I am writing my eulogy. Although it might sound otherwise, this is not a macabre or gloomy project to be undertaking. It’s simply the practical thing to do. I’m in good health, no question about it, but few of my associates remain, and certainly none whom I would trust to offer my final sendoff into the void. I’ve always been particular about words, and the idea of the wrong ones being used in my remembrance distresses me greatly. As has been the case with so many other things in life, it’s wiser to take care of this task myself.
A eulogy is not such a complicated thing to write, but it does require a certain aptitude for balance. So often the lost one is not remembered in anything less than a golden and blinding light. Of course, humans are far from golden, even the best of us. It is important to take this to heart. I will not let myself be remembered as anything other than what I was, which was a brilliant woman whose flaws were few but significant.
It is with deep regret that we gather today to bid farewell to Joanne Siler. Born in 1936, Joanne lived a principled life dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge—an endeavor which was not always considered a priority for women, especially in the middle decades of the last century. Nevertheless, she persevered in her scholastic efforts, and in 1967, earned her PhD in French studies from the University of New Mexico. Not content with a single advanced degree, Joanne later secured master’s degrees in both music theory and economics, also from UNM. Although she lived a largely solitary life, she found great joy in teaching, and her devotion to her job was admired by students and colleagues alike. Her contributions to the educational institutions of Albuquerque will be remembered with great respect and appreciation.
I have lunch with Rosina once a week. She is the only surviving member of the 1951 Albuquerque Girls’ Chorale—besides myself, of course. If I’d been able to choose the childhood friendship that would persevere, I wouldn’t have chosen Rosina’s. She is a lovely woman with intentions that are nothing but generous and caring. Unfortunately, I find her type difficult to bear for extended periods of time. It’s not that I prefer those who are selfish and rude; it’s just that maintaining Rosina’s level of optimism and kindness generally requires loosening one’s grasp of reality, and I am a person who prefers to face facts.
“What a beautiful day,” she says as we are seated at our usual table. She’s right; it is gently sunny, cloudless, the kind of languorous weather that has the dangerous effect of inspiring nostalgia, though Rosina’s worldview is such that she would have made this comment regardless of whether there were clouds or rain or an asteroid from the great beyond hurtling directly towards the café.
“So true,” I agree. “I think I’ll have the chicken salad sandwich today.”
“What a coincidence! Joanne, can you believe it? I was thinking the same thing!”
“Isn’t that something,” I say. With her face lit up the way it currently is, it’s not difficult to see echoes of the young Rosina from my memory in the visage of the old woman in front of me. (There is no use using a politer phrase; old woman is what she is, and old woman is what I am, and there’s no avoiding it.)
Our sandwiches arrive in due time and we eat them, chitchatting about the minutiae of the last week. I have signed up for a water aerobics class, Rosina is an ardent fan of the Olympic gymnast who is currently competing on her favorite televised dance competition. There is nothing notable about our conversation until Rosina says, as she’s rifling through her purse for money to pay her half of the bill, “I almost forgot! I saw Sandy. You know Sandy, Marian’s daughter?”
I know who Sandy is. I shake my head as if I don’t.
“She’s a painter, did you know that? Watercolor landscapes. Beautiful vistas of the desert and the mountains. The most gorgeous colors—you wouldn’t believe it. I haven’t seen any of her work myself, but I hear her rendering of Sandia Crest won a prize. Wouldn’t Marian have just been thrilled?”
I shrug. There are, after all, some topics that are better avoided at casual lunches. I put down the cash for my portion of the bill.
“It really is magnificent weather,” I say.
Usually after lunch with Rosina I return to my house, but I am feeling unsettled. Something nags at my gut in the way it feels to suddenly realize, when far away from one’s kitchen, that it is entirely possible one did not turn off the stove after making tea that morning, and there’s no erasing from one’s mind the image of the entire building engulfed in flames. A similar anxiety fills me now.
The prize-winning painting is on display at Santisima, on San Felipe. The canvas is rich with whites and grays and evergreens, showing Sandia Crest in its most stunning, snow-covered brilliance. At first glance there appears to be nothing alive in the painting, but then one looks closer, toward the foreground on the left side. A small bird perches on a twig, its soft brown feathers blending into a discreet patch of dull pink on its breast.
Those who are not avid birdwatchers may mistake it for a sparrow, but the wiser among us recognize it as a rosy-finch, the bird our area is known for, as the mountain draws hundreds of them, all three kinds—gray-crowned, black, and this one, brown-capped—to its peak each March. Birders make special trips to see these creatures every year, reveling in the pert way they hop about in the snow and listening raptly to their chirps, their whistling chew, chew, chews.
It is impossible to grow up in Albuquerque without hearing now and again about the magnificence of the rosy-finches. I have had many interests and passions in my adult life, but, despite possible appearances to the contrary, none of them have ever been aviculture.
It is with deep regret that we gather here today to bid farewell to Joanne Siler. Born in 1936, Joanne earned a PhD and two master’s degrees from the University of New Mexico. In addition to her many academic pursuits, Joanne enjoyed a lifelong interest in choral music and participated in many singing groups throughout the years. Though a resident of the Southwest all her life, she developed a fondness for vocal arrangements of particular early Appalachian folk tunes and found great solace in listening to them during her loneliest moments. Their shifting harmonies were among the most beautiful she had ever heard.
I have sung all my life. Never professionally, only recreationally, but many hours have been devoted to various choirs over the course of the last eighty years. At this age I know that my voice does not have the same clear and sonorous quality it used to; I have been relegated to singing groups that have more enthusiasm than training, groups that perform only the simplest of pieces. I try to be grateful that I am able to take part in any choral groups at all, but I do miss the earlier days, those days of dedicated rehearsal, the satisfaction of executing a piece with precision and expert musicality and great depth of feeling. There is a quality to the human voice than can turn any melody into something transcendent.
The Albuquerque Girls’ Chorale created music that moved the hearts and souls of anyone who listened to us. Our awestruck audiences could not believe they were listening only to teen girls. Other all-female groups have been criticized over the years for lacking the low tones of men—the tenors and baritones and basses—but this was never a complaint about the AGC. If anything, the opposite occurred: we were lauded for the beautiful sounds we created in the upper registers.
There were twenty of us in 1951, each between thirteen and eighteen, and although we all got along well enough, some friendships were stronger than others. I say this knowing both that it is true and that it is very far from the truth; for of course what I truly mean when I say those words is that Marian was the best friend I ever had, the kind of friend that makes every other friendship seem false and weak and unimportant. Like me, she was dismissive of the things fifteen-year-old girls were supposed to care about; she paid no attention to fashion, she did not care for the fumbling flirtations of boys in our classes, she was baffled by others’ passionate desires to attend sock hops and events of that ilk. She liked school. She liked ideas. She was a person who understood the importance of striving to be one’s best, always.
The conversations we had, the plans we made; we were different from the rest of them. We would go to college. We would learn everything we could about anything we wanted. We read The Catcher in the Rye as soon as it came out and at first we loved it, but then we discussed it together and came to the conclusion that we hated it. We imagined ourselves amongst the literati, the real literati, saying clever things in sitting rooms with Arthur Miller and F. Scott Fitzgerald and perhaps Albert Camus, if he happened to be stateside. We would get older, but we’d know better than to get caught up in the droning trivialities that consumed the adults we knew—our parents, our fathers’ coworkers, the members of our mothers’ sewing clubs—who let the mechanics of life distract them from the act of living. Their days filled with taxes, with coupons, with balanced meals and matching ottomans, horseback lessons for the kids, the looming specters of ill-timed heart attacks. Marian and I would not be like these people. We would keep our focus squarely set on the things that were truly important: our minds, and our friendship.
We walked to choir practice together, talking and dreaming and designing our futures. We sang. We walked from choir practice together, fantasizing and planning and almost grasping the great, vast potential the world would have when we marched out into it together. Those were wonderful days; the happiest of my life, I think.
Rosina is as cheery as ever. She rambles on about flowering cacti and a tow-headed grand-niece and the Olympic gymnast’s latest coup in the televised dance competition.
“I’ve never seen a pasodoble like it!” she exclaims. “She was magnificent. I used all of my votes on her. The finale’s in just two weeks. I’ll be devastated if she doesn’t make it to the finale! She’s the best dancer this season, by far. And her brother has lupus. She’s so supportive of her brother, you know. When she’s not dancing, she’s working to cure lupus.”
I doubt the Olympic gymnast has a part-time job in a research lab, but it’s not worth taking the time to make the correction. Rosina, when I think about it, has a striking similarity to the rosy-finch. Their incessant chirping, their fluttering movements, even their rose-based names.
“What a shame,” I say. At Rosina’s stricken look, I clarify my meaning: “About the lupus, of course, not about the gymnast’s humanitarianism.”
“Oh, I see,” Rosina says, visibly relieved. I intuit that, for a moment, at least, she’d feared I’d transformed into one of those evil villainesses so common in melodramatic films. She has never understood that although I might appear cold, I have never been cruel. I have been misunderstood, and I have been prideful, and I have been jealous, but no—never cruel.
From the moment of Joanne Siler’s birth, eighty-some years ago, she confounded almost everyone who knew her. Many attributed her aloof nature to a certain haughtiness and egomania, characteristics typically acknowledged as commonplace amongst academics, but Joanne’s detachment was in actuality the result of a deep and uncrossable metaphysical moat of loneliness that seemed to surround her. Singing in various choral groups allowed Joanne to approximate the sensation of togetherness, of belonging, but it is debatable whether anyone ever got close enough to know the true person who existed underneath the façade.
Or perhaps some people did. Maybe three people, or two people, or perhaps even just one person, truly knew Joanne. And if this is the case—if it was, in fact, possible to get close to her at all—one has no choice but to then ask: what did she do to push those people, those three people or those two people, or that person, that one person, away?
I cannot get the painting out of my mind. I go back to Santisima a second, then a third, then a fourth time to view it. The gallery owners are extremely kind to me. They believe I am stricken with dementia, or at the very least, the general loss of memory that plagues so many of the elderly. I let them believe this, as it is easier than explaining that, in fact, I suffer from quite the opposite: an overabundance of clarity regarding the past. (For some incomprehensible reason, this is a condition that has not yet been identified as a disease.)
The painting captivates me, and although I would like to say the reason is its pure artistic merit, it most definitely is not. The truth is, before I even saw the painting, this exact image already existed in my mind, a memory left over from so many decades ago.
Sandia Crest is the highest peak of the range, some ten thousand feet above sea level. These days it is a simple matter to drive a well-paved road up the mountain to visit the gift shop and a quaint café with panoramic views of the New Mexican landscape, but the spot was not always so accessible. When Marian and I went up there the first time, the road was barely more than a muddy trail, and there was no building to welcome visitors to Sandia’s zenith. Neither of us were the sporty type that revels in outdoor adventures, but we’d begun to feel a certain esoteric yearning to see our hometown from what is evocatively called a God’s-eye perspective. At that age, we’d never been on airplanes; views from above were rarer back then.
We drove her father’s Chevy up that potholed and muddy path, and when we made it to the top, we broke a trail through the snow, holding hands all the time, and looked out across the spruces and firs and spied the city so far down it had ceased to be a city. I thought of a song we were working on with the Chorale, an arrangement of a folk ballad called “Little Sparrow,” and began to sing it: I wish I was a little sparrow and I had wings and I could fly... I was an alto, so my part was the harmony, but Marian was a soprano and she joined in with the melody, and our voices must have sounded so strange, up there in the clouds, to the wildlife hidden in the trees and rocks. In fact, I know they did, because we started to notice that we were not the only ones singing, as some yards away a group of those revered rosy-finches had started to vocalize their own song—chew chew chew, chew chew chew—making music with us on the remote New Mexican mountaintop. I held Marian’s hand, and we sang, and I believed our feelings were majestic and eternal.
Seeing the rosy-finches on Sandia Crest is far from a unique experience. Anybody can see them. Anybody can paint them. But this painting in front of me is not by anybody; it is by Marian’s daughter. Did Marian ever take her daughter to see the rosy-finches? Did they drive up the Scenic Byway watching the city recede as it sank farther and farther below them? Did they talk about the times Marian had followed that same path before, did they talk about the first time, did they talk about the person who’d been with Marian on that afternoon in 1951? The name “Sandy,” the Sandia mountains—surely that can’t be a coincidence. There must be some meaning to it all.
Perhaps when Marian’s daughter picked up her paintbrush, on that day when she began this prize-winning piece of artwork, perhaps she remembered things her mother had said before she passed (I hear it was cancer, that monster, cancer), things like, My greatest regret is... or If only... or I wonder whether... and Sandy had known her mother’s heart, and because she loved her mother, she had painted what was within it. Perhaps there had been a part of me inside Marian all this time, after all.
At our next lunch, Rosina is not her typical self. She is distraught. The Olympic gymnast has been eliminated from the competition. An irrefutable mistake during the jive had cost the gymnast her chance at the trophy and the glory.
“It’s not fair,” she says. “I believed in her. So many of us did. But her kicks were completely off-tempo. She just couldn’t find the beat.”
“Why didn’t she rehearse more? Why didn’t her partner teach her better? He’s won the show twice before, you know. He should have noticed that her sense of rhythm was lacking.”
“I’m sure it was an accident. The gymnast couldn’t have meant to let you down.”
“It doesn’t matter whether she meant to do it. She did, regardless.”
Rosina’s eyes have turned mournful and seem to be welling with some strong feeling. I lean forward, across our uneaten Cobb salads, examining her face more closely. There is something I recognize in it, an aching emotion with which I am familiar. It is betrayal.
No kind of life is more valuable than another kind of life, not in theory. But I am a pragmatist, and there is no denying that Marian did not become everything she could have been. If only she had not changed the course of her life so dramatically, so swiftly. She met Ross, and then it was only a short time before our plans became only my plans.
She got engaged and asked me to be her bridesmaid, but I declined. Nothing could be sillier than the idea of me putting on a chiffon dress and parading myself down a church aisle. I was shocked that Marian could not see this.
This can’t be what you want, I told her.
I want this, she said. I love him, she also said.
You can’t, I said.
I do, she insisted, either not recognizing or not caring that this was a treachery I could not learn how to forgive, for all our plans and promises to one another, the ones that had filled me with so much joy, the ones about our future, together, were suddenly made worthless. From then on we were no longer friends, not in even the remotest sense of the word, because I could not manage to bear it.
I matriculated at my first graduate program; she had a child. I became a professor; she had another child. And while she had Ross to accompany her on the road she’d decided to travel, I had nobody, where there was supposed to have been her.
Rosina is looking at me.
“I can’t what?” she says.
I don’t know what she is talking about. She takes a delicate sip of her iced tea. I feel the confusion settle on my face.
“You said, ‘You can’t,’” she elaborates. “What do you mean, I can’t?”
It takes me a few moments to realize that, horrifyingly, I have spoken the words of that old memory aloud. The sun is hot, throbbing through the café window onto my sagging cheek.
“I’m sorry. I was thinking about something else.”
“Oh? What were you thinking about?”
The heat is igniting my skin. I cannot get the image of encroaching flames out of my mind. Rosina doesn’t appear to notice.
“Something silly. Never mind.”
“I see. I thought maybe you were thinking about Marian.”
Rosina is saying her name again. Why is she saying Marian’s name? Why must I always be hearing and thinking her name? That fire is unbearable.
“Why would I...I don’t...”
“I think about my old lovers all the time,” Rosina says.
Then the sun falls behind a tree, I cool, and I can think in a measured fashion once again.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I say, with a sharpness in my voice that hasn’t had occasion to come out for many years.
“We all knew,” she says.
I see their faces now, clearly: Rosina and Peggy and Susan and Elaine and the rest of them, chattering away, spouting nonsense and trivialities. How dare Rosina say those silly girls knew anything about us, anything at all?
“You were all imbeciles,” I respond.
Rosina’s mouth drops open, wide enough to stretch the wrinkled skin of her lips smooth once again. No words come out of her mouth, but plenty emerge from mine.
“You were small-minded and petty and unoriginal. We couldn’t tell one of you from the next. Did you know we used to joke about how, if we lined all of you up in order from biggest to smallest, it would look just like a collection of Russian nesting dolls? Perhaps you were painted slightly differently, but you were nothing more than replicas of the same tired idea, executed in different sizes. We laughed about that quite a bit. We laughed at you.”
There is a long, frozen silence.
When she speaks again, Rosina’s voice is very quiet.
“There’s no one to laugh at any more,” she says. Her face is a storm.
Then the clouds lift, and Rosina speaks again. “At least the world is a little more aware of the tragedy of lupus,” she says. Her eyes are full of pity.
I have to turn away.
In 1951, there were twenty of us, and we sang beautifully together. Of those twenty, there were two who planned a life together, young and naive and confident and thoughtful and brave. The future was certain, at least until a certain point. Then nothing was certain.
Then things happened, so many things. We launched a space rocket; we landed on the moon. One Kennedy was assassinated, and then Martin Luther King, and then another Kennedy. And then there was Watergate, and then there was Roe v. Wade, and there was Exxon Valdez, and the internet, and the Iraq war, and Columbine, and the other Iraq war. And throughout all this, millions of people’s lives wound their ways around marriages and divorces and children and pets and jobs and vacations and schooling and sicknesses, and carefree picnics in the park, and stifled tears in public bathroom stalls, and carpal tunnel syndrome, and fender benders, and winning small amounts of money via scratch-off lottery tickets, and federal tax deadlines and jazz pianists in wine bars and thunderstorms and missed calls, and through it all I thought: I should be sharing this with Marian. I should be sharing this with Marian.
After more than nine decades on the planet, Joanne Siler is gone, and though some might say she has gone to a better place, this is a difficult claim to support, as to date there is no scientific evidence to support the existence of a soul, let alone one that can survive outside the crude mechanics of the physical body. Yet still there is this word: soulmate, a piece of terminology that perseveres in blatant defiance of everything we know about what happens during the grand exit. Soulmate, soulmate, soulmate—could anything be more laughable? Could anything fly in the face of rationality with greater vitriol, stronger contempt? And yet, and yet, and yet. Perhaps there is something to this word. Perhaps it is a word designed to express what can usually only be conveyed in a painting or a song. I wish I was a little sparrow and I had wings and I could fly; I’d fly right home to my false true lover, and when he’d ask I would deny. But I am not some little sparrow, and I’ve no wings and I can’t fly; so I’ll stay right here with my grief and sorrow and let my troubles pass me by.