05/08/2012 03:01 pm ET Updated Jul 08, 2012

A Death in Bozeman

I'm not a very spiritual or religious person. And even with my Irish and Italian bloodlines, I don't put a lot of stock in spells or magic, either. But every now and then something happens, like the story I'm about to tell you, that gives me goosebumps and prompts me to sit back and question what it is I profess to know and all there is that I don't.

My wife was glancing at the obituaries in today's newspaper (we're doing that a lot more now that we're in our 60s) and started to read aloud about the passing of an old, dear friend of mine, Elizabeth Durbin, in Bozeman, Mont., on April 27 at the age of 79, presumably from Alzheimer's.

And then the goosebumps started and the memories came cascading.

In addition to being a work colleague, my newspaper editor and a writing collaborator, "Betty," as I knew her then, was one of those people who believed in, and supported, me and my writing. She felt quite strongly that I had something important to say, even if I had my doubts. I know now that's why she cajoled me into writing pieces for the Wisconsin Academy Review in the late 1970s when we were both employed there, why she "hired" me as a freelancer when she bought and edited The Ocooch Mountain News, and why she took me along as her co-instructor with the UW's School of the Arts at Rhinelander, Wisc. in the summers of 1982 and '83. How lucky I was to have that push and that encouragement, even if I didn't always see it that way. But thanks to Betty, I finally got down that first Vietnam story in 1983, the one that lead, almost 30 years later, to a finished collection of Vietnam short stories that will be published this August.

And there were other stories I wrote, some only Betty would ever read, that maybe will see the light of day? I still have her comments in the margins of those old drafts. She was so nice, and so right, with her edits and changes. Somehow, Betty knew what I needed to say better than I did. And probably still does.

She was also the first adult woman I knew to be divorced when she was in her early 50s. Betty managed all that so maturely and gracefully that she remained friends with her ex-husband for the 30 years they were apart.

My other memories of Betty are somewhat less plausible. My favorite is about her dad, Chester Letts, who was a hard-charging reporter for The Rocky Mountain News in the 1930s and 1940s. Her dad also, according to Betty, was the basis for the character Elwood Dowd in Mary Chase's play Harvey, which was later made into a film. Mary Coyle Chase was a colleague of Chester's at the Rocky Mountain News and, as Betty tells it, based the fictional character Elwood Dowd on the real-life Chester Letts.

So, how does all this conspire to give me one of those magical moments? For one, my nephew, who runs a very successful business in Arizona where my son now works, just happened to be in Bozeman, Mont., to size up some a potential business on the exact day that Betty died. That happens to be the same day, three years ago, when my father and I had THE conversation with his oncologist, the one where he told both of us that there was nothing we could do to stop that cancer that was killing my dad.

For another, two weeks earlier, as I was writing a blog about being a stay-at-home dad with my daughter Summer , the photo I found of me and baby Summer was one that ran in the Ocooch Mountain News in 1980. Betty took it.

And that collection of Vietnam short stories that will be published this August? I finished the final edits of the first story I wrote (thanks to Betty) with my publisher right around the day Betty died.

Finally, I was flipping the channels the other night and what movie did I come upon? Harvey, of course. Starring Jimmy Stewart, aka Chester Letts, it's a tale about a middle-aged, amiable, eccentric fellow whose best friend is an invisible 6-foot-3.5-inch rabbit named Harvey. As explained by Elwood, Harvey is a pooka, a benign but mischievous creature of Celtic mythology who is especially fond of social outcasts like Elwood Dowd/Chester Letts. Elwood is driving his sister and niece (with whom he lives) to distraction by introducing everyone he meets to his invisible friend, Harvey. Since Elwood spends most of his time in the local bar, (as did Betty's dad Chester) his family seems unsure whether Elwood's obsession with Harvey is a product of his (admitted) propensity to drink or perhaps mental illness. In the end, Elwood is able to avoid taking the medicine that will "cure" him by making him a normal person, prompting a memorable line by the cab driver in the film who tells Elwood's sister that Elwood shouldn't take the medicine because "he'll become just a normal human being. And you know what stinkers they are!"

Betty wasn't one of those stinkers. She was a gifted teacher, a loving mother, an extraordinary editor. I'm convinced that Betty was consorting with Harvey and her father during those last days before her death.

And just how do I know that? A rabbit told me. A very big one.