Last weekend, I was in Vermont. Sunday morning, on a whim, I checked the ADE website and saw a funeral announcement that immediately made me leave for home. It was for Janet Decker.
I met the Deckers when I was in high school. Their daughter Jane was in my class, and from time to time, a bunch of us kids got together at their house. My sister-in-law was also Jane's friend, and over the years they hung out when they were both in town, so that was another connection.
But I mostly knew Mrs. Decker from running into her in town over the past 40 years.
And it was always Mrs. Decker, never Janet. Funny thing: I know I could've called her by her first name and she wouldn't have minded, but I never even considered it. Some people I've always called by first name. Other people I've called Mr. or Mrs. at first, but ended up on first-name basis. Still others I've never called by their first name, and never will, and Mrs. Decker was one of them.
It wasn't due to formality or detachment. I could talk to Mrs. Decker about everything - she had a piercing intellect, a vast range of interests, and was a great listener. I also was affectionate with her, and after a while I never greeted her without a big hug. Still, to me she was Mrs. Decker.
These past few days, I've thought a lot about our conversations, and for the hundreds of them we had, I can remember almost none. I know, with her having taught English and being involved with the library, a lot of them revolved around America's current state of literacy (or more exactly, as we sadly commiserated, America's current state of illiteracy). But beyond that, there's only a vague sense that we talked "a bunch."
There are, however, two conversations I clearly remember.
The first took place about 15 years ago. I ran into Mrs. Decker in front of the library and we said our hellos. She asked me what I was up to and I told her I was going to see Dr. Federman.
She fixed me with those huge brown eyes of hers that never missed anything.
"Nothing serious, I hope?" she said.
"Dunno," I said. "The past few days, whenever I've done anything strenuous, I've lost my breath."
Since my entire family history is rife with heart disease (which she already knew), I told her that was the likely reason.
Being a doctor's wife and a cool character anywhichway, she then told me about her nephew, who'd gone hunting and had also lost his breath. It turned out he had some clogged coronary arteries, had a bypass and afterwards was as good as new. If she was going to reassure me, she wasn't going to do it with empty platitudes and silly sentiments - instead, she relayed a real-life medical success story.
My other conversation happened about five years ago. By then, Mrs. Decker, who'd always been imposingly strong, had become quite thin, frail even. But she hadn't lost any of her faculties or determination.
It was in the dead of winter on a pitch-black night and there she was, coming out of the Grand Union. She had a plastic bag in one hand, a cane in the other and was toodling her way across a parking lot that had enough icy ruts and ridges to knock the shocks off an SUV.
I went over to her, took her bag and walked her to her car. When we got there, I asked her if she'd be able to get into her house all right, since I?knew she lived in the outback of Coreys.
"Oh sure," she said. "If I have any problems, John's right there."
John's her son, but I hadn't known he lived nearby.
Relieved, I said, "Well, if you do need anything, give me a call."
"Don't worry. Everything's fine," she said. "I'm living in sin with George."
Then after I had a chance to react, but before I could respond, she added, "George is my cat."
"Well," I said, "just as long as you're living in sin with someone."
We shared a laugh and then had an animated discussion about the joys of cat companionship and how no home should be without one.
And for our 40-plus years of conversations, those are the only ones I recall.
Sunday night, long after the funeral, I thought about that, sitting in my chair, mug of tea in hand, cat on my lap. Why, if Mrs. Decker and our conversations were so special, could I not remember them?
I thought about it over and over and considered it from every angle, but an answer eluded me.
Then the answer suddenly hit me. The important thing was not the discussions themselves - it was how Mrs. Decker handled them.
And she did it with such smoothness and subtlety, that in spite of all her intellect, wit and warmth, and her clearly being my senior, she made me feel like the important one.
After that insight sank in, for the next 10 minutes I just sat there, shaking my head. It was the only thing I could do.
(A final note: George is now the ward of daughter Ann, so he'll live the rest of his days in the home, hearth and bosom of his family.)