her high school job as a receptionist at a bank was as good a starting point as any of a career that would likely not go much further.
Karen Casey eventually became that bank’s first female vice president in its 200-year history.
Though we grew up a few miles apart, we were never friends and I can’t remember ever speaking more than a few words to her. I do remember her as a shy girl who wore glasses and clothing that seemed to be picked out by someone older.
In the course of our 24 months of writing once or twice a week, we caught up on the last near half-century. She put herself through college — her parents thought that a waste. She climbed the ranks of the banking industry. She loved and lost a great man. The challenges she encountered and overcame uniquely qualified her to counsel others who were depressed, traumatized and even suicidal.
Her passion was reading and studying; her social life consisted of work and solitary visits to Boston cafés and book stores. It was in one such place where she stumbled upon something I had written (about my mother), recognized the name and wrote me an e-mail.
My Mum banked at Karen’s place of work and she and Karen had a nodding relationship. My mother also had some past emotional challenges and without them ever having spoken in depth, Karen seemed to pick up on my mother’s sometimes fragile state. Her first letter to me was very matter-of-fact and cursory, but her insight was both intuitive and correct.
So began a 2-year web-relationship. We would exchange missives anywhere from a page to a paragraph. Every couple of months she would send me a box of her old books and I would send her flowers whenever I thought of it.
A few days before her birthday I called up a local florist and ordered a bouquet to be delivered to her place of work. I remember, contrary with my legendary frugality, I allowed the florist to up-sell me an arrangement that was more expensive than I intended to spend.
I will admit I was a little hurt when I didn’t hear back for several days.
Karen then wrote to thank me for the flowers and apologized for being late in doing so. Then in her usual frank and dispassionate manner she told me, on her birthday, she was diagnosed with stage four ovarian cancer. As I read those words I tried to picture her saying them, but my only real-time recollection of her was a shy girl in sensible shoes and modest dress getting off the school bus and walking past, barely noticed, by me and my loutish friends.
Karen died about 9 months later.
Last night I spent an hour reading a few dozen e-mail exchanges between Karen and me. I didn’t intentionally save them but rather stumbled upon them again deep in my inbox.
For some reason most of the early exchanges are missing. Rather, they began when she first told me of her condition and swore me to secrecy; she seemed to have glimmer of hope. From then there were matter-of-fact exchanges of her prognosis and treatment, interspersed with her observation about politics, the human condition, which flowers were blooming in her garden and books she was reading.
Reading it all in one sitting, it seemed like her attitude went from hope to acceptance fairly quickly but looking at the dates it was several months. Her letters became shorter and more frequent while mine grew in length. When she told me she didn’t enjoy reading anymore, I knew (perhaps even hoped) the end was near.
After reading her last e-mail to me I noticed the ‘reply’ tab at the bottom. Now obviously my friend is no longer of this world, but after reading all our exchanges I fantasized that somehow she was. So, over coffee this morning, I wrote Karen Casey a letter.
As well as being flesh, bones, blood and gristle, we are all composed of what we have seen, lived, treasured and known. I wrote a letter to a dead gal. Of course she isn’t really gone as long as she is in the hearts and memories of those who knew and loved her.
Jeffrey Bergeron, under the alias of Biff America, can be read in several newspapers and magazines. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Biff’s new book “Mind, Body, Soul.” is available at local shops and bookstores or http://shop.holpublications.com/products/biff-america-mind-body-soul
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