Friday, July 25, 2008
I mentioned her to someone earlier today, so tonight it occurred to me to check the blog she started when she was diagnosed with lung cancer last December. The last time I checked, she had successfully completed her final round of treatments.
But it turns out that earlier today, her ashes were buried in Chicago. Valerie Jean McLenighan died on July 9. She was 60. Fortunately, she had more devoted friends than I who took very good care of her since her diagnosis.
The photo of her above was taken in Mexico this spring. It's not entirely clear, but it seems things started to get worse upon her return, perhaps on the trip itself. But that photo is how I will remember her.
I hadn't seen her for something like 35 years. We knew each other in college, and then saw each other when we were both in graduate school at the University of Iowa. I don't recall how we got back in touch in the late 80s or early 90s--it was probably at her instigation. She was reconnecting with Knox classmates, urging people to attend the next reunion. We talked on the phone a bunch of times (she did attend that reunion, and told me about it), from when I lived in Pittsburgh to after I moved to California. She almost visited here when she was in San Francisco, but it never worked out. We also emailed, and in one of hers, just before the Democratic Convention in 2004, she told me to watch the speech by a state legislator named Barack Obama, because he was something special.
I have a number of specific memories of Valjean. But at the moment I can't write about them. I'm just grateful that she had good medical care and lots of loving care from her friends. Her engagement with people was amazing--she was so much more outgoing than I ever was, and yet she had such a deep internal life. And I guess I'm a little daunted, too. I expect my death will be a good deal lonelier.
Valjean was a practicing Buddhist, and there will be a memorial service for her at her Zen Center this Sunday. But in August, there will also be a Mass for her, and a memorial in Chicago being organized by her friends. If there are others from Knox checking in here who didn't know about this and are interested in the memorial, information will be posted on her blog.
On the day she died, a friend of hers named Steve McCabe posted a poem by Wallace Stevens he said was one of her favorites. It means a lot to me, too--there's a copy of it just a few feet away. Valjean and I were in a class together, taught by Doug Wilson, on the poetry of Walt Whitman and Wallace Stevens. So we came to this poem together:
Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour
Light the first light of evening, as in a room
In which we rest and, for small reason, think
The world imagined is the ultimate good.
This is, therefore, the intensest rendezvous.
It is in that thought that we collect ourselves,
Out of all the indifferences, into one thing:
Within a single thing, a single shawl
Wrapped tightly round us, since we are poor, a warmth,
A light, a power, the miraculous influence.
Here, now, we forget each other and ourselves.
We feel the obscurity of an order, a whole,
A knowledge, that which arranged the rendezvous.
Within its vital boundary, in the mind.
We say God and the imagination are one...
How high that highest candle lights the dark.
Out of this same light, out of the central mind,
We make a dwelling in the evening air,
In which being there together is enough.