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My Dear Megan,
There is a little book on my desk that I recently found in a second-hand bookshop in Creston. It is a book of reflections about writing and is called Writing Past Dark. A fine title; I think you would like it too. As I have groped with words over the past few weeks, trying to find a way into this letter I want to write to you, I noticed that book lying among my papers and scribblers, and wondered if that’s the trouble. I know I’m not going to be able to write past the dark here. Some darks you can write past and some you can’t.
A while ago I went to a memorial service; a ‘celebration of life’ it said in the obituary. A celebration of the life of a man I had known not well, but for a long time, who had died quite suddenly of congestive heart failure. The event was held in a community hall: round tables with white cloths and artificial flowers, long tables of food, potluck. Family and friends one after another went up to the podium to talk about the person who was no longer among us. There were tributes to his many admirable qualities, anecdotes about his endearing quirks, treasured memories. Which is all well and good as far as it went. Not a word, though, about the profound darkness that surrounds us all, and that he had so recently disappeared into. This blatant shunning of death on such an occasion shook me.
Why? You asked me near the end. Why?
Once, a few years ago, you were visiting me for the weekend, as you periodically did, travelling a total of ten hours by train, up here to Courtenay and then back again to your life in Victoria. It was Sunday morning. We had left our breakfast table and come in here to my study, because something in our conversation – I don’t remember what – had sent us looking for a particular book. I remember you standing in front of the bookcase in your fuzzy pyjamas, dark curly hair still bed-head, intent, concentrated, gathered into yourself.
There are books in my living room, dining room, bedroom, but this room is where I keep the books that mean the most to me. This is where I hoard them, actually, so I won’t impulsively lend them out – “never lend anything you can’t afford to lose,” your mother once advised me, sagely. Here are books that have dragged me into my own darkness, that have in some way changed my mind, changed my heart. You used to say that art should handle us roughly, shake us up, or what’s the point? And a few of the books that I just plain and simple love. So here are Dostoevsky, Kafka, Simone Weil, W.B. Yeats, T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, Thomas Merton, Annie Dillard. Others.
You stood looking over all the books for a while, then you focused on the shelf of books by and about women. Mostly feminist thought and theory: Kate Millet, Phyllis Chesler, Rosemary Radford Ruether, Robin Morgan. The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women. I was sitting in the rocking chair. We didn’t speak for a bit. After a long moment you asked quietly if I would be willing to leave my collection of women’s writing to you.
On the day you asked for my books, I was dying. At least that was the opinion of a cadre of doctors, pathologist, oncologist, surgeon, my family doctor – six months seemed to be their consensus. But I went into remission and have lived long enough to watch you die of the malevolent disease that was supposed to kill me instead. Now you have been gone for over two years. Forever, actually.
When I told you that I had been diagnosed with cancer and was going to lose a kidney, you said immediately and firmly – we were on the phone – that if I ever needed a kidney, and we were a match, I could have one of yours.
Back when I was dying and not you, we went down to the Filberg Park Lodge here on one of your visits. We sat on a bench shaded from the hot sun by a huge blue atlas cedar, with water and driftwood and seaweed in front of us. We sat there talking for a long time. I remember saying that I didn’t believe there was anything after death, that we simply go into oblivion. At the same time, I said, I have the very strong feeling that I’ve done this before.
And back when I was dying and not you, I wanted to tell you things. Time was so limited and in such a tearing hurry. Maybe there was something I’d experienced or thought about that might be of some use to you. Some observation or anecdote to dismiss if you wanted to – which would tell you a bit about what was or was not of interest to you, information that’s always useful to have. Or a memory or notion to maybe shelve for future consideration, or give to a friend, or keep bits and pieces of, or use in eccentric or whimsical ways. I wanted to leave you something more than a few books.
But I hesitated. What if I inadvertently said something that disturbed or overwhelmed you? Sometimes I do that to people. And you were young, still in your twenties, and my granddaughter – just how much did you really want to know about my life? I hesitated, and in the end kept quiet, mostly, and didn’t push our conversations beyond where they naturally flowed. That was probably the prudent decision, but still, I regret it now. And the comment somebody once made about humans seldom finishing their conversations anyway is no consolation.
One day when you were three or four, I walked from one room to another in your house and came across you unexpectedly, playing by yourself with a few toys on the floor. You looked up and at me – into me, it seemed – and I was struck by the thought: My God, she’s such an old soul.
Several times in your twenties you said to me that you were looking forward to being an old woman. I’m a bit of a hermit, you said, and when I’m old I’m going to live in a little house in a pleasant place by myself. Once you told me that you sometimes wished you could just skip the middle part and go straight to the old woman.
Much has been said by others who loved you, and said so eloquently, about your integrity and – sometimes wicked – humour, and your passion for life and for your art. But it’s the still and wise center of you that I remember the most as I write this fragmented letter to you. The old one in you. It’s the watcher, who was the artist. It’s the one who took such good care of those she loved; the one who had the wherewithal to face an early death with courage and grace. Love, creativity, death: the knowing in you.
Once I had a vivid waking vision – no drugs were involved – of myself riding a horse at a full gallop through the surf on one of the Greek Islands. It was late in an afternoon thousands of years ago. I was a young woman and full of a fierce, almost overwhelming joy. I wish I had told you about that vision, I’m not sure why.
I am the old woman now. A Crone, a friend reminds me. When you were in your mid-twenties (you said you were going through a quarter-life crisis), back before either of us were sick, I told you about the Crone, and you were so taken by the story you asked if you could be an honorary Crone. I thought that such an extraordinary and somehow sagacious request for a young woman to make. But then: an old soul might well ask as a young woman to be an honorary Crone.
Once, a very long time ago now, there were three phases to a woman’s life. There was the Daughter (sometimes called the Maiden, or the Virgin), there was the Mother, and there was the Crone. The first phase, the Daughter, was childhood, when a girl belonged to herself within a protective circle of family and community. It was a time of newness and enchantment, a time of enthusiasms when she learned through her own senses and sensibilities, and from others, the basics of what she needed to know to live in this world. If she was lucky she came out of this without too much damage. Then came the phase of the Mother, a time of fecundity of various sorts, of nurturing and loving, of belonging to family and society. It was also a time of gaining in knowledge and the flowering of her own creative and personal potential. There were losses, too, all along the way, disappointments and grief and regrets. Then came the phase of the Crone, old age, when a woman stepped outside the tribe and belonged to herself again, and to God and culture. The Crone phase included all three phases, Daughter, Mother and Crone, and in her old age there was a distillation and deepening of all that she had learned; and in her growing consciousness of death, an added wisdom that both darkened and illuminated all the rest. What the Crone knew was impossible to quantify, but critical to our continual, slow, laborious invention of the human.
So that’s the way it was, more or less, a long time ago and for a long time. But along came patriarchy, or, some say, the church, and lopped off the Crone. Then there were only two phases to a woman’s life, which explains why so many old women feel useless and lost, why they keep circling back through the Mother phase, extracting whatever meaning they can through being grandmothers, caregivers, nurturers and help-meets of one sort and another, all the while feeling that something essential is missing. But she hasn`t died, our Crone, she was only driven deep underground, into the caves of our souls, where she has been hiding out all these years, because it has been too dangerous not to. Now, it seems, she is beginning to make her way back to us. That was the story I told you about the Crone.
A few months before you died we went for a walk into the village of Fort Langley, where your mother lives and where you spent the last days of your life. We sat outside at Wendel’s cafe, because there was no room inside. It was a clear day, not too cold, but still winter. We were in coats and hats, you had your long blue scarf that you had made yourself.
We sat at our wobbly little table, hands wrapped around our hot cups of tea and coffee, and you told me that all during your childhood you could picture your life ahead of you, but never beyond your thirtieth birthday. You could dream about the possibilities and imagine your interests as they took shape: art, drama, university, travel, love. But you could never see anything beyond the age of thirty. You said you had never told anyone about this. And, you said, you were always wary of the sun, did I remember that? You often wore long sleeves in the summer, and hats, and never lay out baking in the sun, never went anywhere near a tanning bed.
You died of malignant melanoma just a few weeks after your thirtieth birthday.
How do we know?
Shortly before you died I went to visit you again. Your mother, my daughter, was and had been utterly devoted to your care, and was exhausted. The second day I was there I started crying in the morning and kept it up all day, on and off. I stayed for four days and on the day I left I went into your room to say good-bye to you. It was early morning, diffuse light coming in through the curtains, the room hushed. I sat by your bed and we talked for a while. We compared experience of what you called cancer fatigue, an exhaustion you feel, you said, at a molecular level. I wanted to hug you, hold you, but many of your bones were so friable, full of cancer, your right shoulder had already broken. I said, “I’m sorry I cried so much, I hope I didn’t upset you, that’s the last thing I’d want to do.” “No,” you said, “it’s good. Someone in this family has to carry the grief and express the grief. I don’t cry because it hurts too much, and I might break a rib. And my mother is afraid that if she starts crying she won’t be able to stop.” You smiled at me and said, “It’s very Greek.”
And then, far too soon, it was time to go.
June 15, 2012. Your mother called me at suppertime and said that you had been taken to hospice that afternoon. Hours later I was wrenched from a deep sleep by my daughter’s voice, calling out to me: Mom, Mom, Megan! The bedside clock said 2:42. I turned on the light, wrote the time down in the notebook on my bedside table, and waited. At 2:52 the phone rang, and my weeping daughter told me what I already knew.
There is a painting of yours on my wall, that you left to me. It is about 13 by 19 inches, done on plexiglas. The bottom third of the picture is a jumble of words, pieces of newspaper cut in various shapes and pasted every which way on the glass. Most of the rest of the picture is painted. There is a stark tree with its roots deep into the soil that is words, its branches reaching into a vibrant dark blue and dark green sky or background. The sky pulses with movement, with life; a large, full, golden moon – gold leafing – penetrates and illuminates the dark.
With all my love,
My granddaughter, Megan Newton, died on June 16, 2012, just over a month after her 30th birthday. The cancer – melanoma – was aggressive, nasty, brutal, and mean, everything that Megan wasn’t, and while it took her life, it did not take her spirit and her accomplishments.
Let me first tell you about her spirit, about her as a person. She valued competence, imagination, inspiration, dedication, gentleness, risk-taking, trust and trust-worthiness, honesty, generosity, deep (and sometimes dirty) humor, and hard work; not as separate characteristics, but all in a package - high standards but worthy and attainable ones, as she herself demonstrated. She loved the thought of drama and theatre.
We debated Homer’s Iliad versus his Odyssey. She, an Odyssey fan, loved its cadence, rhythm and subtlety, finding the Iliad too informed by testosterone and not enough by imagination; I, with a fondness for the Iliad, was hard pressed to disagree, except to note the excellent use of a hollow horse in the Iliad, to which she countered that the wooden horse was banal compared to Skylla with her twelve feet and six heads with three rows of teeth and all of the other imaginings of the Odyssey. Last week I re-read the Odyssey – Megan was right.
All of this discussion of things Greek, naturally, led us onto discussions of the current Greek financial narrative, agreeing that it was certainly not Homeric, not even classic, lacking both the force of the Iliad and the poetry of the Odyssey. Megan thought it was perhaps more like university students who sign for large loans without understanding that they had to pay them back – she, in contrast, paid them back fast because she understood compound interest.
In the vein of theatre, we talked about the ever popular barding on beaches – while having great respect for the last Shakespeare, she was much more interested in working with the next one. Which in turn led to her recounting rafts of stories about the weird, wacky and wonderful performances (both on stage and off) that she had been associated with, including those in the YOU SHOW that she founded and curated for the Intrepid Theatre in Victoria.
Our conversations ranged over many other things (sometimes in the same sentence) beside the moldy old stuff that I am mostly familiar with, from music to beverages, and in every case, while her tastes and knowledge were vastly different from mine, we found common ground acknowledging that all of these were to be experienced and enjoyed. Even on shoes, of which she had a much richer collection than mine, we agreed that red shit-kickers were better than none, and Fluevogs rule. We discussed our affinity for puppets, hers active (which sent her off to a Banff winter) and mine passive (for Thai processional puppetry). She provided an appropriately hilarious critique of my flaming (literally) grilled duck.
An elliptical sense of humor; a deep respect for the poetry of drama; a love not merely of life but of living it; an understanding that for creative work to work requires work; a respect for people and their efforts and aspirations for things beyond themselves; a love of gin in antique tea cups – what great things to have in a granddaughter!
As for Megan’s many accomplishments, her colleagues speak of them . . . what they say is the evidence of how she – her spirit, her action, and her passion – accomplished wonderful (not to mention funky and charming) things. Megan made things happen! She gave support and brought change, directly and indirectly, specifically to the Arts community and generally to all of us, and acknowledgement of Megan will do the same. And hence the Victoria Foundation’s Megan Newton Memorial Fund, which will provide an annual award for students in theatre so that they too might jump, as Megan did - 4-inch heels, bike, tea-cup of gin, and all - into the theatre of the world, keeping both the memory and spirit of Megan with us forever.
The interest earned on the Megan Newton Memorial Fund is intended to provide an award for students of theatre. It is to be administered by the Victoria Foundation and the Victoria theatre community.
Thanks and happy trails,