My friend, Nancy Peterson, died of cancer in August. Near the end she’d moved out to the East Coast to be with her kids and grandkids. When I was told she’d passed away, what I heard in my ear was her full-throated, high, rollicking laugh. Only in that way, in my imagination, would I hear it ever again.
Nancy was a poet and the gentlest of writing teachers. She regularly began her classes by asking students to write for ten minutes and to start off with the phrase, “Here I am.” In the days after she’d died, what came to me was this phrase, and I wondered: “Where are you?” When I told a friend this, she walked around me as if she were Nancy saying, “Here I am. Here I am.”
At the memorial service I reflected on how people in our lives know different aspects of us. One of her two grown daughters referred to her as, “Mama.” Work colleagues described a patient, tender teacher of preschoolers who never said a critical word about her charges or her colleagues. Her husband said that though she may not have been perfect, she was perfect for him.
The side of her I was most familiar with was this one: Nancy had a gift for hospitality. She organized getaways for small groups of women friends at her sister’s cabin in Wisconsin. Every so often she’d invite several of us, and she did so once again this past February, though she was on chemotherapy at the time. I was asked to bring pastries for ride up, so I went out and got a lavish assortment. People in our group looked in the box, and said maybe later, or I don’t eat sugar, or I don’t eat white flour. Nancy said, “Gimme one of those,” and ate it, and licked her fingers afterward.
Two dogs came along with us. Nancy insisted they get the good, middle seat in her small van, rather than the poor crawl space behind the seat. None of us wanted to be back there. The rest crammed into a car, while I rode up front with Nancy. It was a luxury: she and I had time to talk. About her cancer. About her hopes. The two dogs rode quietly with their backs to one another, gazing out the side windows.
We stopped at a small casino for lunch—Nancy’s choice, as she loved casinos. On our way back to our vehicles afterward we saw a scrawny, starving kitten eating garbage from a full trashcan. Though we had two dogs with us, and were heading to a cabin, Nancy wanted to rescue that wild creature. Somehow we were able to get her away from there without it.
We stayed for just one night, but it was wonderful. Nancy looked a little pale, and she didn’t have a lot of energy, but she was right in there with us. One woman in the group was grieving her sister’s death, and she asked us all to talk about our siblings. We began over dinner that first night, with each person getting as much time as she needed to tell her sibling story. Which turned into the story of the whole family.
I had known these women for many years, but had not heard the stories they told about their early lives. It was as if we were in a bubble, created by Nancy, of warmth and trust. I was reminded of a movie like “My Dinner with Andre,” where the talk is so compelling it feels like art. Only this was better because it was personal, not abstract. Each of us was honest, her telling lyrical, her content poignant. Every moment felt large. When we tried to tend to Nancy, did she need more room on the couch so she could stretch out, for example, she’d say, “No!”
We wove these stories in and around preparing for meals, cleaning up, carrying in more firewood, taking the dogs for a romp in the snow. Those twenty-four hours felt like many more. It was a spacious, relaxed respite. Just before we left, after everyone had told her story, we all took off our clothes and got into the hot tub out on the deck. The water wasn’t that hot and some were at first hesitant to get in, afraid they’d get chilled. Nancy said, “Oh, for Pete’s sake!” or something along those lines, and led the way. (She had had a double mastectomy, and said in one of her poems, “New meaning: flat chested.”)
That trip lifted us all into some space outside the ordinary. When I’d gotten the email invitation from Nancy, I’d hesitated, thinking I didn’t have time to go away. But I am so glad I went.
Mary Jean Port writes at home, near Minnehaha Creek and Lake Harriet, and teaches at the Loft Literary Center.