Words & Pictures

Death Crashes In

 
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In loving memory of Robin Marie Webb, 1964-2018

 
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“I am living. I remember you.”

-       Marie Howe

I was celebrating my son’s birthday on Mackinac Island when Death crashed in.

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Death was not invited. The clear blue sky with its scudding clouds, the bright yet tender sun, the gentle breeze, the crunchy tang of deep-fried pickles, the waves, the rocks, the lighthouse, the bikes: all of these were on the guest list, but Death was not. Nevertheless, Death showed up.

 

We were pedaling around the island when my phone vibrated in the front basket of my bike. Peering at it, I saw the name of one of my oldest friends, Debbie.

 

Fifteen minutes later, I slid out of our booth in the crowded restaurant we’d chosen for lunch and ducked out the side door. There, in an alley beside a rusty dumpster, I called back.

 

“Hi sweetheart,” she said, her voice shaky.

 

“Hi,” I said. “What’s going on?

 

She drew a ragged breath. “Robin died today.”

 

Those Three Words

That moment, in all its particularity, will be with me always: the narrow alleyway with a stucco wall on one side and weathered wooden planks on the other, the muted clamor of voices from inside the restaurant, the hulking metal dumpster, the smell of oil and fish and lake and rotting produce, and most of all the strangeness of those three words in succession, words I’d never imagined hearing in my lifetime.

Robin died today.

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Let me tell you a bit about Robin Marie Webb. Robin was sensual, full-bodied, opinionated, strong-minded, free-spirited, compassionate, honest, and forthright. She was a person who knew her own mind from a very early age.

 

We met in the drama club—called Junior Players—at South Junior High School in Lawrence, Kansas. I was in seventh grade, she in ninth. We had two sets of nicknames for each other and we used them interchangeably: the long versions were Robinowitz and Tayanovitch, and the short versions were Bin and Ya. For many years her email address was kurobinowitz, incorporating my nickname for her and the University of Kansas, her undergraduate alma mater. In the last email she sent me in 2017, she still called me Ya (rhymes with spa).

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I remember exactly where Robin and I were on our walk home from school—Alabama Street approaching 25th—the day she told me she never wanted to get married or have kids.

 

“You might change your mind,” I said.

 

“I won’t,” she said.

 

She didn’t. She lived with her beloved for seventeen years, but refused to budge on the marriage issue.

 

“I don’t believe in it,” she said when I asked.

 

I Love You, Sweetie

When my older son was born, Robin sent a stuffed monkey. When you press a button on its arm, Robin’s voice says “I love you, sweetie.” 

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Even without that monkey, I could never forget her voice. It was deep, musical, slightly husky. A hint of Debra Winger, a whiff of jazz. I’m sure that voice close to the ear must have driven a lifetime of lovers wild.


Robin became a veterans attorney in adulthood, working first for the Veterans Administration, then going into private practice and devoting the latter part of her career entirely to appeals cases of veterans who’d been denied benefits. She was admitted to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court, and she shows up front and center in the photo. I never saw Robin in court, but if her lawyerly self was anything like the stubborn, strong-minded, fiercely ethical person I knew, I’m sure she was formidable.

I have so many memories of Robin, but perhaps the most vivid is of us playing the song “I’m Alive” from Xanadu over and over again on the record player in the living room of her mom’s apartment; Olivia Newton-John wailing on the speakers as we danced wildly, arms flung high, carefully lifting the needle and replacing it each time the song ended.

 

Later in life we drifted out of touch. Robin wasn’t on social media—hated it, in fact, according to Debbie, who’d kept in better touch with her than I had—and that simple fact meant that I saw fewer snapshots of her life, literally and figuratively, than I did of many friends and acquaintances who held less significant places in my heart. We connected in person on milestone occasions—we danced together at my wedding in California, she flew from Nashville to Kansas for my father’s memorial, and we caught up again at Debbie’s second wedding in Minnesota. A year before her death, we narrowly missed seeing each other again in Kansas, our visits ending mere days apart. We exchanged a couple of emails then, in which I learned of her recent health struggles. I sent good wishes for an upcoming procedure she was having, and planned to follow up with more detailed catch-ups on my own life in some later message, a message I never managed to send.

 

I Dissent

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Here’s the thing: There’s a part of me—quite a large part, actually—that disputes the fact that Robin is gone. Of course my rational brain knows that death is a thing, but my visceral core denies it. It insists she’s alive, and one day soon I’ll give her a call and make up for lost time. We’ll have a nice long chat. I’ll apologize for being such a shitty correspondent, for not managing to get thank-you’s in the mail for all the sweet Valentine’s Day cards she sent my boys. I’ll explain that I’ve developed a mental block when it comes to snail mail, how all the steps—getting paper, writing or printing on it, putting it in an envelope, locating a stamp, getting it to the mailbox— somehow overwhelm me, how there’s always a missing piece that requires a trip to the post office or the copy shop or the store. I’ll explain all this, and she’ll say, “That’s okay.” She’ll understand, because she’s an understanding person. Or perhaps she won’t, but she’ll say “That’s okay” anyway, because that’s what we do.

 

But your death is not okay with me, Robin. I’m just going to come out and say it. My father’s death isn’t okay with me either, nor my stepfather’s, for that matter, nor my brother Bernie’s, nor my friend Isabelle’s, nor Francine’s, nor Don’s. And it’s not even just that it’s not okay with me, it’s that I don’t get it. I just don’t. Because these people, Robin, Vati, and the others, they are so vivid within me, so very present, as if, even at this moment, I can hear their voices, see their faces, feel their presence in the air. So where are they? Where?

 

And of course there’s the unspoken corollary. If Robin can die, I can die too. All of us can. And, in fact, will.

 

Groundlessness

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I don’t have a belief system that assures me of an afterlife. I like to say that I’m ethnically and culturally Jewish, philosophically and spiritually Buddhist. Sometimes I adapt a phrase of my brother Len’s and say I’m an “agnostic-leaning-towards-atheist-Buddhist-Jew.” For me this means that I dwell in unknowing. Insight meditation is the practice I engage in, inconsistently but wholeheartedly, to attempt to sit gracefully in this unknowing, to accept its groundlessness as the only ground on which to rest.

 

That groundlessness is what I felt the day Death crashed my son’s birthday festivities, bearing Robin’s name on its lips. That sensation of floating, a lack of solid foundation beneath my feet. This is where we live, where we always live, but most of the time we forget. When Death crashes the party, it forces us to remember how ephemeral and precious it all is. And so, Robin Marie Webb, from this groundless earth, I raise a metaphoric glass of deep red love and grief to you and the vitality you embodied. I love you, I honor you, I miss you, I wonder where you are.

 

I am living, I remember you.

 
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Some things will never make sense. Still, naming your experience can help unravel it. If you feel moved to explore your story in words, consider an off-leash writing workshop. New four-week sessions begin online November 16 and in-person in Ann Arbor, Michigan, November 28. Sign up for my email list to be notified whenever new sessions begin.