Letters to the Dead

As I mentioned two weeks ago, this month I’m spending a good deal of time with my friend Joan, who died in February 2003. We worked together at a newspaper and became friends, correspondents and opponents in a stimulating two-decade debate.

When she passed, the editors of our old paper graciously printed a memorial I’d written, which began: “My long argument with Joan Dickenson is over. If she won, neither of us will ever know. Our argument concerned the existence of God and the immortality of the soul. (Joan did not dispute small matters.)”

Joan’s inhabitation of my thoughts these recent months has made me wonder if I’m not letting my side of the argument down. If she were here (let’s say in corporeal form, for the sake of argument), she’d remind me that if I truly believed in life after death, I’d have continued the debate. Why not? That’s how Joan debated; if she saw a flaw in my argument, rather than charge in and slay me, she’d politely point it out, encourage me to amend it, make my side stronger and invite me to have at her again. Either as her protégé at prose, which I was/am or her opposite in philosophical combat, she wanted me at my best. Defeating a weakling was no triumph for her, it would have left her in the shoes of a bully, the last place she wanted to stand.

So I’ll pick up where I left off, Joan. As I stood by your open grave I said even you could not dispute cultural transcendence, that you, your parents and your sister – although having died, lived on through your families, your work and the causes you espoused. It is, however, more than that. It’s how words begin to flow from me whenever I think of you. It’s the way my inbox fills with email when I devote one (one!) paragraph in a commentary to you, the way a blizzard raged outside my window last week, just like the blizzard I drove through to get back to Allegany County. (OK, I’ll concede the last point. I don’t think someone dead ten years is controlling the weather around me, as significant as the timing seemed.)

But let’s get back into it. Lent has begun, Passover and Easter fast approach and there’s so much to argue about. Argument or not, the reality is I miss your voice, your letters, even the emails that displaced those multi-page epistles. Maybe silence is your riposte. If I say your current silence is like the enigmatic silence of God, would that goad you to respond?

I’m sharing your columns with my daughter, Joan. I’m so sorry she never met you in this limited, physical world. I want her to hear your voice and know you. She is – against her own expectations and perhaps even her desire – a writer. A startling voice spasmodically blooms from her like a rose pushing through snow. I’ll tell you something I have yet to admit to her: she’s better than I am. I have some talent and I’ve worked at my craft and I want it very much, but she has a gift I can’t approach.

Saint Joan of Devil’s Elbow, wherever you aren’t, I don’t expect the kind of empirical evidence of life after death you would demand. If you can see it and touch it and taste it, it’s not – by definition – metaphysical, right? You want logic, right? There’s no logic to my daughter’s gift. If your consciousness is floating out there somewhere and wants to send me a message, how can I help but to hear you saying you’ll help me raise up a strong woman with a clear voice, so a death such as yours would not leave the Earth bereft of that which you so highly esteemed?

That’s my case Joan. Just as it was in the old days, when I sat down to write this, I thought you owed me a letter, but I’d send you one anyway. As it was then, by the time I finished typing I realized it was I that owed you.


© Mark Floegel, 2013

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