What will they remember you for?

By Caitlin Kelly

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A few days ago, we attended a memorial service in suburban Maryland for a family friend of my husband’s, a handsome, distinguished architect whose work spanned New York City and Detroit and who helped design JFK Airport.

I never had the pleasure of meeting him, but what a glorious service!

What a powerful reminder of the complicated, messy, loving lives we lead.

How we are often both reticent and expressive, if perhaps not when, where and how others might most have needed or wished for.

How our smallest words and deeds can, unwittingly, leave a lasting mark.

How much we crave connection, even as we blunder and stagger and do it so imperfectly that forgiveness is sometimes the greatest gift we are given.

How, for some fathers, their children are their greatest joy.

What did his friends, children, grandchildren and colleagues remember?

— He baked bread in clay flowerpots

— His amazing home-made pizza

— He loved classical music — and Rodrigo’s exquisite Concierto de Aranjuez was part of the service, played simply and beautifully on a gleaming black grand piano. A lone trumpet also played the Navy Anthem and My Funny Valentine.

— His service in WWII, inspiring a young seaman, a grandson in his medal-beribboned uniform, to tell us that’s what inspired him to join the Navy as well

— His midnight rescue, done calmly and gently, of his niece — out on a first date — who had locked the car keys in his borrowed car, with the engine running

— The day, as a Columbia School of Architecture student, he discovered that Frank Lloyd Wright was visiting New York City, staying at the Plaza Hotel. He jumped into a car, drove downtown to the Plaza — and, with no formal introduction, invited Wright back to campus for their 4:00 ritual tea. Wright, who then was paid $30,000 per lecture and had a New York Times interview scheduled that day, spontaneously agreed. (Now that’s chutzpah!)

— His three marriages; (as one female relative said, to loving laughter, “I kept hoping…”)

My husband clutched the late man’s brother’s hand, our dear friend, while I held Jose’s, knitting a fierce rope of love, something rough and strong to hold fast to.

We exited the church into brilliant fall sunshine to discover a raft of cellphone messages from Texas; my husband’s own half-brother, a man 24 years his senior, had suffered a major stroke and would likely not survive. He died a few hours later.

This, barely three days after Pratt Institute, where I now teach two classes, lost a female student to suicide, on campus.

It has been a week of death, of mourning, of loss, of remembrance.

Of our impossible, inevitable, inescapable fragility.

What will they say of you?

Is it what you hope?

Are You Lonely? Cornell's Three Suicides Raise The Issue Once More

Cover of "A Good Talk: The Story and Skil...
Cover via Amazon

Today’s New York Times carries a letter from the president of Cornell, a campus struck by three recent student suicides:

In a time of unrelenting connectivity, through Facebook, Twitter and our smartphones, paradoxically it is too easy to stop connecting directly with those most able to help our young people. What is the way ahead?

First, we need more research into the factors that lead to suicide in this age group and how to identify those at greatest risk. Second, on our campuses, we need to forge ever more effective partnerships among students, parents, teachers, counselors and administrators in support of our students. And third, students must learn that it is smart to ask for help.

The story about the suicides has prompted 258 comments, so far.

Some of you will remember the chorus to “Eleanor Rigby” a Beatles’ tune, about “all the lonely people — where do they all come from? All the lonely people, where do they all belong?

I think about loneliness a lot.

I work alone all day in a suburban apartment. I can hear my neighbor’s voice through the wall that separates our living rooms — she, too, works at home, but is a deeply private person socially. I can hear the radiator hissing and the fridge humming and the wind outside. That’s it.

If I want to speak with someone, I have to pick up the phone — always reluctant to impose upon friends who are all busy parenting and/or working — or leave my apartment and set up a face to face meeting with a friend, many of whom live a 45-60 minute drive away, many of whom are already swamped with family, work, commuting. Sitting in the library or coffee shop simply surrounded by other people we don’t know isn’t the answer.

Two of my friends are, like me right now, also on medication and ordered to rest as we recover slowly from severe hip or back pain. It leaves us alone and isolated (thank God for email!) in our homes.

There’s an interesting piece on this by David Dudley:

Whatever happened to good old-fashioned conversation?

I’m not the only one who has been struck by the eerie quiet that surrounds us nowadays. “We have all these invisible walls built by iPods and cell phones,” says Daniel Menaker, who crusades for traditional, face-to-face connection in his new book, A Good Talk: The Story and Skill of Conversation. “Not to be apocalyptic, but I’m very worried. There’s a social obligation to be available in a public space.”

Though hand-held devices now encroach on some treasured preserves of good talk—restaurant meals, an afternoon at the ballpark, the privacy of your car—Menaker’s chief villain isn’t technology per se but our work-obsessed lives. A job culture that demands always-on connectivity is flooding our days and nights with the clipped conventions and I-want-it-yesterday expectations of the work-place. The result: a nation of hyperconnected hermits, thumbs furiously working our BlackBerrys, each of us a master of an ever-smaller personal universe.

And a new memoir about being lonely by Emily White, a Canadian former lawyer living in St. Johns, Newfoundland, recently excerpted:

I lived alone for six years in my 30s, and those years were a period of relentless, almost savage loneliness. I ate breakfast alone, ate dinner alone, went to sleep alone, and woke to an empty apartment. On weekends, if I didn’t have anything planned, I saw no one.

Through all of this loneliness, I couldn’t shake the sense that there was something profoundly wrong with me. I’m 40, and I’ve been described as a member of the “Friends” generation. That is, even if I was living alone, I was supposed to be part of a hip, sassy gaggle of friends — a group that would make me feel as though I were part of a family, as though I weren’t, in fact, so alone.

But I wasn’t Carrie on “Sex and the City.” I had lovely friends, but they were busy with jobs and families. My real family was on the other side of town, and my sisters were raising kids. My work (I was a lawyer) wasn’t particularly social, and I didn’t belong to clubs or a church group.

The aloneness began to unravel me. I didn’t feel able, as one selfhelp writer advises, to see myself as my own companion. I didn’t want to cook dinners for myself as though I were having company. I wanted real company, and without it, my life began to fragment…My sleep fractured: I fell asleep in the living room, above my neighbors’ den, so that I could hear them talking in the evenings…

In fact, everything I went through when alone and lonely was empirically normal. I’ve spent the past five years engrossed in loneliness research, and I’ve seen all my symptoms and traits — the headaches, the wakefulness, the warped eating — evidenced among lonely individuals.

I lived alone for many years, ages 19-23, ages 26-30 and for six years after my divorce. I know how loneliness can gnaw at your soul. The more lonely you feel the more needy and grabby you can become — so uncool! so not fun! — that friends withdraw or you pull away from them, compounding the closed loop of solitude.

I don’t find it very easy to make friends. I once did, living downtown in Toronto and Montreal. I found it terrifyingly impossible in the 18 months I lived — survived, barely — in rural New Hampshire, where my then-partner was doing his medical residency, therefore gone most of the time and exhausted and mono-syllabic when home. I have never felt so disliked. We’d entertain, and no one would reciprocate. Everyone was married, pregnant or breast-feeding and we had no kids or plans to have any.

I live now 25 miles north of Manhattan. I can see the Empire State building from my street. But days, weeks, can go by without human contact unless I initiate it.

I don’t think I’m any less likeable than before. My sweetie is a lovely guy.  We love to cook and entertain, (very rarely reciprocated), and are planning a party for next month.

But, here, I’m wildly unconventional — no kids, unmarried (long-partnered), low-ish income in a wealthy area, no graduate degree surrounded by doctors and corporate lawyers. People don’t know what to make of me, or find me (?) intimidating, I’ve been told.

So — I chat with neighbors in the laundry room, in the elevator, at the mailbox or garage. I chat with our local businessmen, whether Hassan who sells great cheese or Gregg, from whom I’ll be buying window caulk tomorrow or Jose, who works the counter at the dry-cleaners or Mike, the shoe repairman. I talk to my Mom and Dad more than ever before, far away in Canada.

People need face-to-face contact, warmth, humor, conversation. We need to share a laugh and a raised eyebrow. We need a sliver of free cheese (thanks, Hassan!) or a juicy bit of gossip (thanks, Aqeel, our pharmacist) or just knowing we do still belong to a larger community.

It’s a terrible taboo to even admit you’re lonely. Loser! It’s one major reason I went to work a part-time retail job, just to be around co-workers and to enjoy (as I often did) meeting customers.

Doesn’t everyone have a ton of pals eager to hang out with them?

No. Not when everyone seems to be staggering under the multiple and often competing demands of: school, grad school, family of origin, their own babies and kids, aging, ill or dying parents, often living far away, their partner, their work, their hobbies, their new side-business(es), health issues, their sports or recreational or musical commitments.

It’s a minor miracle anyone, anywhere, has time to talk.

Do you?