I first heard about Katie Evans’ death in a nail salon. It was a Wednesday morning in November. I know this because my friend’s children are both at preschool on Wednesdays, and every few months, we treat ourselves to the early bird special at Capri Spa. We’d been talking about Halloween, and about how last year her sons, who I have known since birth, knocked so timidly on the door. On a normal day, they would have bounded into our house and immediately climbed the stairs to compare how similar, and different, our mirror-image homes were.
On Halloween though, they hid behind their mother, and their father took pictures of them shyly accepting the gluten-free candy I had specifically picked to meet their family’s needs. This year though, they brought friends. They knocked loudly, and before I’d even reached the door, they were already shouting their trick-or-treats. They were firemen, bold and laughing and hungry. The boys’ grandparents stood by, and the father of their friends helped his youngest tuck a Fun size bag of M&Ms into a plastic jack-o-lantern.
I’d never met their little friends before, not officially. During the summer, I’d talked to the four of them while standing on a bench looking over the fence into their yard. I would keep an eye on the grill while they held up boats and trucks, and tried to make their splashes in the water table reach me. Halloween was the first time I’d actually met John Evans though, and in the rush of holiday excitement, it was a passing hello. I had the impression later that he was tall, and that his kids were cute, and knew that he and his wife lived only a few blocks away. My friend confirmed all this, and we laughed about how this year, I’d forgotten to buy any Halloween candy at all, so she’d snuck some to me while the boys were distracted.
Then we went back to reading our magazines, and a few minutes passed before she mentioned that John was a writer, and that he had a book coming out in the winter. I suspect my response was non-committal. People often talk to me about their writer friends. Some of them are published and some aren’t. Occasionally, I’ll read a friend’s, or a friend of a friend’s work; it depends on the book, the availability, my schedule. She mentioned that he was a poet, but that this new book was a memoir. “It’s about his wife,” she said, “and how she was killed by a bear in the Carpathian mountains.”
So there it was. Out in the open, this intimate detail about a man I only knew as “tall.” Fortunately, one of my friend’s great gifts is to project both sympathy and optimism in the same breath. There was nothing sordid or gossipy about her tone; his history was conveyed in a way I’ve come to think of as uniquely Utah. She was born and raised there, and although I’ve never been, I imagine it as a place where people wander around comfortably wearing their hearts on their sleeves, offering to all a blend of midwestern frankness and a more western laissez-faire attitude. Live and let live. I’m from New England though, and even after all these years on the left coast, I haven’t completely adjusted to such openness. I’m used to half-whispered conversations accompanied by guilt for letting slip anything tenuously labelled “private.”
Of course, this story isn’t private, in that he’s written a book detailing both the event itself and the first year of grief following it, but it felt that way, that first time I heard about it. The sun was shining, and we had coffee and issues of Real Simple and People on hand. The story felt somehow separate from the book, and when it came time to read it, my friend’s voice was often in the back of my mind. It was a comfort to have her there. This wasn’t just a stranger’s reflection about violent death and being widowed at thirty – that would be painful enough – no, this was a man I’d met, however briefly, who had witnessed and recovered (such that one can recover) from a terrible sadness. Whatever grief is his to carry, he has a family, and friends, and children whose names I’ve often heard mentioned with great affection.
When I opened the book for the first time, I wasn’t fully prepared for John’s eloquence or how the story would be magnified when related in his own words. I was with my husband in a doctor’s office. It was the day after my birthday, and he was waiting to have a sprained ankle looked at. We were very early for his appointment, because I have a hard time not being very early, and he loves me enough to go with it. Surrounded by strangers, I tried to cry discreetly. I tried to ignore the combination of raw, poetic story-telling, and my friend’s voice in my ear, Halloween, and my husband’s arm brushing mine. I didn’t want John’s story to seem at all familiar, because if it did, it would mean the anxieties that sometimes overwhelm me might not just be figments of an overactive imagination but potentialities.
In the weeks that followed, as I tried to absorb as best I could the grief and shame and regret and healing he had written about, I began to notice how many jokes people told about bears. Every off-handed comment had me on edge. Years removed from his initial grief, I found myself wondering if it had bothered him, if he’d found a way to accept such things the way I’ve seen survivors of fatal car crashes accept the sound of screeching tires. I found myself wanting to say something, to somehow put a stop to casual jests, but of course, I didn’t. I couldn’t, not without sounding like a lunatic.
Instead, I funneled all of my energy into the character I’ve been writing for Ten to One, a young widow whose closest friends have dangerous ties to Romania. What were the odds, I wondered, that things I’d barely considered before the past year – the death of a spouse, a country I’ve never visited – what was the likelihood they would appear here, in this book, written by a nice man from down the street? Maybe certain books cross our paths when we need them, or maybe it’s a coincidence. I don’t know. All I can say for sure is that as I struggled to write fictitious death and survival so far removed from the reality of such circumstances, I read this one sentence over and over again:
In order to participate in the world, it must be tamed and made reasonable, and when it is not tame and reasonable, the world still requires participation. (p 77)
I copied that sentence at the top of every page so that as I was writing, and stripping things away, and trying to convince a paper girl to not just live in the face of death, but to re-engage with the world around her, I would remember that such a thing was not just possible but paramount. That the weeping and gnashing of teeth and pretending to be fine, the nostalgia and forgetting, the sleeping too much or not enough, with friends or alone – it was all at least partially true. Having a life after terrible loss was possible – as possible as disappearing under the influence of drugs or alcohol, or retreating from it all. The world still requires participation though, even when it cannot be tamed, and yet for those times when life is bitter and unreasonable, there are stories like John’s – books that accept the ugliness of both death and survival and remind us to be grateful and angry and preciously alive.
For more about John Evans, go here.