Enigmas: Hidden Order behind Life's Tangles
When a phone call shares the unexpected death of an ex-boyfriend’s death, and it also untangles life choices.
An unexpected phone call untangles a chaotic career beginning.
Many years ago I bought a sketchbook of illustrations by the Dutch graphic artist MC Escher. Although Escher used a number of mediums (lithographs, wood cuts and carvings, sketches) the book I got was entirely of drawings that were impossible constructs.
Like a Mobius strip the illustrations are a continuous loop of stairs and dimensions and birds and people that are an absorbing combination of being clever, mathematically accurate and graceful. I still have the book in my library; it’s intriguing.
At a glance, Escher’s illustrations look like a tangle. Look closer and there’s a pattern and order. In a single snapshot Escher draws both continuous movement and wholeness.
The two ideas seem contradictory: Shouldn’t something that’s complete be stationary? Does being self-contained mean immobility?
Unexpected Phone Call From the doorway of our bedroom I see that the blinking light of our answering machine has a message waiting. I’m yanking on a suitcase handle, its wheel stubbornly resisting rolling over the door jamb. One more pull and I stumble a little making my way to the phone.
It’s late on a Sunday night in October. We’ve returned from a long weekend to Tulsa. Won at a fundraiser, the 2-night package was a surprise. My husband and I had shrugged, why not? We’d never been to the city. The package included a night at the historic Mayo Hotel, a steak dinner and brunch the next day. It was a 7-hour drive,but we found an open weekend with the bonus of comedian Chris Tucker doing a Tulsa show on the same dates. There’s a museum dedicated to folk singer/composer Woody Guthrie (“This Land is Your Land”). Downtown Tulsa has tons of art deco and there’s even a stretch of the old highway Route 66 with a whale in a nearby pond. You don’t see that every day.
Now we were home and I’m pushing the Play button. The machine announces that the message had been left three days earlier. There’s a pause and then a female voice: “Joan? I hope I have the right number. Joan, this is Linda*, Mike Taylor’s wife. Joan, I’m calling to let you know Mike died in August. We are... Carol and I are doing all right. Would you call me please? I’d like to talk with you.” She leaves a number. The machine falls silent.
I sit for a moment, staring at the machine. Mike’s face comes to thought. He and I had dated for a few years in college. When I’d last seen him he’d been impatient and restless, debating where to live and how to find satisfying work. But then he’d moved across the country and for several years we’d stayed in contact. Gradually, after he’d married and had a daughter and we fell out of exchanging Christmas cards we’d lost touch. Through the grapevine I knew he’d progressed in his career. While we’d both had a love for writing in common, his angle was pure journalism, drawn to an old-fashioned gumshoe tenacity to nose out a story and get the instant gratification of a headline and ink on his hands the next day. Over the years I peripherally noticed his byline in the digital space too. This phone message came as a shock – for a moment, in front of the answering machine, I sat with my head bowed -- hadn’t I just seen his byline?
It’s late so I decide to call back the next day.
Roses Are Red… One of the benefits of dating an English major is poetry. Mike used to leave snippets of poetry in my mailbox, tucked into a textbook, inside a pocket. His typewriter had that wonderful imperfect ink coverage that filled in “o’s” and left off the tails of “y’s” so that they looked like “v’s.” That night I hunt down an old scrapbook:
It is late and tomorrow I destroy myself with labor, yet I am made for the irrational pleasure of evening’s solitude, and nothing keeps me up at night but you.
For a long while we were pretty inseparable. Mike came to occupy the comfortable space of being like a member of the family: Dining chairs easily slid over to make room for another plate when he was there at a mealtime. I borrowed his beat-up red VW bug; he knew the wooded shortcuts to our house. But then, after two years, and imperceptibly, I began to draw away.
It is the worst, worst tortured line to say in a break-up, “It’s not you. It’s me!” But this was true.
Calling Linda Monday at work I book a conference room for noon to call Linda during the relatively quiet lunch-hour. I sit for a moment, looking at the phone. I actually don’t know what to say.
Linda picks up on the second ring. I introduce myself and apologize for the delay in calling back; we’d been out of town. We have never met nor spoken before. I falter around some inadequate “so sorry” words. And then she quietly begins to talk.
Mike had spoken of me with admiration over the years from time to time. He’d told a few stories and once at church (I’d forgotten) Linda met my parents who happened to be vacationing nearby. She and Mike had invited them over for lunch where my parents had delightedly admired their new house and baby. This was a connection.
She shared how Mike had gone on to excel at his work, been appreciated for it, loved going into the newsroom. He’d unearthed some important stories; earned the respect of his peers. While other career opportunities had come his way, he’d stuck with reporting.
That summer their newly college-graduated daughter Carol had opted to spend a few vacation weeks with them after they’d booked a cabin in a remote spot. Linda relayed saying to her, “Are you sure? It will be pretty quiet!” But they’d had a beautiful time together, reuniting after the hectic pace of Carol’s university schedule. Shortly after their return from vacation, Mike became ill and, unexpectedly, passed away.
“We had such a lovely family time in that cabin,” Linda said. “I’m so grateful for it.” There is a pause. “I’m so grateful for him.” And then, quietly, “You know…we never fought a day.”
What a statement.
I stayed in the conference room for a while after we hung up our phones.
What a privilege to hear how Mike’s life had progressed. How thoughtful of Linda to reach out to me. Although it had been decades, it felt much more recent. Linda’s recounting of Mike’s experiences had not brought back an old relationship but rather clarity of character. He’d stayed with the work he’d loved so much and found and formed a wonderful partnership and family. What a tribute his life testimony is to days well-lived.
Wild and Weird In preparation for this blog I pulled out that scrapbook again. I found a letter Mike wrote me after he’d moved across the country:
You know, Joan, I’m pretty god-awful objective these days. I mean – I can sit back and look at my whole life and see what logical course of action there should be, and it feels great – what’s funny is knowing how none of the concepts I preconceive of now will really be anything that will chart my life. God does the whole shebang – like it or not and it’s wild and weird.
Look what awaited him!
Right where the tangle seems to be is order. Just like peering at an MC Escher drawing, at first glance, the drawing is a puzzle and looks static. Look closer and there’s progressive motion.
Which brings me to the riddle of what a whale is doing near Tulsa. With a little Wikipedia research I’ve found out that it’s called the Blue Whale of Catoosa. According to the site, “It was built by Hugh Davis in the early 1970s as a surprise anniversary gift to his wife Zelta, who collected whale figurines.”
Another testament to love!