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Symphony of Loss

April 18, 2012

It’s been five months since my best friend Karen died, short enough to catch me still by surprise yet long enough for resignation to take hold. I call her “my best friend” but I certainly didn’t own her. She had another best friend whom she knew longer, and so many people loved her and cherished her friendship as much as I did. But I own this truth: When she died unexpectedly last November in the midst of teaching and grading papers and directing the women’s studies program at the university where she was an English professor, when she died in the midst of drinking coffee and reading the Sunday paper and brushing her five rescued cats and texting her friends and building this or that for her new house, my world came undone. Five months later, I’ve put it back together because I have to, because she would want me to, but it will never be the same.

I’ve been following a young writer on the New York Times Well blog who, at age 22, was diagnosed with leukemia. In her weekly column, “Life, Interrupted,” Suleika Jaouad writes with poetic, poignant honesty about her journey as a young adult with cancer. In a video that accompanies Jaouad’s April 12 column, Jaouad’s mother, Anne Francey, who is an artist, explains that writing about her daughter’s illness makes it too real; instead, painting offers Francey a degree of removal that allows her to process it.

Unlike Francey, I have no other artistic talents, and so, for me, one degree of removal from writing is silence. It’s not always loss that paralyzes me, that leaves me unable to access words, my vehicle to understanding. I also have difficulty writing about my children, my husband, even my twin. The strength of my emotions for the people I love most is sometimes too enormous for me to wrangle into meaning.

I have a recording of Henryk Górecki’s Symphony No. 3 that I listen to when some sadness makes it impossible for me to write. The soft, deep notes of the strings that introduce the first movement in this three-part symphony begin so quietly that for the first minute, you think you are listening to silence. But the grief is there, rising, slowly, steadily, until six minutes in, the strings are wailing, the notes rocking back and forth in long, pained sways, the way the body does when it is overcome with sadness.

I was six years old and in first grade when the Polish composer Górecki wrote this symphony, also known as the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. Happy, healthy, surrounded by a loving family, I was then still innocent of loss. At that age, even my own adoption was something I felt only as a gain. Each of the three movements in Symphony No. 3 incorporates a Polish text that speaks a sadness. In the first, the solo soprano sings a 15th-century folk song, a lament of Mary as her son Jesus hangs on the cross. The second movement contains a message from an eighteen-year-old woman to her mother, found scribbled on the wall of a Gestapo cell during World War II. In the third movement, based on an early twentieth-century Silesian folk song, a mother searches for a son killed in war.

The day I learned that Karen died, I left my school office in a daze, shaking, dropping things as I tried to leave the building. I was still denying the news. I had just talked to her late the night before. She was in the hospital, finally diagnosed correctly with a pulmonary embolism after a misdiagnosis of pneumonia that delayed proper treatment for weeks. Seven days before that, she had sent me an e-mail titled “Bad news to share w your discretion.” She wrote, “I am in hospital w saddle pulmomary embolism. Lots of scary life or death rhetoric. For sure if Thomas hadn’t insisted on taking me to ER yesterday I would probably have died. Still processing that. Haven’t moved past shocked joking phase. Maybe don’t share w too many people about near death.” I understood. If I shared it, I might worry others; if I shared it, I might make it real. So I only replied, “I’m glad you’re still here.” Over the next week, we exchanged dozens of texts and e-mails because she was still there. Six hours before she died, Karen sent me her last message. It ended, “Keep fingers crossed.” Early the next morning, I e-mailed her back. I ended mine, “Heart.” I ended mine with love. She was already gone.

I arrived home from school that day last November and ran up the stairs to my husband’s attic office. We just looked at each other, silent, frozen. We had both buried a parent, but this felt different; somehow this felt even more wrong. Karen was my husband’s friend before she was mine. She had introduced us in graduate school and, two years later, toasted us at our wedding. She had been there when our first son was born. All of our children called her “Aunt Karen.” She knew our parents and our siblings. She was family. Whenever she sensed we needed her, she dropped what she was doing and came, no matter how far away she was. She was wicked smart, witty, fun, down-to-earth, bossy, loyal, picky, handy, giving, real. Under the eaves of our attic, steps away from the guest room where she always slept when she visited, my husband and I understood, without saying a word, that this was a loss we would never replace, that there would never be another Karen in our lives, not just in terms of who she was but in terms of who she was to us.

Hours later, I went for a run, and I ran hard and fast around my neighborhood. I shook my head the entire way, like I was enjoying the beat of a British punk rock band, the kind that Karen loved. I wasn’t listening to music, though. I was moving to the rhythm of my own furious breath, whispering “NO NO NO NO NO,” as my feet struck the pavement in time. I ran four or five miles that way, pounding out my own symphony of loss.

At the end of Górecki’s symphony, after the last notes of the long dénouement of “Lento–Cantabile-Semplice” have cried themselves out, the strings soften and fade into silence. Only then can I begin. Each time I sit down to write, this story, any story, I am grateful that there are words after all. They come so I can find my way back, back to her, back to anyone I have ever lost.

19 Comments leave one →
  1. Jim Laymon permalink
    April 22, 2016 2:18 pm

    Beautifully written. I just read this again and it brought it all back. I miss her and wish we had re-connected sooner than 2007. She was so thoughtful, so funny, and wicked smart, as you say…
    She had also texted me the night before, just asking about my vacation and thanking me for my concern about her hospital stay. I really didn’t understand how serious it all was.
    Thanks for writing this.

    • twinprint permalink*
      April 26, 2016 1:36 pm

      Thanks so much, Jim. Your reading of this again prompted me to read it again–and you’re right, it brings it all back with such aching sadness. I miss her so much. Nothing has ever been the same again without her.

  2. Kelley Stiverson Randolph permalink
    April 25, 2012 2:54 am

    I absolutely love your blog. Thank you for letting us into your life.

    • twinprint permalink*
      April 25, 2012 2:32 pm

      Thanks so much, Kelley!

  3. April 20, 2012 2:24 pm


    It is true that losing a parent is awful, but you expect it. Karen’s loss was heartbreaking for me because it wasn’t supposed to happen. We were supposed to grow old together, all of us. For me, her death was made worse because it didn’t have to happen. It was a drunk driver, or stupid cancer, it was the neglect of someone you should be able to trust: a Doctor. It was a series of mistakes, misdiagnoses, mishandling of one of the most precious people in the world. I am angry that the medical staff didn’t treat her with the care she deserved. I am mad I wasn’t there to make sure she was treated better.
    Karen was so special, so bossy, so smart, with the best laugh ever. I am crying as I write this, after crying harder than I have ever cried when I got your email last November. Knowing her changed my life for the better and I will never forget her, and never get over the heartbreak of losing her so soon.

  4. Keet permalink
    April 19, 2012 4:52 pm

    You always amaze me. I wish I’d known your best friend. Sending you & all her loved ones some love today.

    • twinprint permalink*
      April 25, 2012 2:33 pm

      You and Karen were my only friends who truly knew their way around a sewing machine. 🙂 How did you never meet? Thanks for your kind words, Keet. The amazement is mutual.

  5. Kate permalink
    April 19, 2012 2:28 am

    Thank you for this lovely remembrance. I was fortunate to know Karen, through a dear friend, for over 20 years. I didn’t see her often, but being in her company was a wonderful journey that could go anywhere in discussion. I will always remember her special spark, kindness and enthusiasm for life and learning.

  6. Melissa permalink
    April 19, 2012 1:49 am

    I miss her so much. She had a sense of humor even in the hospital. It’s not quite the same going to Jersey and not seeing her. The world is a little less bright without her

    • twinprint permalink*
      April 25, 2012 2:34 pm

      Melissa, she though the world of you and your sister and your daughter. I’m so sad she never met Aiden, but may her spunky spirit live on and on in you and your children.

  7. April 19, 2012 1:14 am

    A beautiful tribute to what sounds like an amazing soul. Well done.

    • twinprint permalink*
      April 25, 2012 2:35 pm

      Thanks, Kendra! She was amazing.

  8. April 19, 2012 12:56 am

    Just today, walking acIross campus, as that same time of day after I had just called you, I re-lived that walk in shock and grief. That time of day, that walk across campus, will always be with me. Loved reading this, Jenny.

    • twinprint permalink*
      April 25, 2012 2:36 pm

      You know, Laurie, that I will forever be sad that I couldn’t fix this, that my denial, in the end, was just that. If I had to hear such horrible news, I’m grateful that it came from you, from someone who loved her as much as I did.

  9. Deborah (Michelette) Laigaie permalink
    April 18, 2012 11:22 pm

    I loved this story and would live to read your other blog entries. How do I access them?
    Also, what do you think Karen meant by “keep your fingers crossed”? Did she have an ill feeling? A premonition? Or wasnit about going home the next day? That statement haunts me the anything else from your story.
    Thank you for writing it. I was deeply moved. I still can’t believe it.

    • twinprint permalink*
      April 25, 2012 2:39 pm

      Thanks so much for your kind words! Honestly, I don’t think she had a clue, and that actually gives me some comfort. I hope that she had absolutely no idea, no time to feel afraid, no time to understand. For months, that has haunted me, what was in her head in those last moments. But no, talking to those in TN who visited her in the hospital, I don’t think she had any idea that death was imminent. I think she wanted me to cross my fingers that she would get out of the hospital soon, that her furnace would get fixed, and that her dad would get over the fact that she had so many cats. 🙂 You can access the rest of the blog here:

  10. Lori Ann permalink
    April 18, 2012 9:38 pm

    “She was wicked smart, witty, fun, down-to-earth, bossy, loyal, handy, giving, picky, real.” ~ perfect; thank you.

  11. April 18, 2012 7:47 pm

    Beautiful, Jenny. That Górecki has more longing in it than almost any music I know.

  12. April 18, 2012 7:37 pm

    Reading this in the parking lot at Walgreen’s since I no longer wait til I get home to read your posts. I wish I had words. I don’t. 🙂

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