The news did not exactly come as a shock. I had filed away the possibility that his life would end one day in the part of my brain reserved for things I simply did not want to think about happening. A less willful, less stubborn, less enthusiastically alive man would have long ago succumbed to the many illnesses he had endured over the last 2 decades. His ability to push back had convinced me that nothing could kill him. An email in mid-March relaying that he was in hospice care switched on the emotional regulator that controlled my reservoir of memories about him, sending through a few at a time, as though dropping them into my consciousness in a metered manner would avoid a flood tide the day he finally decided to part this Earth.
I called and left a message on his home answering machine – announcing, asking, hinting – that I would get on a plane to see him if I could be sure I wouldn’t be intruding. When his wife called back minutes later, I hoped she would say, ‘Yes, of course! Come!,’ but instead I heard, “No one has told you…Jim died last night.”
I had not seen Jim and his wife since the Summer of 2011, when I accompanied my husband to New Mexico for the unveiling of his mother’s tombstone. The four of us had gotten together for lunch, a lunch that was interrupted by an unexpected visit from my family, a lunch over which I had wanted to talk to him about so many things suddenly shared with too many people, a lunch I did not know would be the last one over which I would enjoy his company.
“No!,” I wailed, then apologized, embarrassed. How could I commandeer this sorrow for myself – for it was she who had lost her husband the night before, while mine, still very much alive, was out enjoying his regular Saturday morning tennis game. She did not know all that it meant that he was gone. Northern New Mexico, its red clay hills overgrown with yucca and sagebrush and tumbleweeds, would always beckon, singing a siren song of desert mystery whenever I remembered any event from my childhood. But I had long ago moved away, as had the many friends who had kept me company in my girlhood, and the men and women who had become mentors after my father died…painters, artists, architects…one-by-one they too had died, as had my mother and my husband’s parents, each death distancing me from the city in which I was born, each passing removing another reason to visit the place I once called home, each burial setting me more and more free from the past.
Jim was the last of the spirit guides from my youth, the word ‘mentor’ insufficient to describe the role he played – unbeknownst to him – in the script of my life. It was he who tossed me the literary lifeline that dragged me out of the decade dominated by my father’s death and pointed me toward the next one, in which I began to read, to learn, to grow, to see the world as bigger than my day-to-day reality.
But I wasn’t able to articulate the complexity of his influence that late Winter Saturday morning punctured by the sudden news of his death. All I managed to tell his wife was that her husband’s impact on me was greater than all of the mentors, all of the grown-ups…all of the teachers I had ever known.
James O’Leary officially became my teacher when I was a student at the private, and more than a little experimental, Sandia School (for girls) in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and by the time I left for college his importance had been cemented, although it would take years for me to fully understand why. Caught up in the shifting tides and storms and currents of the childhood I was leaving behind and the life I wanted to embrace, I was not in touch with him again until my class’s 30th reunion. Even though he had played a leading role in my life’s script, I was certain mine had been merely a walk-on part in his. I had long wanted to reconnect, but I was convinced he would not remember who I was.
He, on the other hand, would have been impossible to forget – a shock of brown hair falling over his eyes, a crook in his little finger, an easy smile and an easier laugh, a belly laugh in fact, all of it amplified by the sweet scent of tobacco blown from his ever present pipe, the whole appealing movie star-like package of him fuel for a vigorous discussion about any author he ventured to put before us. Ours was a schoolgirl group crush, one that provided a much needed barrier against the loud cadence of the Viet Nam War, the heat of the Civil Rights Movement, and the country’s imminent march toward the Watergate scandal that would engulf the country soon after I entered college.
Increasingly trapped by the smallness of my fatherless existence, which was more about surviving than thriving, in Mr. O’Leary’s class the limitations of my personal life were erased by books and words and conversation, and Yes, even by laughter, something which I had few opportunities to enjoy and welcomed despite my lack of practice. Mr. O’Leary’s world of books was solid no matter my daily circumstances – no matter my mother’s struggle, no matter the War, no matter our lack of money, no matter the endless comparison to other girls to which I would subject myself. Written words would take me on inner journeys that lasted as long as my eyes would stay open after my mother, sister and brother had gone to bed.
I was an exasperatingly slow reader, never able to finish any story or book I began. Endless household chores bequeathed to me by my working mother interrupted the privacy and silence needed to read and understand, for instance, the journey that bore D. H. Lawrence from England to Taos, New Mexico, a mere two-hours North of my family’s home along the Rio Grande River. My grandparents had migrated from Italy to New York before the turn of the Century, and my parents had migrated from Washington, D.C to the great American Southwest after World War II, but I had no real understanding of the complex forces that would drive a man and his wife, whether it was D.H. and Frieda Lawrence or my own parents, to travel such great distances to create a new life. No one had ever challenged me to contemplate such a journey. Nor had anyone ever challenged me to consider that the journey from philosophical, spiritual, religious and mental imprisonment to freedom can occur within the walls of prison, as it had with the ice-encrusted soul of Eldridge Cleaver.
It mattered not to Mr. O’Leary how fast I read, and he rescued me from the torture of the school’s demand that I learn to speed read, insisting instead that the words I read, despite their number, made their way from my brain into my spirit and heart, hoping that our class field trip to the D.H. Lawrence Ranch to see the simple cabin where he wrote in the mornings and the surrounding landscape would stir up a grand curiosity about the impulses that gave birth to The Woman Who Rode Alone, which eerily described so much of what I felt about myself at fifteen:
“Shall I ride with you on the master’s horse, or shall Juan?” asked the servant.
“Neither of you. I shall go alone.” The young man looked her in the eyes, in protest. Absolutely impossible that the woman should ride alone!
“I shall go alone,” repeated the large, placid-seeming, fair-complexioned woman, with peculiar overbearing emphasis. And the man silently, unhappily yielded.
“Why are you going alone, mother?” asked her son, as she made up parcels of food.
“Am I NEVER to be let alone? Not one moment of my life?” she cried, with sudden explosion of energy. And the child, like the servant, shrank into silence.
I never spoke with anyone about Mr. O’Leary. It would have been off the mark to say that I simply had a youthful infatuation with a charismatic teacher, or that I was searching for a father figure, though I understood the cultural tendency to such prejudices. Fathers willingly granted men outside the family – sports coaches, big brothers, teachers – a certain authority over their sons, but this was not so for girls, who were expected to derive everything they needed to know about life from their primary relationships with their mothers and fathers, and everything they needed to learn academically from teachers, teachers at once interested yet disinterested, involved yet uninvolved, concerned yet unconcerned, the education of girls a carefully choreographed, yet wholly disengaged dance designed for social artifice. Boys and men therefore fell into the dull categories of brother, father, uncle or grandfather, and if not one of those then surely teacher, mentor or boss, the only other remote possibilities being a potential boyfriend or husband.
But not a friend. Platonic friendship between boys and girls and men and women was rarely if ever spoken about, fraught as such hypothetical relationships were with the suggestive nuance of denied romantic overtures. No, a friendship was not something a young female student was allowed to have with an older male teacher, and any kind of relationship, friendly or otherwise, between a single young woman and an older married male teacher was entirely unacceptable. A teacher could never climb outright over the psychological fence that separated them from a female charge, hoping instead that a deftly tied fly floated out gracefully upon the river would capture the attention of a young fish, pulling it out of waters too deep and dangerous. Reaching in directly to fetch a shy, insecure or distressed adolescent would have been looked upon askance.
It seemed that only I knew I was not looking for a replacement for my father or a mentor, the significance of which I didn’t understood well enough to seek out in any case. No one could replace my father, a fact about which I was frequently reminded by my mother. Rather what I was missing, what I needed, was interaction with male intellectual energy, an energy with which to counterbalance eternal interment in woman’s work – housekeeping, cleaning, cooking, washing, ironing, dish drying – energy I was convinced I could absorb through osmosis, if I could only get near enough to enough of it so that I too would eventually have the knowledge to go off on some grand adventure around the world like D.H. Lawrence or my father.
I envied my classmates their familial experience of boisterous yet safe male energy through relationships with fathers, of course, but also with brothers, uncles, cousins and grandfathers, only one of which resided in the small family home built by the hands of my architect father…a lone older brother swimming desperately up his own fatherless stream, uninterested in or unable to deal with his younger sister swimming not too far behind him. I felt certain I would never gather up, under my own roof, the courage and stamina I knew I needed for my own journey, whether through a geographical landscape or a mental one, without knowing more about men, but the desire to try began in Mr. O’Leary’s classroom, where reading, writing and conversation countered the detention of housekeeping. Mr. O’Leary was the only adult man who was interested in what was going on inside my brain.
Still, graduation forced an acquiescence to the limits placed on student/teacher relationships, and in lieu of James O’Leary’s ongoing friendship, for which I thought it was inappropriate to ask, I carried with me to college his spirit and unspoken request that I always look for the truth. Over the years I collected many male friends, despite the cultural belief that such relationships could not exist between men and women without romantic entanglement. I had indeed gone off on my own adventure, albeit a solo one, unlike D.H. Lawrence, my father, or Mr. O’Leary.
By the time of my 30-year reunion it was with a mixture of relief that I was no longer a student and fear that I had long ago been forgotten that I contacted him to say that I would be in Albuquerque for a long weekend and would like to see him. I was surprised he remembered me, but less surprised that he so willingly suggested a time to get together. His native curiosity had always been fierce. When he picked me up to take me for lunch, I was presented with a man in his 60s, less physically robust due to a liver transplant many years before, but mentally, emotionally and spiritually as fully present as ever. The truth was that I would always be his student, no matter my age, his age, or the circumstances, but no longer a student of his knowledge of books but rather of what he had learned about the human condition, which was considerable given that he had been near death before the transplant.
I continued to see him whenever I returned to New Mexico to visit my mother, who had developed Alzheimer’s. We would meet for coffee or lunch and talk about life. We exchanged letters, typed out on paper, signed and sealed in envelops with stamps and sent off in the good old U.S. Post. His were almost always long, covering everything from his trips with his beloved wife, Marilyn, to stories about his son and grandson, to essays he had written he thought I would like. He sent me books about writing and music. Mine, too, were almost always long, covering my life and work, the nonfiction book I was writing, my flying lessons and travels to Italy to research my father’s ancestors and, eventually, my marriage. I sent him essays I had written I thought he would like. I sent him books and music.
Two-thousand miles separated my life from his life. People did not write letters anymore, and ours was a decidedly old-fashioned correspondence. If anything were true about Mr. O’Leary it was that physical proximity had nothing to do with communication and relationships were borne on the wings of energy, and he shared his with me whenever his increasingly fragile physical self allowed it. Along the way Mr. O’Leary became James, then simply ‘Jim.’ My favorite teacher had finally become my friend.
Two weeks before he went into hospice I had begun a long overdue email to Jim – congestive heart failure had forced him to abandon the greater effort required by a traditional letter – but I had so much to say I couldn’t finish it. I felt as though something was stopping me, holding me back, telling me to take my time. I was in the habit of apologizing to him whenever I was out of touch for a while, which he would always tell me was a waste of time. When Marilyn returned my call to tell me he had died, it hit me that I would never write him another letter, and that I would never receive another one from him in response. She suggested I finish my email and bring it with me to his memorial service, which I attended two weeks later along with dozens of people who had traveled to New Mexico from all over the world to remember this special human being. Although I knew few people at the service, every single man and woman there had been touched by his spirit as powerfully as I had been.
In the end, James O’Leary was all of it – a spirit guide, a teacher, a mentor, a father figure, a brother and a friend, and I was blessed to have known him just a little. A few weeks after I returned from New Mexico, a hand-addressed envelop from Marilyn arrived. It rests on my nightstand unopened, and I will take my time reading it. I am not fond of goodbyes.
As for my unfinished email, well, I will save all that I wanted to tell him when I see him…in our next life.