Jay Cronley would hate this column.
Jay Cronley would hate this column.
He wrote thousands of newspaper columns, plus magazine articles, books and screenplays, but he wrote fewer than a handful of tender memorials. One column was about an Episcopal priest; one was about a newspaper sports editor.
None of them was about his own grief. They were tributes to the people he liked and admired and who were now, abruptly, gone from his life.
This column is not a tribute to him. It is about how my heart has been shattered by his sudden death. This column is about my consuming grief. I know no grief has been greater, and I know others have felt the same way in their own bereavement. Grief is universal.
Don’t we all feel that our personal loss is beyond the ken of anyone else? The poet W. H. Auden is exactly exact in his funeral poem that begins, “Stop the clocks, cut off the telephone ...”
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.”
In days immediately after Jay died, I sobbed uncontrollably and said, in and out of panic and anxiety attacks, “I don’t want a life that doesn’t have Jay in it.”
My sister was frightened for me. She thought I might harm myself. I meant it literally. I don’t want a life where the center isn’t Jay: big, courageous, outrageous, creative, adventurous, funny, daring, exciting, bombastic and authentic. I don’t want a timid mouse life. I want a life that blares in superlatives, where everything is the biggest, the worst, the funniest, the smartest, the greatest — and fills the whole blue sky.
That’s what Jay brought to my mouse world. He was the smartest, funniest, most exciting person I’ve ever met and the best writer and editor I have ever known. He came into my life like a comet of fire, and I caught some of the sparks. None of my jobs — University of Tulsa, Tulsa Ballet, writer, Iron Gate — would have been as successful without him beside me goading, criticizing, encouraging, watching, helping and participating. He wasn’t a partner who supported with a hug, fresh-baked cookies and kind words. Partners can be blunt and active.
We were married, divorced, partners and best friends for almost 50 years. Playing, laughing, partying, working, writing, fighting. Suddenly, one day, the most important person in my life was packaged up, bagged and boxed, and gone.
The best advice I got when he died was from my widowed friends near and away.
Anna Norberg said, “People will tell you it will get better in time. Don’t believe it. It doesn’t. It never gets better. You just learn to live with it.”
Martha Bonner said, “I don’t know which is worse. Losing someone suddenly or watching them fade away.”
Abigail Westlake said, “It’s like being torn in half. I would have mood swings. All of a sudden, like weather. I named them: Meltdowns (bad), Sadness attacks (just sad). They pass.”
Other people advised against beating myself with should-haves, could-haves, ought-to-haves. Wrong. When your heart tears open, you think: “Why didn’t I understand? Why wasn’t I kinder? Why didn’t I try harder?”
I think those are the best questions. Those are the questions we need to ask ourselves every day as we peep out of our personal me-me-me selves.
What counts more than my relationship to other people and other living things? Some are gentle souls who turn the other cheek. Jay did it a different way. He was a big secret chest of quiet kindnesses to people, but he was also impatient and didn’t tolerate fools, slights or insults. I want to grab a piece of that. Let’s all hold one another to better behavior.
Don’t tell me jokes right now. Don’t try to cheer me up. Grief is a personal, precious country where I must live alone for a while.
Then I’ll remember Jay’s great line from his book “Good Vibes” and movie “Let It Ride”:
“You might be walking around lucky and not even know it.”
Then I’ll stand up and walk around lucky.
Editor’s note: Jay Cronley died Feb. 26, 2017.