February 25, 2007
Some things just shouldn't happen or, at least, shouldn't happen at a certain time. We should not be here today. This is not the way it was supposed to happen.
Some say that I have the gift of eloquence. Not today. I wish I had never used a superlative, that I had saved them all for today; but, even if I had saved every best word I know, they would not capture the wonder of our Lisa.
I thank God that for many of you my words are unnecessary. I wish I could read for you the hundreds of letters we have received -- two, three, four page letters describing in detail her impact professionally and personally. You got a glimpse but only a glimpse of that impact in what you heard earlier today.
Now, I will try to convey a sense of the complete Lisa, the Lisa only I could know. Because only I was privileged (day in and day out for over thirty years) to witness the convergence of all the stories. And only I was blessed for all those years with the fullness of her constant love.
Thousands of times over these last three decades I have said: I am the luckiest and the happiest person in the world. Ive said it to many of you. The wellspring from which those words flowed was Lisa and the life she created for us for me, for Katie, for Jed, for our whole family and for our world of friends.
I am ten years older than Lisa. When we married, after a whirlwind two month courtship, I promised her I would live for at least 40 years. After we celebrated our thirtieth wedding anniversary, we began to talk optimistically to hope that we would reach 50 or 60 years together, and we began to visualize the wonder of that time. That all changed on January 21.
The opening words of Joan Didion's recent book, The Year of Magical Thinking, ring tragically true: "Life changes fast. Life changes in an instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends." For us, it happened before dinner.
Sunday, January 21, was like most of my days with Lisa lovingly comfortable. As usual, I was up early. Cyndi, Lisa's college roommate and dear friend, had called to say she would like to visit. I awakened Lisa with a kiss, saying: It is a miracle you fell in love with me; the only explanation is that nobody could love you nearly as much as I. She smiled and said: I love you. And she smiled even more when I told her that Cyndi was coming.
Laughter filled the morning (she and Cyndi and I loved laughing together). And love filled the whole day. Early in the afternoon Katie text messaged from the Yale library: I love you mom. Thanks for another great week. A little later Jed and Dani called to talk about their new house; they and the three munchkins (as Lisa called them) ended the call: We love you.
I spent some of the day writing a talk to be given at Saint Johns University the following Thursday; it would focus in part on Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, their fierce denunciations of divinity and immortality and my conviction that they are wrong. A piece by an MIT astrophysicist named Max Tegmark on parallel universes had caught my attention because I had seen Tegmark making some very interesting comments about spirituality.
Lisa asked to see the Tegmark piece. It was the last thing she read. At 6:45, I went to our bedroom which really doubled as her office to ask if she wanted me to get dinner. She said: I am making some notes on Tegmark. Give me another half hour. I said: Fine. And, as I left the room, I said I love you. She said: I love you too, honey. Thank God we never left each other or hung up the phone without saying that. A half hour later she was gone. Life changes in an instant.
I take solace, in moments of usually tearful reflection, that we lived in the fullness and joy of constant love. So many wonderful days and memories. Every moment, even the moments marked by the trials of illness or momentarily disrupted plans, every moment brought a deeper, stronger, more meaningful union of our beings. I take solace that she never suffered what she feared most, a lessening of her capacities, physical or mental, most importantly (for her) mental. I know that she would be happy that she died quickly and privately, that we were home, that only I found her, that it happened at the end of a day filled with thought, with inspired internet shopping, with friendship and love. I know that her last days, day and moments in this physical world were joyful. I take solace from all of that though I must confess that I am still brought up short by a wish for the days we dreamed of spending together.
I struggle now to comprehend fully how she remains with us, how she lives on not just a memory, but a reality.
If you knew us as a couple, you probably found some of our ways eccentric: We talked by phone several times a day, we left love notes on index cards and funny greeting cards for each other constantly. Some of you will remember my unilateral overnight rule, my pledge that I would not be away from her overnight (for the record, Lisa thought it was silly, though she was amused that I managed to observe it for the first several years of our marriage). Those who clerked with me at the Supreme Court will recall that, in her honor, I made certain that the number of footnotes in every opinion on which I worked was divisible by four (the number of letters in Lisa).
Such eccentricities were admittedly silly. Taken together, however, they meant a lot to us and over the years they amounted to something quite significant.
And there were other things that nobody but the two of us could know. Our joy in the conversations of long car rides (just the two of us) or in simply being at home in what she made sacred space. How she would listen to my endless chatter how sometimes, when I fell asleep briefly in mid-sentence during a late night story, I would awaken to her gentle voice reminding me where I was in the story.
She was the ultimate safe harbor, providing the security of unfathomable love to me, to Katie and Jed, and to so many others. She and I were as wonderfully intertwined as any I and Thou could be.
And I still feel the strength of the intertwining. That is the important point.
I struggle now to articulate exactly how she remains with me, with the rest of the family, and with many here today and remains in a way that transcends mere memory.
As a family, we have cared a lot over the years about what we call making memories. These memories are useful; they create a presence and a continuity, they spark smiles and feelings of love. But they are not enough. Indeed, even when her physical being was available to renew my thoughts and images of her, mere memory did not capture her reality for me: So many times, when I would see her after an absence (however short), I would say to her that she was even more beautiful than I remembered. So many times we would say to each other that the love we felt at the moment was greater than the love we remembered from the day before more than ever before, we would say. What we meant was that the mind and memory could not capture and retain the depth of what we felt.
In his wonderful book, A Grief Observed, C. S. Lewis writes of marital love as a process that transcends memory, even as one grieves.
Let me read you a short passage he wrote after his wife's death:
I am tempted to say of our marriage It was too perfect to last. I mean the phrase positively. I hear God saying: This has reached its proper perfection; this has become what it was meant to be. I am pleased. And now you are ready to go on to the next stage. When you have learned to do quadratics and enjoy doing them, you should no longer do them. You should move on.
In a marriage, when one or the other dies, we are tempted to think of this as love cut short, like a dance stopped in the middle or a flower with its head unluckily snapped off something truncated and therefore, lacking its due shape. I wonder. If, as I can't help suspecting, the dead also feel the pains of separation, then for both lovers, and for all pairs of lovers without exception, bereavement is a universal and integral part of the experience of love. It follows marriage as normally as marriage follows courtship or as autumn follows summer. It is not a truncation of the process but one of its phases; not the interruption of the dance, but the next figure. We are taken out of ourselves by the loved one while she is here. Then comes the tragic figure of the dance in which we must learn to be still taken out of ourselves though the bodily presence is withdrawn, to love the very Her, and not fall back to loving our past, or our memory, or our sorrow, or our relief from sorrow, or our own love.
I am beginning to understand what Lewis meant by the next stage. At a gathering of family and friends shortly after Lisa's death, one friend of mine (a person who has known me almost 50 years) made a comment that has remained with me. He said: Those of you who have known John only since he met Lisa can have no idea what a deep impact she had on him. Those of us who have known John for forty or fifty years can tell you that the impact was profound. Before Lisa, John was remarkably and uncontrollably immature.
The point is well taken. Today and tomorrow and for eternity, I am much more her than I am the person I would have been had I not loved her. It is impossible to understand how deeply and completely I am Lisa not just a product of Lisa, but Lisa herself. And the way I am in the world is better because she is with me. Each day I feel her in the depth of my being. The same is true for Katie and Jed.
One morning about a week before she died, as I walked through Washington Square Park on the way to my office, I sent a text message to Lisa. I miss you already, I wrote. She answered: I am always with you even when I am not with you physically. I still have that message from her. And I believe it.
Let me now close with something of a joke. Of course, in a sense this celebration is a joke on Lisa; she would have resisted mightily making her life so public. But the joke I want to tell here is more personal.
Lisa's intellect, her virtue, her modesty and her capacity to love were, truth be told, unmatched. Many of you wrote that you had never met someone like her. A person could live the many lifetimes of Pete Hamill's Forever without meeting a person as fully wonderful as Lisa. She was, simply put, the most perfect incarnation of humanity I can imagine.
When I would say that to her, I could feel that she could not perceive her own specialness. Often I would lighten the moment with a punch line built upon her chronic soft fear that the Catholic in me some day would cause me to seek a monastery. You are the world's most perfect person, I would say, adding And that includes the big guy.
She would kid me privately about what she called my goyosity. This story builds on that.
Between us, there was this book a book most university presidents would be embarrassed to cite as important to them. But, in the hands of a magnificently mystical teacher 50 years ago, it help imbue a teenage John Sexton with an abiding optimistic faith in the world, its people, and the transcendent importance of love. Lisa, the voracious reader, struggled to read this book and ultimately succeeded only as an act of love. It was very Catholic, she said in critiquing it.
Goy that I am, I close by reading the final two paragraphs of that book, substituting Lisa for the main character.
This afternoon as I write, the sunlight lies across my desk. It rests with a pleasant warmth on my hands.
For the life of me, I can't believe that she is dead. No more could I believe it that day in the hospital. Why should this sunlight be so beautiful, why should people walk up and down the street, why should four robins hop in and out of the tree-shade on the lawn beyond my window, why should the glory of autumn be already in the air, and still she be dead? Why should that magnificent soul with her great vocation be gone, and people like me still here Why are all of us here, and not Lisa?
It can't be so. No one so brave, so heroic, so glorious, so immensely above the rest of us, can leave us like that. She can't have gone. No. Say what you will. Do what you will. You can't make me believe that Lisa is dead.
I love you, honey. More than ever before.
N.B. The quotes from C. S. Lewis and Myles Connolly's Mr. Blue in text are edited for delivery. Their substance has not changed, but they are not verbatim from the text.