Twenty-five years ago today, I lost one of my closest friends to cancer. I penned a note five years ago on Facebook; today I share it on my blog. There’s so much more I could say about Patsy—her life, our friendship—but some of the essentials are here. I’ve revised it only a tiny bit.
On February 27, 1998, Patsy Fox left the world. More than a year earlier, after a complex surgery, she’d been diagnosed with a rare cancer. One round of chemo put the cancer into remission, but then it returned and took her in a rush.
I miss her and think about her often.
I first met Patsy Fox in the spring of 1981 in Buffalo, New York. I’d gone there from Detroit to attend a May Day celebration. A few of us spent the night in her apartment. Patsy offered me a beer, and we sat at the kitchen table and began to talk. Turned out we had some things in common. She’d been at Cornell in 1976 when I had visited there for Third World Week, but we didn’t cross paths then. She’d been involved with a radio collective called Rest of the News. We talked for several hours, and there was something that suggested we’d made a connection. The next morning I looked at some of her LP’s: alongside Chopin’s Nocturnes there was Country Joe MacDonald. I was impressed by the number of books and bookshelves in her living room. In my life today I may have recreated some of that but ours are not as well organized as hers.
I saw her a few more times in the coming decade but it was only in the summer of 1993 that we started to become close. This started over email, a means of communication that had just arrived. She had email as a grad student at the University of Buffalo, mine came through my status as a part-time student at Wayne State University in Detroit.
I visited her for Christmas 1993 when her musician boyfriend was doing a gig in Puerto Rico. Mostly snowbound, we spent several days just talking. After I went back home, she sent me a tape with a single Lucinda Williams song: Something About What Happens When We Talk. Both artist and song were new to me. Like many other songs in my life, this one remains owned by Patsy.
I’d been excited by my bus ride back to Detroit where I’d spent the first four hours, from Buffalo to Cleveland, in a non-stop conversation with my seatmate from Akron. I wrote that up as a short story and read it out to Patsy over the phone. Over email she gave me more feedback, the first I would receive for my budding efforts at narrative prose. A few years later, with many revisions, that would be my first published story.
There were a few more visits, and by summer I would leave Detroit for New England. She invited me to spend a few days with her at their family vacation house on Mt Desert Island in Maine. We did some musseling, drove and had lunch on a very rainy day in Bar Harbor, went up to Cadillac mountain, and heard Cecil Payne play in a Blue Hill café. Waiting to be seated at that café, we discussed the variety of ‘scripts’ confronted by those entering a restaurant. In some cases, you wait to be seated, sometimes you choose your own, and there are times when you’re just confused about what to do and freeze.
Many of our interactions involved books or music. She gifted me Rita Dove, introduced me to Walter Mosley, I introduced her to Octavia Butler. She once told me about Clancy Sigal’s memoir-novel Going Away; it would take decades to finally get to that. My first Cassandra Wilson CD (Blue Light Till Dawn) I borrowed from her. I would be swept by that voice.
A year after I settled in Providence, she moved to Boston when her partner started graduate school. I was thrilled that we’d be only an hour apart.
We had become close during a transition time for both of us. We both moved away from cities that had been homes for many years. I was also exploring writing in ways different from what I used to write before, turning towards narrative prose. She was a PhD student in linguistics, having serious second thoughts about her initial ideas. Her topics were too esoteric for me to understand and she didn’t press them on me.
I would find a niche in Providence, but I believe her move from Buffalo to Boston unmoored her. Still working on her dissertation, she lived an isolated life. Her social life was mostly connected to her partner who had connected himself well at school.
In February 1997, I visited Patsy for the first time since she was diagnosed. I didn’t know how to approach the subject, but somehow we managed to get around to the subject of death. It turned out okay. Mostly we spoke about what would either of us do if we knew we only had a small time left. We had similar ideas. She said goodbye to the dissertation. She had thought of moving to New York but that too she gave up. There were no grand ambitions, just small things: writing a will; small trips here and there; conversations and visits; and finishing her writing. She had started to write some fiction. Later she shared the beginning of a story; I liked how it was coming along.
But the cancer was overwhelming, and I did not realize the extent of her loneliness. I would learn much later that her partner treated her horribly. I did not know how to approach that side of her life. There was a love between us, but there were also walls that neither of us know how to break down. Right in the middle of her cancer year, I left the east for California. I had not convinced myself that her cancer might be terminal. I thought her life, while not great, was reasonable. Sometimes I regret leaving right at that time. I also didn’t have much of a sense of how corrosive her relationship with her partner had become. A close friend of mine from Providence who accompanied me on some of my visits with Patsy or her partner’s gigs would later tell me that she saw things. Perhaps I was blind. Perhaps I didn’t want to see.
She hosted a going-away party for me before I left New England. And when we met just before I made my move, she walked me to my car and reminded me of the song she had once sent me. I said I still had the tape. I still have a couple of boxes of cassettes and I still carry that tape in there, though when I listen to the song sometimes, I listen to the track I’ve stored on my computer.
In Oakland, California, a few months later, a box arrived from Patsy: Toni Morrison’s novels and annual fiction issues of The New Yorker. I realized she was divesting herself.
During the winter holiday break, I flew to New York and took the bus to Boston to visit her in Cambridge. She’d moved to a new apartment not far from where she used to live. We talked over tea and music that I had brought her. She wanted to get a Diskman, since she had missed her music when she was in the hospital or in the other apartment. The iPod era had not yet arrived.
She had broken up with her partner. I asked her what had happened. She told me: the lack of affection, neglect, turning into verbal abuse when she expressed her needs. When a second round of chemotherapy became imminent, she wondered, did she want to go through this a second time? Not being able to decide herself, she let others decide for her. It was the hardest thing she had done, but his leaving turned out to bring huge relief. A friend from Buffalo took a leave from work and arrived to take care of her.
Within two months of my visit, she was gone. I made it through work somehow that day and the first chance I had, I headed out to the waterside. Somewhere in Lincoln Park, by the Pacific Ocean, overlooking Golden Gate Bridge. I thought back to the intersections of our lives.
Friends in Buffalo organized a memorial for her on March 21, 1998. I didn’t go but I sent some words though which I’d tried to process her death.
While confronting Patsy’s death, I had tried hard, but I found that there was just no way for me to avoid feeling an immensity of grief about what was in so many ways ‘an unfinished life.’ Of course, whenever someone passes, so to speak, ‘before their time,’ it is impossible to not think about all they did not get to do.
She was one of those people who made some major choices in life but ended up veering away from each, coming to the conclusion at various times that they did not suit her. And this was true in her life as an activist, in her scholarly work to fashion ideas in a chosen field, and in love, the same preoccupations shared by many of us who came of age in the 60s and 70s.
She once wrote me while grappling with some problem with her dissertation, “I’m finally trying to come to grips with this problem I’m having…. I’m sitting down and peeling away everything I no longer believe in and rethinking everything again starting from first principles. This is the third time I will have done this, although the first two times (logic and Marxism-Leninism) the process was only begun and never taken to completion. I only got through the gut feeling stage, which is where I am with linguistics and never reached the articulation level. It’s very hard for me—it’s a crisis of conviction and those are the hardest kind.”
Patsy did not live to complete her dissertation, to write the fictional best-seller she sometimes joked about, to marry and have children. Those are sad facts, unsettling facts, and I could not but rail at the unfairness of her death.
I went back and looked at her life one more time. Was life just about completions, was it just about what you get to finish? Is there even a point in looking at life with goalposts in mind? Wasn’t it equally, and for some of us like Patsy, even more so, about the journeys we took, what those journeys themselves brought, and how well or badly we lived in the space between today and the dreams of tomorrow?
When I look at Patsy’s life from this angle, I ask, even though she chose different paths and changed her mind before they reached endpoints satisfactory to her, when she was on each of those journeys themselves, did she get to follow her heart? Had there been some contentment, some grace, some joy?
I have to say that she did, and there was for sure. And even as imperfect as hearts are in telling us about where we may end up down the road and how we may feel about the choices we made, did Patsy get to find love and give love, did she get to feel joy and give joy to herself and those close to her?
In the end of life, no matter whether we contributed to great political changes or not, no matter whether we got to contribute to the world’s storehouse of knowledge or not, this is what remains of the best in each of us.
Over the last twenty years, I’ve often thought about how I processed her death. Yes, in a sense it sounded like a cliché we make up to satisfy ourselves. But then I remind myself that certain times clichés, like the ones embedded in so many popular songs, can often bring solace and they contain essential truths. I also accept that it might have been self-serving because I had really been seeking to answer the question for my own life: what would it have meant to be taken away then in my life when I too had much “unfinished business.” When our lives had intersected just before hers would extinguish, we’d both been struggling to find our way anew.
I still find solace in how I approached the tragedy of her death. But lately I’ve been wondering an additional question: why did I, why do I, look at a life like hers with the framework of projects undertaken and completed or not completed? In today’s business speak, why was I looking for metrics of her life?
When a child leaves us, we mourn for them and sometimes we speak of all the things the child would not do in life, later if they had lived. But we do not worry whether they finished middle school or high school or this or that extracurricular activity. We may appreciate their achievements but we don’t look at their life this way. And it’s much the same if they were someone who was in college. It’s only later in life, when we see them as adults, that we hold up the expectation of goalposts, achievements, losses. Many people look for things like marriage, relationships, raising children. Others will look at dreams like vocations or careers. For those involved in intellectual life, whether as academics or involved in art or writing, we start thinking of essays written, books started or finished, and if they die we wonder about their unfinished work.
Judging lives with such metrics is simply not fair. Why do I want to burden a life with that judgement? Was it not enough to be? To make life? We are what we are: a mix of choices, hopefully more good than bad, good and bad judgements, and all within a context of what the world arranged for us, around us.
Did you fight the good fight? Were you kind? Did you love?
Hopefully the world returned you some of that kindness and love you shared.
Patsy Fox was a kind and generous person and even if some of the world she loved most treated her unfairly, there were plenty of us who loved her back.
With love still strong, twenty five years later.
SPM aka Page
Thank you, Mahmud, for sharing these reflections. They resonate with me deeply. Your questions and feelings will help me in my own process of approaching these fundamental issues of life and death.
Your reflections resonate, though I don’t find myself using “metrics” when approaching how someone has lived their life. Throughout your discourse there is the wonder of how some people whose paths we cross inexplicably touch something in us that we need to explore, hold on to and ultimately cherish.
So beautifully expressed as a great loving tribute to your friend, Mahmud! Glad she is not forgotten and still lives in your heart and mind.