I used to think that the hardest deaths were the ones where we lose someone close. No. In some ways, even if their deaths were shocking to us for whatever reason, we, or at least I know what to say. Over the past three years, I have written thousands of words about the friends and colleagues who sacrificed their lives to help others try to stay alive during the long slog that has been this pandemic. Go to a university with a hot nursing program and then work in clinical environments for a decade or two. You'll get to know more than a few nurses, therapists, doctors, and techs of all flavors.
There are also the friendships one makes in other settings, particularly corners of the internet where people gather and eventually the concept of names with people and their stories attached become invisible friends. A few go beyond that to phone calls and meetings in the flesh. Some of these friendships are for life. Others are there for the duration of situations that can change over time.
The day before yesterday, one of the writers whose voice was an integral part of what Zen Dixie was at the beginning died. She had cancer. She is mourned by her friends and family and those who were acquainted with her and had just started getting to know her. Aside from all of these loved ones. she left behind a body of work that is astounding in its breadth and erudition. A sampling of her work can be seen at Shiny Ideas. There may be a few other places online. At one point, she had a blog called "Bookish Gal" which seems to be lost in the digital either.
So, about Phyl, and she would tell you in no uncertain terms that she was not "Phyllis," she was Phyl. We shared a love of hockey and writing. One of my fondest memories was sitting in the stands at a Predators practice and leaving my phone on and open so she could hear Terry Crisp hold forth about the preseason prospects. She was very proud of her Canadian roots. She lived in Toronto, but still had a strong streak of loyalty to Calgary, which was where she grew up.
Another thing we agreed on was the need to recognize that freedom of religious expression included the individual right to freedom from religion. I think she was the one who broke me of saying "Bless you!" or "Gesundheit!" I'm not sure I had much to share as a believer, but I learned a lot about what is important in expressing respect for those who don't. She shared her experience in a way that revealed atheism as more than simply a blank space where the religious might fill in their affiliations.
We were not friends during the last two years of her life. There were spoken and unspoken places where the cartilage of our friendship had worn away and we just seemed to grind at each other. A mutual friend of ours told me about her prognosis. I got in touch and we talked for a little bit. We ended the conversation on good terms. A couple of days later, I sent her a friend request that sat unanswered for three weeks. I talked to a friend who is a priest. (Sorry, Phyl!) He said he felt that might have been the closure we both needed. Let it go. Let her go and be with the people she enjoyed being with. The next day, I canceled it and made a decision to disappear from the warm wire many of us landed on to check up on each other.
I am not sure if she believed in an afterlife, but I kind of doubt it. Raymond Teller (of Penn and Teller) once wrote that death was like the deletion of a piece of software. You just blink off. You're there and then you're not. That's it. If I could be presumptuous, I would wish Phyl went to a sunny, book-filled place where the cats are all love sponges and time, space, and human history are all smooshed together and available at the speed of thought. So I am closing the book on this person, this restless intellect and ferocious advocate for humanity. Maybe some of her words will hit some young person, who will decide to keep the love of learning, no, that should be exploring alive.