Tonya Frickey, a former English teacher, is currently the 6-12 librarian at Taconic Hills Jr./Sr. High School and an adjunct instructor at the University at Albany's College of Emergency Preparedness, Homeland Security and Cyber Security. An avid reader, she leads a monthly evening book club at the East Greenbush Community Library. She and her three children live in East Greenbush.
"I am often asked about my favorite novels, and I never have a clear-cut answer. As a teenager, I would have said that J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye was my favorite novel because Holden was an untouchable, rebellious character--and to be honest, I was the polar opposite! As an adult, my favorite novels are the ones that never leave me--the stories that rip clear through to my heart and make me cringe and cry. Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen, Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate, and The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah are three novels that have never left me. As I continue to read, new novels inevitably make the cut and stay with me. Most recently, Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens found a place on my favorites list."
Letting Go: The poetry of Mary Oliver
By Tonya Frickey
My husband, Mark, passed away on June 3, 2013 at 5:30 in the morning. He was only 44 years old.
Just two days before, I held his hand as we sat in his Hospice room talking about the unknown darkness of death. Mark was a pastor, so to suggest that he had inside information was an on-going joke among our friends and family. Yet this rock of a man with faith stronger than fear pulled me close and whispered, “I’m afraid.”
Throughout my life, death had been a stranger to me, only approaching my loved ones to claim a life well-lived. In contrast, as an English teacher for nearly two decades, I experienced literary death quite frequently when characters like Jay Gatsby were senselessly murdered, or when Edna Pontellier triumphantly gave herself up to the ocean, or even when Bob Ewell “fell on his knife.” I facilitated discussions about Willy Loman and if his death truly left his wife Linda “free and clear.”
Mary Oliver, illustrated in the New Yorker magazine
And then there were the heated classroom debates about whether George killed Lennie in an act of mercy, and if he could be held responsible in the eyes of the law. Living vicariously through literature was second nature to me, so it was natural that novels, plays, and poems filled my world as my husband was preparing to leave his.
Mark’s sense of humor and keen wit always lightened a tense situation, and this time was no different. Taking in a deep breath and relying on his faith, Mark reclined his hospital bed and gripped the handrails, closed his eyes, and boldly said, “OK. I’m ready.”
when death comes and takes all the bright coins
from his purse
to buy me, and snaps the purse shut
(When Death Comes by Mary Oliver)
It was probably rude to laugh, but I felt the need to remind him that death didn’t work like that as he slowly opened one eye to let me know that he was still alive. Mark’s laugh was gentle yet robust, and when he laughed, his belly which had been swollen with sickness would bounce and jiggle along for the ride. Those next two days were filled with a lot of belly jiggling and tears as Mark, surrounded by his loved ones, recalled the legacies of his life and accepted that his death was certain.
when it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this
(lines 26-32, When Death Comes by Mary Oliver)
And so it began; poems in particular, disguised as mourners offered themselves up to me, as if to pay their respect, one at a time. Emily Dickinson’s gentleman suitor from Because I could not stop for death-/He kindly stopped for me- was the first in line. I could imagine Mark in that horse-drawn carriage being escorted to the glorious life on the other side.
Similarly, Mary Oliver’s poems had always resonated with me. The Black Snake spoke specifically to death: its suddenness/its terrible weight/its certain coming (lines 14-16), and In Blackwater Woods, Oliver revealed the secret to surviving the death of a loved one:
to live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it
(Blackwater Woods by Mary Oliver)
While I mastered the first two, letting go proved to be the challenge. Cards and sentiments poured in after Mark passed away. Ironically, one of Mark’s colleagues whom I had never met, sent me a beautiful hand-crafted card embossed with Emily Dickinson’s powerful message:
Unable are the Loved to die
For Love is Immortality
So did I really need to ‘let go’? Mark’s legacy and love continue to be seen every day in so many ways, but especially in the three children we shared, the same children I have continued to raise.
My love of literature, poetry in particular, pulled me through one of the most painful events of my life. Mary Oliver and Emily Dickinson provided me with an insight about how subtly and sometimes suddenly life transitions to death, and how we as humans work through that transition.