Sometimes, if I stare really hard, I can almost see my friend Irene standing there. We took a long, meandering walk at least once a week, and often wound up at that spot in Conservation Park. We saw each other often, and spoke almost every day. For a long time after she died, at odd moments I would pause, almost sure that I’d heard the front door open, and her voice calling, “Hi, Susan, it’s Irene.” But of course I hadn’t.
Irene and I were not very alike. She was tall and slender, with shiny black hair and thick-lashed brown eyes. She was the kind of person people noticed. The first time I met her, we were both working at a small daily newspaper. She was in advertising, and I was in editorial. I remember coming in the side door of the office after covering a farming story. I was hot, disheveled and still carrying the faint aroma of the livestock barn I’d been in.
Irene was walking out. She wore a sleeveless beige cotton dress, heels, and her hair was perfect. I gave a perfunctory “Hi,” intent on getting my hands washed, my hair under control and that peculiar odor dispelled. But Irene was having none of that. She smiled and stopped to talk — Irene never met a person she didn’t want to talk to — and proceeded to engage me in conversation, at the end of which I was still hot and tired, but maybe a little less cranky.
Over the more than 25 years that we were friends, I learned many things from Irene, not because of what she said, but because of who she was. She always had time for people, she moved with ease and grace through any social situation, she was kind, she was gentle. But she wasn’t a pushover. If she believed strongly in an issue, she spoke up firmly. If she got angry, she expressed herself. If she placed her trust unwisely, she didn’t repeat the mistake. But she never wished anyone ill. Instead she sent a silent blessing, and moved on.
Because of Irene, I learned to judge less, to trust more, to accept the imperfect in myself and others. Sadly, I don’t do any of those things consistently, but I never stop trying, because of her.
Am I making her sound perfect? She wasn’t. She carried wounds, and was a flawed human being, and did things she was embarrassed by, or ashamed by or felt guilty about, as we all do. I know those things are true, but they’re overshadowed in my memory by the luminosity of her loving heart.
Irene, who gave me so many gifts over the course of our friendship, gave me the last one on the day she died.
That Friday she was on a small plane flying to Mayo clinic, with her husband Don, who was very ill. I’d been out all morning, and when I got home, the message light on our phone was blinking. I picked it up, and heard her familiar greeting, “Hi, Susan. It’s Irene.”
And then in a voicemail that lasted just a few seconds, she told me the plane was going down. She gave me a message for her daughter, said she loved me, then there was only static, and a terrible silence.
If I live to be 100, I will never experience more courage and loving kindness than that. In the last, terrifying moments of her life, she gave me the gift of saying goodbye.
Three other people were killed that day, Irene’s husband, Don Pavlik; a physician and friend, Dr. James Hall; the co-pilot Earl Davidson. Their families and friends, I’m sure, mourn them as much as I do Irene.
Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.
—Edna St. Vincent Millay