In some cultures a woman’s name changes when she has her first child. She becomes known as “Mother of ______.” We don’t live in such a culture so Laura did not change her name when she became the mother of Anne Mei. Today is the fifth Mother’s Day since Laura died, but the Mother of Anne Mei is still very much with us. On the first anniversary of Laura’s death, Anne Mei and I put her ashes into the Delaware and Raritan Canal along the path Laura loved to walk. On Mother’s Days since then, we bring flowers to Laura by spreading them on the flowing waters of the canal.
Which “Laura” are we bringing flowers to? Now, there is no one who calls herself “Laura.” No one is writing what C.S. Lewis would call Laura’s own “composition” for herself. Through the Caringbridge blog I fashioned a Laura, primarily so that she (and I) could control her “brand.” It started as a defensive measure so that none of her co-workers could make herself into Laura’s spokesperson in the office. During the week Laura was recovering from her first biopsy, alarms went off in my head when I read an email from Laura’s supervisor sounding put out that Laura had chosen someone as her intermediary, when it was that person who had selected herself without Laura’s knowledge or consent. Then, the Caringbridge Laura became a vehicle to keep up interest in and support for Laura. When Avastin helped the “real” Laura become well enough to realize that I was blogging about her, she became Laura the Censor. No more weird quotes from the I Ching or the legends of the bodhisattva who became the Buddha.
Another Laura was the Laura celebrated at her birthday party in October 2009. The Laura who danced to American Bandstand with her childhood friend Judy Harris. The Laura who knew how to keep a meeting on schedule, as described by her colleague Gary Kotler. Thank god the “real” Laura never knew how much I spent on the musicians for that party! Then there was the bedridden Laura who felt her life had been a failure. Her colleagues gave her the Laura of the scrapbooks of all the schools she helped get built. Finally, there was the Laura of the obituary, crafted to tell the world her accomplishments.
Such fictional Lauras meant nothing to the “real” Laura. In the novel Atonement, Briony creates fictional time for her sister to spend with the lover whom Briony had destroyed with a lie. The self that Briony created meant nothing to the real sister, who didn’t live it, and like Laura didn’t even know of it. On the other hand, what people thought of her mattered a great deal to Laura. So, the scrapbooks and obituary, particularly as they endure in the minds of others, would have mattered if she knew. In this regard, I would call her Laura the Confucian. Honor, code, decency, decorum, hard work, remembrance. It would make a difference to Laura the Confucian whether and how she is remembered. But where is Laura the Confucian now?
The answer to that question did not come to me until the third anniversary of Laura’s death. I sent out a number of emails to tell Laura’s friends and family that Anne Mei had lit the yahrzeit candle at sundown on January 29, telling myself that Laura would like to know that people remember her. Laura does live on in all her friends and family, in their lives, in the ways her memory continues to affect their lives, and for me in being able to stay in touch with her through them. That thought is very Confucian.
Of course the “real” Laura would vehemently reject labels, particularly this one, not because of its philosophical leanings, but because it comes from someone else. She never labeled herself.
Laura’s selves during this disease were many—the tortured Laura who could not read and, at points, wanted to die out of frustration and shame; the happy Laura after Avastin shrank the tumor and she could read the NY Times and the New Yorker again; the increasingly frightened Laura who more and more found her work too challenging and then started losing her sight, culminating in the flat tire on Harrison Street; the angry Laura in the face of the bureaucratic nightmares perpetrated in the trifecta; the resigned and increasingly peaceful Laura after we learned that the tumor was still growing after SRS.
What haunts me is the question of who was there those last weeks after she went to bed for good and then went on morphine. I tell people she was at peace, but I would like to know that. To whom was I talking during that last week when she looked at me and seemed to comprehend what I was saying, as I repeated over and over that Anne Mei and I would be all right, that we would miss her, but that it was ok for her to let go now? Was she really at peace? Or, was the feisty Laura with the ever-ready dismissive quip for sentimental slop too drugged up to get out what she wanted to say? And frustrated about it? I didn’t see any frustration in her eyes. Resignation, yes. Fright, I hope not, but I can’t say for sure. As it did throughout her illness, aphasia took away Laura’s most precious resource and what was most Laura about Laura—her words.
Words! I haven’t forgotten about verbs. I haven’t tried to talk about the dying Laura in verbs instead of nouns. Haven’t tried: “Now, there is no on-going performance of ‘Laura.’” I did deliberately start this reflection with “Now, there is no one who calls herself ‘Laura.’” Laura may have died, but she would not want me to kill “her” again by writing her character out of the script just using verbs. Laura the Confucian still lives in the way I write.
A new Laura is emerging in the years it is taking me to write this. The Laura who appears in these posts. A Laura who is analyzed and written about. She is not even the same as the Laura of memory. The analyzed Laura. Many of the things I say about her motivations, what she was thinking, are just extrapolations of the Laura of memory. And the Laura remembered is not just once and for all. She’s changing as my memory changes. I forget things and I remember things I’ve previously forgotten.
As you read, you are also creating another Laura. Those readers who knew Laura while she was alive will have someone with whom to compare the written Laura, and out of that reading and comparison there will emerge another Laura, the Laura experienced through reading these presentations. Those who didn’t know Laura when she was alive will compare the written Laura with other people, other written characters, and develop their own experienced Laura.
Laura the Confucian would like that. While “Laura the Confucian” is a figment of my imagination, I am sure that continuing to live in the thoughts of others would have pleased the Laura I knew.
What about all the other Lauras? Are they just figments of someone’s imagination? Even Laura’s own imagination? Who then, you might ask, did the imagining? Ask again. Who did the living and who did the dying? These are better questions than who was the real Laura?
Who am I fooling? I’m the one who likes writing Laura. Yesterday, one of Laura’s friends asked me if it bothered me to write so much about Laura in this blog. As with most emotionally laden questions, I fumbled over an answer. A day later I realize that when writing these posts, I feel like Joan Didion when she put on her play based on her book A Year of Magical Thinking, a memoir of her life after her husband John Gregory Dunne’s sudden death. He died when they had just returned from visiting their daughter Quintana, who was in the hospital for septic shock. Joan Didion delayed funeral services for Dunne until Quintana was released from the hospital. Quintana, therefore, figures prominently in the book and the play. Twenty months after her father Quintana died from acute pancreatitis so Didion is still raw from Quintana’s death when the play is staged. Yet she likes “watching the performance” even though “the play was entirely focused on Quintana.” Why? Because
there were, five evenings and two afternoons a week, these ninety full minutes, the run time of the play, during which she did not need to be dead. Didion (2011) 165-167