Kurt Vonnegut talked and wrote about death without reserve while accepting his own eventual demise with a shrug. Still, opening up the New York Times this morning to see his obituary saddened me.
When I was an event coordinator for a major bookstore in Manhattan, I had a few opportunities to work with Mr. Vonnegut for events he did in my store. He didn't like to do signings, though--not at the actual event. Instead, he would come to my office earlier in the day where I had stacks of his books ready for his signature to be sold later for those in attendance. Before we met, I'd heard he was curmudgeonly, so I planned on making his time in my office as efficient as possible so that he could go on about his day. However, I was pleasantly surprised when he settled down at my desk, and while I passed him one book after the next where he scribbled his name, he began chatting with me about my life and interests. The extraordinary experience did not escape me then and it is still one of my fondest memories.
Somehow, we covered a lot of territory while he signed the books and I wished I'd had more for him to sign to keep him around a bit longer. Nevertheless, after he finished signing all the books, he sat back in my chair and continued talking. We talked about how "news" was no longer "news." He muttered the name "Jerry Rivers," his ex-son-in-law, as though he had a bad taste in his mouth. Naturally, the conversation went to books and then to writing. When I dared to mention that I was a struggling writer, he simply said, "Keep at it." He then lifted his head and saw a poster I had on my door. It was of Ernest Hemingway with his famous quote, "All you have to do is write one true sentence." Mr. Vonnegut read it aloud and I leaned in to hear his thoughts on it. In true, economical Vonnegut style, he said, "Hmm."
That was it: "Hmm."
Then it was time for Mr. Vonnegut to leave, but I would be introducing him later that evening for the in-store event.
Later, a large crowd was waiting to hear what the author had on his mind. I introduced him and when he got up to the podium and I started to walk away, he mumbled that he had something for me. Then, he pulled magic flowers from his sleeve and presented them to me. No real bouquet, no matter how lush and beautiful, will ever match the feeling I got from that simple silk bunch.
Now, as I mourn the loss of Kurt Vonnegut, I am admiring those magic flowers while cherishing the memories of him sitting at my desk chatting about life--something he wrote about so well.