The Last Walk 12:
The email said: “Thank you, Karen and Phil.”
For a moment I was knocked off my pins. The names, Karen and Phil, linked so simply, hit hard. After 39 years, that link has been broken.
The explanation is straightforward. As department chair I had written an email to Karen Murphy, asking if she would consent to teach a couple courses for us next year. Karen has served as instructor before, and she’s done good work. If she was willing to teach, I wanted her. I copied Paula Hampton on the email. Paula is the department administrative assistant; she magically transforms the results of my phone calls and emails into neat spreadsheets. Karen accepted my invitation to teach, so Paula happily filled in two more slots on the College of Christian Studies load sheet. She replied to both of us: “Thank you, Karen and Phil.”
The email surprise lasted only a second, until I saw that Paula meant Karen Murphy, not my Karen, the Karen. For a second, though, the deep opened up.
Some reminders shout their arrival in advance. Karen’s birthday came in early February. I imagined it would be a harder day than it turned out. I was busy all day grading papers, exercising, shopping and attending basketball games; maybe that explains it.
Other reminders are, well, surprises. There’s an empty notebook on the end table by the couch where I watch TV. How long has that been there? I pick it up, and there is Karen’s handwriting. It’s not just her words; her hand—the firm, clear strokes made by a woman who could have been an artist. The deep opens again.
She could have been an artist/composer, but for much of her life, she wasn’t. She pursued psychology instead. She worked hard to become a psychologist, and she made herself successful in her specialty, neuropsychological testing. Looking back now, I think she would have pursued music, except for a disastrous first marriage. Before we met, Karen endured three years of abuse, violence, and fear before she escaped her husband. She went into psychology partly to seek healing of those wounds. As the years went by and our marriage proved secure, she ventured ever more deeply into music performance and composition.
Another surprise: only now, after she is gone, do I gain insight.
I dread doing taxes this year. For many years Karen and I did our taxes together. We collected 1099s, W-2s, giving records, taxes paid, evidence of business expenses, and all the other details you need to fill in form 1040 and its schedules. (Actually, Karen did most of the collecting, but I helped some.) Then we would sit down together at my home computer and work TurboTax together. (I’m not endorsing TurboTax. It’s just the program we happened to us. Using the same product repeatedly makes it easy to update records from one tax year to the next.)
We had a system. There’s something deeply irritating about doing taxes, at least for us. If we tried to “plow through”—just keep at it ’til we’re done—we would exasperate ourselves. Instead of plowing through, we took turns. One would sit at the computer keyboard entering numbers, addresses, and justifications for claims; the partner would dig through the expandable file to collate receipts, reports, and other stuff. We’d work on the tax program for an hour, then take a break; maybe come back to the job the next day.
But now my partner is gone. I have to do it alone. I’ll follow the old system of work-break-work-break. I wonder what surprises there will be. If tax season doesn’t bring them, something else will.