I had the phone call last night. Carlos and I were working on our respective novels. We were making ourselves laugh. He’s been a bit sick, so he was coughing too. We both were having hot tea.
Gene Wolfe’s daughter called. Right there. Mid-paragraph. I looked at my phone today, and saw the call lasted two minutes. Two minutes. Strange.
I called my father after, to tell him. He answered–just before he had to play for Mass as Saint Anne’s in Barrington, where Gene and Rosemary used to go to church. They sat right up near the musicians, always. Papa kept saying he was sorry, sorry. He was so much looking forward to driving down with me to see him. I’d bought my ticket for the 24th. It was going to be a father-daughter road trip. Later, he texted and told me his mentor also died on Palm Sunday.
I asked Carlos–I was barely coherent–if we could listen to “Witch of the West-mer-lands” by Archie Fisher. “Of course,” he said. We sat on the couch and listened to the Stan Rogers version. Gene was the one who introduced this song to me. He’d sing it, softly, and his voice would always crack when he got to, “And wet rose she from the lake / and fast and fleet went she / one half the form of a maiden fair / with a jet-black mare’s body,” as if it were the most beautiful verse in the world. He was like that with poetry, Kipling especially. Sometimes he’d read his own work, and I’d hear that same crackle of deep emotion.
Carlos, who never got to meet Gene, but who was weeping with me, asked if he could read me something. I nodded. And he took Bone Swans off the shelf and read me Gene’s forward. It is a love letter from first to finish, in Gene’s inimitable voice. I asked Carlos to read me the first paragraph of my acknowledgements: my love letter in response. We were very good friends. He was one of my finest teachers.
He was momentous.
Anyone I ever met at any convention–my Goblin Girls, the Mythic Delirium crowd, my writing group, my poets and fellow writers–those friendships are all due him. That includes my husband, who I met a Readercon. Gene introduced me to conventions, drove me to several of them. Anyone I met through Twilight Tales, forming a large part of my Chicago Writing Community–Tina Jens, John O’Neill, Mike Penkas, Brendan Detzner, Josh Doetsch, Darci Stratton, Martel Sardina, oh, more, many more–I met them because he sent me the Twilight Tales flyer and kept telling me to go.
All my early short stories, much of my early poetry, even knowing how to submit it, even knowing that I should submit it–and keep submitting it–are due to him.
What is owed here? What is owed? No vulturous sentimentality. No deep-sink into ferocious isolation. Only a great giving back. Only a continuation of the work. That fountain of welcome and generosity and good, hard, practical, useful, beautiful advice, and that light touch of teasing, a hesitation to hurt anyone. That is only some of what I learned from him.
I talked to Gene the day before yesterday. Did he know me? I don’t know. But he knew I was his friend, and he responded with benevolence and good humor, a willingness to talk, no matter how tired he was.
I had called and called and almost gave up trying to get a hold of him. When I told him this, he laughed and said, “I’m not that hard to get a hold of.”
Perhaps not. Perhaps I didn’t try hard enough. But this time I did.
Amal just taught me this word: “wajbet.” I’ve been holding onto it like a talisman all this last week. It is an Arabic word that means duties, family ties, obligations. The thing you do even when it’s hard to do it. “Wajbet,” I told myself, every time my stomach twisted and I hit re-dial.
Carlos told me, “Set alarms. Call every few hours.” (My alarms are still there on my phone: “Call Gene. Call Gene.” And there they will stay.)
Teri, his daughter, told me which hours to call. She was and is amazing; she was so diligent about reaching out to me, over all these miles, after all this time. I am so dazed and grateful.
Because of this, because of them, I called again and again–even though it is the thing I don’t do well at all. Because of them, I got to talk to him. And I feel so graced. And so grateful.
I sent Gene a letter the same day I talked to him. Now he will never read it. The thought pinches at my chest. I have this terrible, perpetual pinch, right beneath my breastbone. If I try to take deep breaths to ease it, the tears come again.
I don’t know what else to say.
I have written about our friendship before, at Ultan’s Library and at Black Gate Magazine. Gene Wolfe is the first person mentioned in my acknowledgements for Desdemona and the Deep, though he didn’t know that, and now never will. He will always be first in my acknowledgements.
I am so damned sad and sorry, so glad and grateful, and nothing feels right, and everything feels raw, and the sky is blue and beautiful, and there is birdsong and forsythia, and I am staring at a shelf of his books even as I write.
Ellen Kushner has just texted me that Notre Dame is on fire. The world is so bewildering and relentless, and I will end this here, before I spin out into metaphor.
Below, I hope you will take some joy in 20 years of pictures. Not enough. But there is enough to share.