What do you do with a quest laid upon you by one who is now dead? An endeavor born of pain which cleaved the life of the one who gave it to you?
What do you do with a weapon laid unsheathed across your palms when you are the only one who knows its weight- its murderous edge- but cannot grasp it?
This Sunday it will have been fifteen months since my friend Cindy died.
She was only fifty years old. Smart. Good with her hands- she gutted and refinished the hundred-year-old house she lived in alone. Tall, blonde, pretty. Quiet. Passionate about politics and responsibility and personal action.
She used to work in a sheriff’s office. She suffered sexual harassment there- one of the most extreme cases I’ve ever encountered. It continued for two years and it ended in a man’s- a cocaine addict’s- suicide, and her dismissal.
She fought for reinstatement for five years after that. First as a pro se plaintiff, then as an appellant represented by a feminist attorney.
Like him who day by day unto his draught
She lost. Lost what hope she had of getting her career back. Lost years of her life to an action ultimately dismissed sua sponte by a judge who could not believe that the evidence she had was genuine.
Lost, I think, her faith in the existence of justice. And in the good intentions of other human beings.
When we met I hadn’t yet applied to law or med school. She knew I wanted to be a doctor, but liked the law. She told me a little about her case and, when I expressed interest in the details, invited me over for strong black coffee and excellent jam cookies.
Every Wednesday for two months I would sit and sip and munch in her beautifully refinished kitchen, and we would talk about her case. I would jot down notes sometimes- names, dates, outrageous actions. There were plenty of those.
When she’d finished her story, we had become friends. We would go door-to-door on political campaigns together; meet for horrible Chinese food at a place she liked.
She was diagnosed with spinal cancer 4 months after I was admitted to SIU.
I saw her once more after that, and then never again. Never got to say goodbye to her, to tell her how much her suffering and her strength had moved me. Towards the end she was barely conscious, and her family would not permit anyone to visit.
Her friends John and Bonnie are the executors of her estate, and it wasn’t until 7 months after she died that they told me she had left me her French books and notebooks- and all documents relating to her sexual harassment case.
Of delicate poison adds him one drop more
And it wasn’t until then that I realized that they- her best friends- had no real idea what had happened to her.
She never talked about it, they said. Never told them or her family. No-one ever really knew what had happened, only that it had destroyed something inside her.
Had she told me?
They had the enormous forbearance and decency not to ask. Had they done so before telling me that no one knew exactly what had happened, I’d have told them on the assumption that they knew some of it already. But this…
She meant me to carry the entire story alone- had told only me in all the years between its happening and the day she died. Had left me the only proof in existence of the events which made her the woman she was to that last day.
Wanted me to do something. To say something.
To make it mean something.
And I don’t know how.
Earth and sky forgive me, because I still, 8 months later, don’t know where to start.
How do I make the events which sliced the hope from her eyes, the light from her smile, mean more than she already has?
She survived it. She fought, and then fought again, until there was nothing of her left with which to fight. And even when she no longer believed in justice, in true decency- she worked for it anyway.
Till he may drink unharmed the death of ten…
She lived through something that would have made another woman a ringing shell. So her laughter sounded hollow at times- so what? It was still there. Still carried enough spark to warm her eyes once in a while.
The documents I hold are a weapon I have not the expertise nor time to wield. But they are mine, and she entrusted them to me, and so I bear them, a weight of helplessness and grief I have not the skill to ease or mend.
Because to do less would be to dishonor her pain, to forget her wounds and the grace with which she carried them.
What can I do with what she gave me? This small and pathetic commentary is unworthy of her. Unworthy even of her name.
Nothing, nobody can do more than she did.
I drink- and live- what has destroyed some men.
I’m sorry, Cindy. (And while I have strength, I will carry it for you.)