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Emma Lou Thayne

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Prayers of Longing and Thanks

Posted: 08/31/11 01:32 PM ET

At 86, I find my crowded Rolodex full of parentheses. That's what I add to names of people there who have died. It's both a joy and a sorrow to see those names as I look for others to call. Those who are gone are not crossed out -- they continue to be part of me and what I care about.

But the parentheses are taking over. A cluttered card is labeled "Club." For at least 60 years I've turned there to call those old friends from high school who with their husbands gathered once a month for dinner. In our 40s and 50s, in turn, we women cooked up a storm for the 18 or 20 who came. Best china, silver, linen table cloths and napkins, goblets from our trousseaus, and labor-intensive recipes lent a festive mood to our easy conviviality, and left a worn-out hostess.

Then the husbands began to die, and we girlfriends started meeting for lunches instead of dinners. Today I turned to that card to call the three who, with me, are all that remain of that intimate crowd. One comes from a care center where she falls often enough that I fear when she doesn't answer her phone. Another was head of education for a national substance-abuse treatment program. Today, her uncertain knowing of what day it is means I need to call a daughter to write down the date and time for her and promise to drive her to our lunch. The third one still drives from 40 miles south. The four of us will have lots of remembering and catching up for our one hour at a convenient restaurant.

Often I ache to hear the voice or feel the touch of a loved one in those parentheses. But several years ago I had a scary, though gracious, experience with death that taught me to be patient and not to be afraid, in a way more profound even than the beliefs I held from growing up Mormon.

On the freeway, a six-pound iron rod came through the windshield and smashed into my temple, barely missing my eye. For seven months I couldn't read or look down or live any of the life I was used to. I learned to listen to an inner music I'd been too busy to hear. That experience was the beginning of "The Place of Knowing: A Spiritual Autobiography." I had been to that place and returned with a promise to tell about it.

Now when I long for those I have lost -- those in parentheses -- I picture them where I know them to be. I am filled not so much with loss but with the continuity and power of affection and faith.

Meantime, my husband of 61 years and I wake feeling lucky first to have each other, then to be able to get up and dress and get on with abbreviated lists of must-dos, expecting to plan for a nap somewhere. Our point of fatigue is shorter every day. We're consciously grateful not to have Alzheimer's or cancer or macular degeneration that so many of our dears are dealing with, the always-there threats to those going-on-90.

The moon will flood over our bed in the corner room of the cabin tonight. Not much has changed on the mountainsides or in the forest in the canyon where I lived all my growing-up summers as a tomboy with my brothers and cousins, so many now in parentheses. As chokecherry and serviceberry blossoms fade into a plump, hot August, I too expect fall and then winter. I'll wake to birds and wind songs in trees and a far sky full of weather, never unaware of time, time, time.

Husband Mel will make our breakfast, his unique drink of five fruits and magic flakes in the blender to keep us at least for one more day out of parentheses of any kind. My prayers have become almost entirely "thank you." Thank you for the bounty, for relationships to cherish, and the continuity of seasons. I want to be in on good causes and notice the beauty as long as God allows. I want to do anything but go gently into any parentheses, and only then when the inevitable says "Now."

MAKING THE BED WITH MY HUSBAND, BOTH 86

Any day now one of us will be gone
the other fumbling in irrelevance
sinking into puppet tasks
betrayed by memory
that lurks beneath the making
of a bed, the shower spray,
the phone, now someone else,
the neighbor's mower, the car
idling in the drive, the tasteless
Cheerios in skim milk,
the CD of the choir, the mixed up
photos on the fridge, the air.
The very air.