Missing Person

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Loneliness with the World – George Grie 2009

Note:  Going through my old blog, Late Empire Ruminations, before I let it lapse and disappear from cyberspace, I ran across this narrative describing what I went through when I discovered my wife was a missing person.  Now its last sentence seems much more poignant than it did on the day I wrote it.

I’d like to think I take very little for granted.  After all, as a literature teacher, I have spent some time surveying the hellscapes of tragedy – Thebes, Elsinore, Casterbridge, Oceania, Yoknapatawpha – so I’m aware that horror is forever hovering and might descend at any moment via a drunken driver or cerebral hemorrhage or natural disaster.

As my friend Tom Evatt used to say with a wink and a smile, “I’m no stranger to heartache.”

One day he awoke with a bit of a limp.  Within a year he was dead from ALS.

Tommy at lake

Tom Evatt

In the mid-Nineties,  I myself via clinical depression descended into the underworld, a place I once pretended didn’t exist as I stupidly cajoled the despondent with banal observations about how they were living in the wealthiest, most carefree civilization in the history of the planet.  Of course, as someone who had read Hamlet, I should have known better.

I have of late [says the despondent prince]—but wherefore I know not,—lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises; and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire, why, it appears no other thing to me but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours. What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form, in moving, how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?

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The Song of Ophelia, artist unknown

After dropping thirty pounds in ten days,* spending my afternoons on the floor of my study weeping, suffering nightmares that would send Alfred Hitchcock screaming out into the dark, I discovered that, no, depression is real, as real as a heart attack or a car jacking or ALS.

*Unfortunately, it wasn’t one of those weight losses when colleagues come up to you saying how good you look but instead ask, “Have you been sharing needles with your Haitian boyfriend?”

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If you’re lucky, if you emerge from the darkness of depression, you might come back with some secret information like Odysseus received from Tiresias in Hades, info that helped him steer between Scylla and Charybdis.  I came back up with the idea that I would try to savor my allotted moments, to try to detach myself from illusion, to attempt to follow the Golden Eighth Fold path.

Again here is Hamlet, talking to his pal Horatio regarding his misgivings about his upcoming fencing match with Laertes, a contest that unbeknownst to him is booby-trapped and will lead to his death:

If it be now,

’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be

now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the

readiness is all: since no man has aught of what he

leaves, what is’t to leave betimes?

* * *

Last Wednesday at break as I was placing my coffee cup in the dishwasher in the small kitchen that abuts the boardroom, I heard someone softly say my name.  It was our receptionist Kyndra, as far away from her desk as it is possible for her to be in the building.  She was pale and looked disconcerted.

She asked me if I knew where Judy was.  Of course, the answer should have been no – she could have been at her rural Berkeley County school or her suburban Summerville school or driving between the two – but I said, “She’s at work.”

Kyndra gently shook her head.  She said calmly, looking me in the eyes. “She’s not at work.  The school has called.  She was supposed to be there for a meeting at 7:30.  They’ve called the other school.  She’s not there. They can’t get in touch with her.” She handed me a small blue slip of paper with a number on it. “This is the school’s number.  They want you to call.”

I don’t remember the walk from the boardroom to my classroom.  Did I run?  Did I walk quickly?  I felt a sudden – this is difficult to describe – a sort of sudden metallic sinking of my soul like a ship going down.

Did I know where Judy was?  No, but I could guess –  not likely a stalled engine or flat tire given cellphones.  A wreck seemed more likely, but she had left home at 6:30 and now at 9:50 that would mean a bad one or one in a location that had no cellular reception.  Then I thought of carjacking, kidnapping.

I now was hunched over the phone in my room dialing  Judy’s cell.  I had moved the chair from behind my desk earlier in the day, so I couldn’t sit down or stand straight up because of shelves hanging over the desk of the phone.  It occurs to me now that I could have more comfortably used my cell, not had to dial 9 for a ringtone, but I’ve been using a cell phone for only a month, and it doesn’t come naturally to me.

No ring.  Straight to voicemail.  “You’ve reached Judy; please leave a message.”  Hearing her voice was the opposite of comforting.  It occurred to me that I might never hear her voice again.

I dialed the number on the blue slip of paper.  Got through immediately.  Heard Kyndra’s delayed message first hand from a woman with a sweet Southern voice accustomed to addressing elementary students.  She told me that  it wasn’t like Judy not to show up at a meeting.  No shit, I thought, but said instead.  “No, it’s not.  I’m terrified. She left at 6:30, before I did.”

Again, I punched 9 for a dial time and dialed home, hoping to get Ned to see if there was a message on voice mail.  “Once again, I heard Judy’s voice.  “You’ve reached the Judy and Wesley.  Please leave a message.”

I turned around, and there was Kyndra sitting at the opposite end of the Harkness table.

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My classroom.  Kyndra was sitting in the near end chair.  I was standing behind the black desk in the upper left.

“How can I help you?”  Kyndra asked.  “Do you have a class coming up?”

“No,”  I said.  “I’m free.  I’m going to call Ned on my cell.”

I looked at the calls I’d received.  Thought I hit “Ned.”  A  recorded stranger’s voice told me I had reached a series of numbers.  At the beep, I said, probably too loudly, “Ned, there’s been a emergency.  You need to call me.”

I really didn’t know what to do.  Get in the car, trace Judy’s route to Cross?  That’s what my body wanted to do, but my head told me to call the highway patrol, the police.  My wife was a missing person.  “Oh, this is it,” I thought, “the terrible severing.”

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As I headed towards the hall to retrieve a telephone book, Traci Miller, another staff person, walking briskly approached me and said, “Judy’s signed in at her school earlier in the morning.  She’s there.  They think she might be testing a student.”

“What?”  I was having trouble processing.

“Judy’s at work. She signed in hours ago.  She’s probably testing a student and has her cell phone off.”

I looked at her dumbfounded.

“She’s okay.”

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Portrait of Judy Birdsong on the Edge of America

I went back to my room and realized that I needed a drink.  My cell was ringing.  “Wesley, this is Jake.  Did you mean to call me?  There’s an emergency?”  Instead of Ned I had called Jake in New Orleans.  I explained the snafu.  I walked over to my laptop and wrote Judy an email.  All it said was “Are you alive?”  Almost as soon as I sent it, the land phone rang in the room.  It was Judy.  Apologetic.  No, she had been at School since 7:30.  Several people had seen her.  She was so, so sorry.

It was her live voice, music to my ears.

* * *

I’ll give you the quick Perry Mason post trial explanation like when he and Della Street and Paul Drake explain how the murder had actually gone down.

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There was no meeting at the rural Berkeley County School, but a mother was there looking for Judy who was in a meeting with the assistant principal.  A teacher, thinking it was a meeting, tried to find Judy.   Concerned, she called the suburban Summerville School who called my school. A series of unfortunate miscommunications.

At any rate, I hold no ill will.  The ten or so minutes of existential dread I suffered were almost worth it as I looked out of the window at the premature spring, then at the stack of graded and ungraded essays on my desk.  Thanks to my calling  Jake in error, Ned was spared.  All of the petty problems I had been stewing over took their rightful place in the basement of the pyramid of importance.

The only real after effect is that like the ancient mariner I feel compelled to tell this story to everyone.  Maybe this writing it out will expiate it.

And, of course, it’s merely a reprieve, because if it be not now, yet it will come.

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The Fates

 

Ground or Air or Ought

If you need a poem to help you cope with death, Emily Dickinson is your gal. I’ve read Richard Sewell’s 2 volume biography, and she was, as Robert Frost famously put it, “acquainted with the night,” or as my now-over-a-decade-dead friend Tommy Evatt used to say, “no stranger to heartache.”

During Emily Dickinson’s 56 years, lots and lots of people she dearly loved died.

She spoke from experience:

 

After great pain, a formal feeling comes –

The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs –

The stiff Heart questions ‘was it He, that bore,’

And ‘Yesterday, or Centuries before’?

 

The Feet, mechanical, go round –

A Wooden way

Of Ground, or Air, or Ought –

Regardless grown,

A Quartz contentment, like a stone –

 

This is the Hour of Lead –

Remembered, if outlived,

As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow –

First – Chill – then Stupor – then the letting go –

 

In my case, I’m not at the “formal feeling” stage yet, probably somewhere between “Chill” and “Stupor,” but by having read Tennyson and having read Dickinson, I know someday I can look forward to “the letting go.”

I can’t stress vigorously enough to my former students how the best poetry can prepare you for (in my case, the second worse thing I can imagine happening to me) by vividly making concrete the pain of loss before it actually happens and by underscoring the universality suffering.

Metaphors fail me – dress rehearsal, inoculation?

Anyway, Miss Emily, please accept this thank you note.