After my 88-year-old friend Shirley died just before Christmas, it fell to a handful of close friends to take care of the business that Joyce Carol Oates has referred to as “death-duties.” Telling the neighbors. Arranging a memorial service. Disposing of her things.
Shirley was from New Zealand, and I had the job of writing letters to her friends overseas. I sifted through the Christmas cards she’d received and stacked neatly on a table, guessing at the addresses I found in her timeworn telephone book. Shirley was of an age where address book entries start to get sparse: Almost every page had names crossed out and grim marginalia: R.I.P 2/18 — Had small stroke. R.I.P. 1/23/14 — Survived kidney collapse, part of bowel removed. I took a dozen letters to the post office, not sure if I’d ever hear back.
Over the years I’d picked up bits of information about Shirley’s life. She had a considerable career in her 20s as half of a piano duo that toured Europe and recorded an album. Her late husband was a scientist. She listened to classical music every night before bed.
I sometimes felt sorry for Shirley, a widow who lived alone. She had no children or siblings and was hopelessly out of step with the times. She denounced computers as “just one more thing to go wrong in the house.” She still used a rotary telephone. She didn’t even own a clothes dryer.
One day she didn’t feel right so she called herself an ambulance. She died in the hospital a few days later.
I expected a small turnout for the memorial service. But the church was full, packed with neighbors, friends, students, colleagues, and random people she’d met on walks or just by standing outside her house, like a Walmart greeter. It was only after she died that I came to see how rich Shirley was in her analog life, how un-lonely she really was.
Everyone I spoke to had experienced Shirley’s particular brand of slow friendship. Neighbors spoke of how she watched their homes and collected their mail when they were away. She may have had no use for social media, but she kept us connected to one another, sharing updates and news. She took long daily walks around the neighborhood and, unencumbered by devices or earbuds, cheerfully engaged everyone she met, even children and dogs.
A regular subway user, she ignored social conventions like averting her eyes and keeping to herself. Once she recognized Boston Symphony Orchestra bassoonist Suzanne Nelsen — they were both heading to Symphony Hall — and breezily introduced herself. The two became fast friends, and up until the last BSO concert she attended, Shirley would wave from her regular perch in the second balcony when the musicians stood to bow. Nelsen always waved back.
Since Shirley died, I’ve thought a lot about how I live my life — hurried and frazzled, conversations reduced to emojis, rarely less than two tasks at a time. I keep threatening to take up my old hobbies, do jigsaw puzzles, read a whole book, text less, breathe more — but it never seems to happen. Shirley may have listened to music on an ancient console turntable, but she was practicing mindfulness before it was a thing. She knew life was less about the tasks you do than about those precious moments in between.
The letters from Auckland started trickling in a few weeks later, in Shirley time, many written in shaky handwriting. Someone named Mary sent me a photocopy of the Christmas letter Shirley had sent to her six days before she died. It was vintage Shirley, bubbling with news about the concerts she’d attended (“music, the universal language!”), the upcoming election, her medical appointments.
“Have lovely friends around me,” she signed off. “So far so good and I enjoy all I can for whatever time is left me.”
Shirley Beckett R.I.P. 12/17/19
Linda Matchan is a freelance journalist and filmmaker. Send comments to email@example.com.