Let Her Eat Cake

My friend Elaine died last Tuesday. I knew it when I woke up that morning, but having it confirmed still took my breath away. The first thing I thought when I heard the news, right after “damn it to hell,” was “I need to make her a cake.” I am quite sure it is the memorial she would most have wanted from me, and it is the one I most want to give her.

Her death from cancer was no surprise. I met her through an online writing group in which many of us began blogs. Her blog was called a horse, a husband, and cancer, and in it she openly discussed her 30 year battle with cancer. More than anyone I have ever known, Elaine recognized the relationship she had with her cancer – the actual til death do us part nature of it. Before I even knew her, her doctors had deemed her cancer incurable, terminal. So no, it was not a surprise. And yet. How can she be dead?

We met through our writing. We bonded through our shared interests in horses and baking, and our dark senses of humor. We became friends through our blogs. In Ann Patchett’s Story of A Happy Marriage, a friend asks Ann of her first husband, “Does he make you a better person? … Are you smarter, kinder, more generous, more compassionate, a better writer?” And to all of these things, but especially the last one, I can say a resounding yes about Elaine.

Ours was a writing friendship, something I didn’t even knew I needed or could have. We were motivated and inspired by each other because of how much we loved each other’s writing. Each blog post, each comment, each tangential discussion was fodder for our next writing efforts. Reading each other’s work was a pleasure in itself, and it also made us both want to write more. We never tried to be editor or critic for the other; we were just enthusiastic readers and sources of more material. “Just,” I say, as if those aren’t the things we writers want most. Fairly early on Elaine said to me, “But most of all I want you to write more because the subject almost didn’t matter, I just want your words,” and that is exactly how I felt – how I feel – about her writing.

Elaine began posting a weekly blog last spring, and I was inspired to do the same when I realized how eagerly I read her words first thing every Thursday over my morning coffee. It was like getting an anticipated letter in the mail (and oh, I miss letters), ripping open the envelope and starting to read right there at the mailbox, the letter in one hand and the torn envelope in the other. When I started posting on Mondays, she read and responded to my work as avidly as I did hers. We said we had a biweekly tea date – well, tea for her on Mondays, coffee for me on Thursdays – as we sat down with a hot drink (and maybe cake) and each other’s words. When I was stuck for an idea I would sometimes think, “What do I want to tell Elaine about this week?”

We grew up in different countries, different decades, different families, different schools. Sometimes we wrote about the parts of our lives that had no intersection, and we learned things from and about each other. Sometimes we wrote about the same topics – cake, for example – cake was always central for us – and all the things that baking represents, and the people and rituals it connects us to. Birds, and how they helped us find our way to dead relatives (my sister, her mother). I often wrote about death – of family members, of beloved animals. Elaine often wrote about her cancer, her own death looming far or near on the horizon.

Of course we wrote about our horses. We each had a truth serum horse – the kind of horse that doesn’t let us get away with any of our shit, the kind of horse that requires us to be our truest, most honest, most vulnerable selves in their presence. We both had a tendency to armor up with humor and a veneer of toughness when facing fear, and those truth serum horses have no patience with that. Last summer, Elaine wrote a multi-part series about her horse, Bruce: his life prior to her, and his life with her. Part fact, part conjecture, all truth, she brought him to vivid life for her readers. Less than two months later he was dead from colic. Shocking, unexpected, heartbreaking. And yet I also see that Bruce blazed the trail for Elaine to follow not long after. Shocking, expected, heartbreaking.

In her last message to me, just a few days before she entered hospice, Elaine related her recent terrifying hospital visit in a typically dry yet hilarious way. Her last words to me were “I miss Bruce like my heart is breaking and I might never get to meet you.” My last words to her were “I miss your voice,” and I always will. Until I heard of her death I held out hope that I would get to see her in person for our long promised tea and cake visit, but I know us. Bruce was waiting, and we would both agree with a paraphrased John Muir: “The horses are calling, and I must go.”

The last thing I wrote that I know Elaine read was my Christmas Bat piece, which I wrote because it was a story she asked me for. It began, though, with my explanation that I was giving her the story because I was not able to deliver the 10 layer Russian honey cake she had also asked for. I also wrote of my sadness over the prospect of my friend’s death. Her reply to that was “I expect your friend will change her mind and decide to wait for the layer cake. I know I would. And with covid restrictions, exchange rate, costly flights etc, it might take a looooong time til you deliver the cake to her?” I wanted that time. I can’t separate how much I wanted it for her and how much I wanted it for me. I can honestly say that I would have traded ever meeting her in person for her getting as much life as she wanted. I also know I would have wanted to keep sharing that life, even if only from across the ocean.

I started this piece the day she died. I almost posted it that day, but I knew it was not finished. I revised, and rewrote, and chainsaw-edited. I almost posted it on Thursday, Elaine’s day, but I was still revising. By Friday I realized that as long as I am working on this, I have her with me in a way I won’t when I finish it. Part of me can still pretend that she will read it. The rest of me is grieving daily as I write. I need both the illusion and the grief right now.

When I make Elaine’s cake, it will most certainly be that 10 layer Russian honey cake. It is complicated, time consuming, and it will give me many hours of preparation and baking and construction to commune with her in my kitchen. I will cut it into thin slices and freeze it, to make it last for as many Thursdays as possible.

“It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.”
E.B. White

To read Elaine’s words please go to her blog: a horse, a husband, and cancer

Writing, or Not

Current Mood

Almost three months ago I decided I was going to post a blog every Monday. I didn’t tell anyone for a few weeks that I had a schedule, and since then I have told just a few friends, and my writing group. The down side of announcing a schedule for writing is that I then have to actually write according to the schedule and sometimes I don’t feel like (it’s ok if you read those last few words in a super whiny tone – you wouldn’t be wrong).

I mean to write, but I end up reading. It’s a lot like the detours I take looking up a word in the dictionary.  On the way to my word, I see another that is stranger or more interesting or otherwise more attractive or eye-catching.  On days when I have more restraint I mark that page with a finger and come back to it after visiting the spelling or definition or synonym of the word I was after.  Sometimes I wind up with my entire hand in the dictionary, each finger marking a different page.  I may then return to the word or words that caught my eye, or perhaps something else will have jumped off the page of the original word – another word, or in the case of my favorite American Heritage Dictionary, a usage note.  Any of these may – likely will – lead to other words until whatever drove me to pick up the dictionary in the first place has been completely lost.  This process is rarely derailed by the presence of another person, usually the person who asked me for the definition of the first word that I did not know precisely.  If I can I will pull them along with me through the dictionary maze, but I am not easily deterred.  Even when they throw their hands up and leave the room I will happily continue my wordly wanderings.

In high school my favorite parties involved the game Fictionary.  I believe this has grown to some kind of board game now, but to us it involved paper, pens, and a dictionary.  One person would look up a word that none of the others knew – no easy task in this group – and the others would each write down a definition they thought likely or that at least sounded plausible.  The holder of the dictionary would then read all the definitions out loud (including the actual one which was also written on a sheet of paper to disguise it) and the other players would cast their votes as to which was the real definition.  Points were given for guessing correctly, but more points went to those who wrote the incorrect definitions that were selected as real, and still more points to the word-chooser when no one guessed correctly. My shining Fictionary moment was when I made up a definition that was chosen by every other player. I don’t remember the word, or the definition, but i remember the feeling.

Given my love of Fictionary you’d think I’d have a better poker face than I do, but I don’t have one at all. I am best at keeping a straight face while saying something patently absurd, a skill I likely learned from my father who reportedly once convincingly informed a colleague at the newspaper that she should clean her typewriter with peanut butter. It helps if the fakery does not involve words, as in the time my son asked during dinner where the cat was, and I just looked at him with wide eyes for a minute, and then looked at the platter of flank steak in the middle of the table, and then I looked back at my son. He didn’t exactly believe me, but I freaked him out a little, and I was pleased. I am not all that good at misdirection when anything personal is on the line. Ask me why I’m treating my writing deadline like a term paper deadline – the kind where you stay up all night the night before because you did nothing all semester – and I will probably turn red and stammer.

Like my dictionary detours, when I start to write I often have a quote from some other writer in my head.  I go get the book to look it up for review or to quote it accurately.  On my way to the quote I may fall into a page more compelling and from there to another.  I may go right to my quote and instead of writing it down I just keep reading.  Depending on the book, the author may quote another whose book I must go get, or this may lead me to Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations which is the like dictionary all over again. Months may go by if any of this leads to an internet search, which will usually lead to the purchase and subsequent reading of more books.  Meanwhile I have yet to put pen to paper but I still consider this part of my writing process.

With all that in mind, it’s probably not such a bad idea to have a day by which I need to get something on paper (so to speak). Like too many other things in life, it’s easier for me to commit to a thing when I’ve committed to someone else than when I’ve committed to myself, which seems backwards but I know I’m not alone in this. I’m pretty sure the three people I’ve told I’m writing weekly will not come after me with pitchforks for my weekly dose of whatever this is, but damn it, I’m going to come up with something. This week, this is it. Put your pitchforks down, friends.