I was having lunch with my friend Catherine, telling her how I couldn’t write anymore since my divorce. Everyone told me this wasn’t unusual after a traumatic event. They said my creativity would come back, to be patient. But I was tired of patience. I told her I was sick of it, sick of grieving not only the loss of my marriage but also the loss of my creative self. It felt like chasing a constantly receding horizon. If I couldn’t write then fine, I quit. I said I was getting out of my brain and into my body. If the brain was just a dusty tomb where my creative spark once lived, then why not let it rest in peace?
Catherine looked at me and quietly said, “What about writing about your friend?”
She took a sip of water,
“Your friend who died.”
The first thing I said at Joni’s funeral, while we all looked at pictures of her pasted onto a poster board, was how horrified she’d be that we were all staring at her. This got a little laugh. But I really meant it. If Joni were a specter in the room at that moment, she would be standing by the poster board, waving people away. She’d be criticizing her hair. She’d be rolling her eyes. She’d be indignant at the blandness of the room: an inoffensive churchy kind of place, with wood chairs and fake plants and without allegiance to any religion. The ceilings were low. I would never have imagined celebrating Joni’s life in this place, a place without even one chandelier.
There was candy on plates provided by the funeral home. Joni had owned a candy store that was less a candy store and more an ephemeral representation of her psyche. I ate some gummy grapefruit off one of these stupid plates and thought, I will never eat this candy again. Joni had introduced me to it. I never gave a shit about candy beforehand, but, like so many things in my life, Marie Antoinette, the novel Outlander, the color blue, it had been transformed by Joni’s hand into something delectable.
I saw Joni’s friend Tracey come into the funeral home, wearing a Breakfast at Tiffany’s shade of vintage pink. It cheered me. I myself was wearing a bunch of black shit. I walked over to her and said, “Joni would really appreciate your outfit choice.” Tracey nodded and walked away. I saw another friend of Joni’s, passing out something on gilded paper. It was a picture of Joni, must have been her high school senior photo, with a poem under it. This woman’s name was Julie. I always thought of her as Joni’s best friend. Weather this was true or not, I guess I’ll never know.
“Joni really loved you,” I said to her. “She talked about you all the time.”
This woman blinked at me and kept passing out poems. I decided to stop talking to these people. We had nothing in common except that we were here, in this room with beige leather, because our friend was dead.
I went back over to the group I had come to the funeral with, fellow ex-coworkers of Joni’s. She was our manager at the upscale paperie, Paper Source, circa 2006. They were mostly the co-workers I had expected to show up. Some people that I thought would be there were not there. It angered me to think about what else they were doing; I thought of them at their desks at their jobs. I felt betrayed by their seeming indifference to the death of this very important woman.
Our coterie had the air of a nervous first date, but backwards. We used to have a thing but no longer had it. I did not feel like it was about to become a kooky comedy where co-workers come together for the funeral of their zany ex-boss and learn new things about themselves and each other. I had gotten a ride from one of these girls who couldn’t take any of the car seats out of her car, so I rode on top of one, like a weird empress, while another estranged co-worker claimed the empty front seat.
“Tell us how Joni died,” they beseeched me, atop my carseat. “We didn’t even know she was sick.”
No, our reunion was not cheap comedy fodder. Our friend was dead. It felt awkward because no one knows how to talk about dead people. We ended up talking about the other co-workers, the missing co-workers. We skirted around Joni like death was a bad smell no one could stand to mention. I rode on top of the car seat back to my apartment. I thought: Joni is dead. I can’t understand this poem I am holding with a picture of young Joni on it. All that’s left of Joni is pasted on poster board. The final gummy grapefruit I will ever consume sitting in my stomach. I am about 48 hours into a bad cold. I am about seven months into my divorce. I want to open the car window and fly out of it. I wonder if my ex co-workers and I will become friends again now that Joni is dead.
“I’ll tell you what,” one co-worker says, having just attended her fifth funeral in as many years, “no one ever dies at the right time. No one ever says, this person died just when they should’ve.”
This sentiment will sit with me for months. But we do not exchange numbers. We don’t rekindle. I climb out of my car seat and stand on the cold, windy curb. I go inside and put the poem on my fridge.
Writing about the dead is a difficult task. I feel like I need someone’s permission. I feel like I need to ask if this tragedy is close enough to me to count. Is writing about Joni only reserved for Joni’s husband, her brother, her closest friend? I feel like unless you’re writing about your dead fiancée or dead child, no one is really interested. You can write about your dead friend, but only if you’re a teenager and they died in an accident or of a tragic disease. Where is the space to write about just a regular friend, in a regular life, who died in a regular way? Where is the space for the regular death? Where is the monument to ordinary friendship? Joni didn’t save my life or find me in a ditch, she wasn’t my mom, she wasn’t my lover, she was just my friend. And my sorrow for the loss of her is cavernous. I think about her all the time. I think about her on the bus over the Hennepin Avenue bridge, there’s the Gold Medal Flour sign, I’m watching it blink, but Joni cannot look at anything anymore. “I Want Candy” plays on my iPod and I think, I am listening to this song but Joni will never listen to another song ever again. I want to tell new people I meet that she is dead and that they will never know her. I think about the fact that she was a once-in-a-universe event. She occurred once and never before or after will she happen again. All of space and time and that was it, there goes Joni.
When Joni first told me she had stage four cancer, I went home and looked up “stage four cancer.” Stage four cancer basically just means “cancer everywhere.” The cancer is no longer in your lung or your breast; it has swelled and swum all over your body like a vicious tide. When Joni was a child, she was in a horrible bike accident. I don’t know how old she was, maybe ten. She fell and hit her head on the curb. She had a head injury. Her mother never took her to the doctor. She put her in a bedroom where Joni floated in and out of consciousness for several weeks, eventually pulling through. All her life she had a kind of knot on her forehead that she was afraid to get looked at. I heard recently that people with head injuries have a higher chance of getting cancer.
Joni also had a bad 3rd degree burn on her left forearm from a deep fryer accident at some restaurant she worked at in her early twenties. When she was older, and working for Paper Source, she was in a very bad car crash and broke her leg. She told me once that she’d just been promoted at Paper Source and was really stressed about her job when she was in the crash. She said the night before she’d had a dream where she was trying to steer a car but couldn’t get ahold of the wheel. Her dead father appeared in front of the car and held out his hands and cried, “stop!” and the car stopped. Joni believed the car accident was her father intervening from beyond the grave to help her regain control of her life. She said once she went back to work, she wasn’t stressed out anymore. The time in the hospital had let her mellow.
Feathers used to mysteriously be found when sweeping up Paper Source at night. “Isn’t it weird there’s always feathers in here?” I said to a co-worker once while she was counting out the drawer. “Oh, yeah, those,” she said, “Joni believes those are messages from her father. He’s letting her know he loves her.” “What do you think?” I said. “I think there’s pigeons in the rafters outside,” she said.
Joni was 52 when she died. Three years earlier she’d taken me and one of the ex-coworkers out for her birthday lunch at a fancy French place. “This is the last birthday I’m ever going to celebrate,” she told us. “You’re still young, Joni,” we assured her. She eyed us like she knew our tricks. A year ago she sent me ecstatic emails asking me to come and see her new tattoo. It was one of the most beautiful tattoos I’d ever seen. It was a pattern of pansies, or maybe violets, spreading over her collarbone and up her shoulder, interwoven with the coordinates of her grandmother’s house in Kentucky. “The only place that ever felt like home,” she said. The color was extraordinary, a delicate blue, and I asked her how the tattoo artist had been about using so specific a shade. “He told me it would fade and I said, look, I don’t need it to last forever.”
Two years before that, I was telling her about a recent stint I’d had in the Mayo Clinic, for a bad skin problem, which was making me feel very disconnected from my body. She had a pained expression and said she understood, she’d recently been in the hospital too. I was surprised, Joni had a thing against going to the doctor. Lord knew how many times we all had told her go see a doctor about one thing or another over the years. But Joni didn’t see doctors. She saw psychics. She pursued books by people who had communications with faerie. She had astrology charts. Joni told me she’d had to have an emergency hysterectomy and then we dropped it. Last year, Joni, an enormous Steve Almond fan, wrote anonymously to his advice column about if she was obligated to tell people she had cancer. She said:
“I kept everything under wraps and told only a very few people. I didn’t want to be defined by the diagnosis and have a horror of pity. I didn’t lie to anyone but I was pretty vague about some things in order to maintain my privacy. I chose not to pursue chemo or other conventional treatments and until about six months ago didn’t take any medication at all.”
Steve Almond replied:
“The saddest part of the human arrangement is that disease and decay and finally death comes for all of us. And when it does, the biggest loss of all is that we don’t get to love anymore. So by all means avoid the leering pity of the masses. But please (please please) don’t shut out those who have genuine sympathy and love to bestow onto you…Letting them love you is a huge act of vulnerability. But it’s also the whole point of being alive.”
When she told me she had cancer it came all at once, as we were eating lunch in the back office of her store. I was talking about my divorce. I was saying that I never wanted to be one of those people who failed at their marriage. She took her glasses off and looked at me with tear-filled eyes. “But why does it have to be a failure?” she said. “Why can’t it just be what it was? Why does a marriage have to be forever, why can’t it just last as long as it’s supposed to last, until you’ve learned what you had to learn from each other?” It was the single most meaningful thing said to me in the course of my divorce. I started to cry.
Then she told me.
It was stage four when she was diagnosed but she wasn’t taking any drugs. She’d cut out sugar from her diet, kind of funny for someone who ran a candy store, but that was it. “If I only have one more year,” she said, “then why be sick? Why not make it a great year?” She was going on a trip to London with a friend. She didn’t look sick.
She invited me to sit next to her so we could watch YouTube videos of David Gandy, her ultimate celebrity crush. We watched him in outtakes of a commercial for Light Blue by Dolce and Gabbana. Joni had seen the video many times before, and something happened, a sexy moment with David Gandy and a girl in a boat and Joni got wistful, “When I first saw that,” she said, “that’s when I knew, David Gandy would never be mine.” Everything felt normal. I wanted to trap her under a glass bell like a butterfly. I wanted that moment, safe, in the pistachio and pink light of her store, tucked behind a hundred beautiful candies that Joni had picked with infinite care, as though she were making a tiny model Paris solely out of honey bon-bons, to wrap and rewrap us.
Later, she sent me an email that said, “I thought about how great it is to have someone understand what you are trying to say without having to say every word. Thank you for that.” I replied, “I’m sure you’ll roll your eyes, but I really look up to you and admire you.”
Joni said things like, “crap in a burger basket,” a proper Midwesterner. But the final year that I knew her it was all, “fuck this,” and “fuck that” and “oh shit.” I wanted to know what was going on with the swearing, and Joni told me her energy worker told her she was just letting things go.
Joni told me once the mission of her life was to let people know Marie Antoinette never said, “let them eat cake.” She told me this while handing me my handmade Christmas gift; a Marie Antoinette bust on a popsicle stick, a bag of pastel M&M’s making up her bustle and skirt. “Let them eat M&M’s” said the cartoon balloon coming out of Marie’s mouth.
What can I tell you about Joni that will make you love her like I loved her? There is nothing. I want to write about her so well, so thoroughly that it will pin her here and you can see her, remember her. I want everyone to remember her. I’ve read that the koshas, yogic elements of the physical and spiritual body, slowly disperse after you’re dead. They do so in this order: the soul first, then bliss, mind, energy and finally your decomposing physical body. If you’re too attached to a person who has died your mental energy, your grief, can keep that soul bound to the earth. I wonder sometimes if I’m keeping Joni here.
I don’t know how exactly she died, and sometimes I find myself thinking too much about it. At home? In a hospital? Hospice? What was there time for? What exactly killed her? How will I know it when I see it? Was she in pain? Did she suffer? What did she think about? When I last saw her at Christmas she had lost an enormous amount of weight and she was very tired. One leg was badly swollen. Joni once told me I had beautiful eyes. We were standing in her candy shop looking across the store at each other. “There’s nothing about me that you could call beautiful,” she said. “That’s not true.” I said. She snorted, “like what?” I paused, trying to think how I could phrase for Joni what I found beautiful about her without becoming overly sentimental, as anything obviously maudlin, especially in light of her illness, would cause her to snap closed like a bear trap. This was always my issue with her. She took the pause to mean I couldn’t think of anything and then began rattling off all the things she didn’t like about herself, her eyes, her hair, her mouth. I walked across the store and put my hands on her shoulders for a moment. I knew she was angry at her body, her sickness, and maybe even angry at me for being in another body, another life. We looked at each other in silence. “Ok,” Joni said and we changed topics.
She had been to see a therapist a few times since she was diagnosed with cancer and also gone to an energy healer but I didn’t know what she was looking for from them. She used to say, “I’m not afraid of dying, I’m only afraid of leaving things unfinished after I’m gone.” What did she need to finish? I didn’t know. I always thought her love of beauty, her gift for beauty, came from a very dark place. Inside Joni was a jagged edge, an edge she flicked to catch the light.
“I never wanted to have children,” she told me once, “because I realized if there was anything left over from my childhood that I would inflict on my own child, then it wasn’t worth it.” She was tragic in that way, able to see beauty everywhere except herself. I tried to tell her once, Joni, I said, you’ve been my teacher. You have a gift. She said, oh thanks and then went back to digging something out of a drawer, refusing to let my compliment do anything but mildly graze her. She was like a beautiful room hidden by fronds and cattails. You had to find her first, then be granted access, but once inside that place, everything was gold. Does anyone in the world know that they are beautiful?
I had a dream this morning that I went to Joni’s shop and I sat down and emptied all the wastebaskets to look through them for her handwriting, or to see if she had jotted down a note that I could read. A little piece of her that might give me some clue as to where she is now, something that could reconnect us. I tried to finish her unfinished crossword puzzles in the paper so I could feel like I was interacting with her. But I knew everything I did was futile. The silence in her office was as big as the sky. She would never write back. She stopped being alive. She is gone all the way into the future. There was nothing but her absence in that space. It felt like she had just left the room, like it was impossible she wasn’t coming back but at the same time she felt as totally gone as if everything beyond death were made of stone, as if silence were total, as if she’d been eaten by nothing and every moment there was more of that and less of her. It feels impossible we will never speak again but I know so completely that we never will, that it’s like when you accidentally touch an outlet and it takes you a moment of horrible pain and confusion to realize you’re being electrocuted.
My last email exchange with Joni:
Me to Joni. January 17, 2014
i was cleaning my apt today and noticed my blue majors and quinn mug was not to be seen. i feel like the last time i used it to port my tea around was christmas time. did i leave it at your shop?
how are you?
Joni to me. January 17, 2014
I’m not sure — I’ll check!
Joni to me. January 19, 2014.
Yes dearie — your cup is here — does it have a cap too?
Me to Joni. January 22, 2014.
yes, it has a black cap.
I never went to get the cup. I had no car and it was the middle of a Minneapolis winter, I didn’t feel like walking. I would have gone if I had known she would be dead by February 10th. But what if I had known? With that knowledge, what would I have said or done? What would have mattered? She asked me maybe three months before she died if I wanted to go have Thai food with her one night, and I said no because I was broke. The things we would put on credit cards if only we had a crystal fucking ball.
I still Google Joni. I’m always looking for new information on her, like I’m doing some sort of private murder investigation. Every time I read an interview with her, I can hear her voice. I can hear her intonation, her humor. I can hear it so well, I have a moment where I think she can’t possibly be dead, that voice cannot get any smaller. I worry about the day when I won’t be able to hear it anymore. I have no idea if her Facebook page is still up because I don’t have Facebook. But I know her gorgeously curated Pinterest page is up. I know her Twitter account is up. And she has something up on a site called Pushme, which looks like something she did to promote her candy store. It was a short questionnaire, what’s your go to drink, your biggest fear as a child, that kind of thing. I had to dig a little to find that page. It was a nice surprise. An extra three minutes in her company and then she was gone again, just a computer screen, where this questionnaire will sit indefinitely. Her Pinterest page has the reverent hush of a graveyard. I’m afraid to even look at it. Afraid it won’t be there. All that beauty she could spot like some kind of renowned ornithologist, page after page of it. It makes my teeth ache to look at it. She had the best taste of anyone I ever knew and it’s all there, held delicately by the grace of the internet, a delete button away from disappearing, the closest she’ll ever get to a glass church. A memorial in Paris. An eternal flame.
At Joni’s funeral, what I wanted to do was to stand up and say to everyone, “Joni never had children, but she had me and she had us,” and gesture to her various co-workers scattered throughout the room and then metaphorically gesture to the other ones, the ones that didn’t come, out there in the world. Joni drew the people to her that she found beautiful. She was a gardener, a cultivator, a refiner. She would show you how to do something amazing and then say, “now you give it a shot.” There was never any judgment, just a window you could open up and a ledge you could fly from. She could see it in you before you could see it. And she saw that spark everywhere: the color of this, the taste of that, this person, this book. Her whole life was art. Her whole life was magic, because that’s what she saw, and what you see is everything. In some ways, it’s the only thing that even matters. You are what you eat and Joni only ate the best fucking shit in the world.
While writing this in my kitchen, late at night, I sometimes think I can feel Joni’s ghost standing behind me. “Hi,” I think, “please stay.” I want her to meet my new boyfriend, I want to tell her I’m going to France next summer, I want to talk to her. Sometimes the feeling floats around with me for an hour or two after I’ve closed my laptop. I don’t know if it’s real or if I just can’t believe she is really gone. Because I really can’t believe she is gone. It doesn’t seem possible. I go and look at her funeral poem with her photo on it on my fridge. It’s an incomprehensible poem about ships and it doesn’t mean anything to me. I read the lyrics of her favorite Elvis Costello song instead and I see her there.
Joni, I think of you every time I tie a ribbon. Joni, I am thinking of you. Joni, I never told you these exact words but: I am a different person because of you. Your life mattered to me. Your life changed my life.
Elinor Abbott has been previously published by The Hairpin, Adbusters, Bright Wall/Dark Room and other publications. Her chapbook, ‘Is This The Most Romantic Moment of My Life?’ is forthcoming from Banango Editions. She lives in Baltimore, Maryland and blogs at littlethousand.tumblr.com.