One day this April, a week before her 63rd birthday, when the pandemic was still a fresh shock, my sister-in-law Eloise Kinney sent me an email.
“Mary,” it began. “Headlines of terror keep popping up, stating that so and so has died alone.”
She inserted a link to one such newspaper story and then segued into a memory from the late 1970s, when she was in a choir that traveled to Mexico City from her hometown of Laramie, Wyoming. During a rehearsal of Verdi’s “Requiem,” she recounted, an earthquake hit. She remembered how the chandelier swayed and the choir director fled as the earthquake rippled toward the stage.
“I stood tall,” she wrote in her email, “until it was just me and the earthquake, and a bell of knowledge intoned: You Die Alone. The earthquake hit my side of the stage, and people behind me fell or jumped off the risers. I was, what — 20? Or 22? And I knew then that we all die alone. It wasn’t a sad or scary thought. It was a realization. We Die Alone.”
Through the years, Eloise, who was married to my late brother Bill, often sent me column ideas, typed at her home desk in Fort Collins, Colorado. Her notions were often hilariously wacky, but in that April email she urged me to share her thought on dying.
“Maybe you can find a way to let your readers know this,” she concluded. “You can be surrounded by family or friends, or not; it doesn’t matter; you die alone. And it is OK.”
No one, except perhaps Eloise, imagined that three months later she’d be gone. In the past few years she’d suffered through various physical ailments, coupled with the sadness from Bill’s death in 2013, a grief that her iconoclastic wit, inquisitive mind and wide heart could never fully cure. Still, her death stunned us. She went into the hospital on a July Tuesday. On Wednesday, despite the COVID-19 restrictions, several relatives were allowed to visit, including her mother. The next morning, she died.
And that’s how it came to pass that this past Saturday, I participated in a ritual that has become all too familiar to people of our pandemic age, the Zoom memorial service.
There had been brief talk of an in-person memorial in Colorado, an idea that was wisely quashed. Too many of the mourners would have to get on an airplane or drive long distances through infected territory with treacherous bathrooms. Too many people would come together to laugh and cry and spread their potentially deadly droplets. The need to hug would overcome necessary caution.
So, instead, there we were, 50 or so mourners crowded into boxes on our screens, in dens and bedrooms and living rooms, in Florida and New York and the Rockies, trying to make peace with death.
Eloise was the sixth of seven children, and all five of her surviving siblings were there, along with her two sons, Ivan and Jasper. So was her mother, Mimi, who is 97. Some people left their video off. There were in-laws and old friends, some from Chicago, where she and Bill lived in their early 30s. Chicago was where she learned to love the Cubs, an obsession she kept through life. It’s also where she worked as a copy editor for the American Library Association’s publication, Booklist.
“Dare I say, probably the best one I ever had,” says her former boss, Ben Segedin, who joined the Zoom memorial. “We relied on Eloise as the keeper of the style, because no one knew our style better than Eloise. If it wasn’t for Eloise, Booklist would be a mess.”
Across the miles and screens, people told Eloise stories. Of her dramatic flair, her memorable laugh, her belief in things unseen, the amusement she could take in shocking people with a taboo word or gesture. We talked of the ways she could be difficult, her penchant for jauntily emailing New York Times editors to correct errors and her love for the well-told tale.
“No, no, no,” my brother Andrew remembers her admonishing him if he was telling a story poorly. “Don’t just tell the facts. You need to embellish!”
In the photos that traveled through Zoom, we saw Eloise, the mischievous toddler. Eloise, the bride at least 5 inches taller than her husband, a discrepancy that delighted them both. Eloise, the mother holding the sons she adored. We saw a life we wished had lasted longer.
Any memorial is like assembling a jigsaw puzzle. In the attempt to reconstruct a life, each person brings a different set of memories, each one adding to a portrait that’s never quite complete.
And sometimes in the name of celebrating a life, it can be tempting to overlook the unsettling thoughts. But Eloise didn’t fear unsettling thoughts, and it was in that spirit that at the Zoom service, I shared her email about dying alone.
“Maybe you can find a way to let your readers know this,” she had written, and because in retrospect it sounds like a dying wish, I share it here today.
In the chat box toward the end of the memorial, someone acknowledged Eloise’s thoughts on dying, but added: Yes, we die alone, but we come together to remember a life.
And if in the year 2020, we do our remembering and coming together on screens? It’s not perfect. But it’s OK.
Mary Schmich is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune and winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for commentary. Visit the Chicago Tribune at www.chicagotribune.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.