Brian Doyle, Part Two of Two

by | Jul 26, 2017

A few other fragments of memories of Brian:

Once, I wrote him, asking to buy a copy of one of his out-of-print books, if he had any copies around. He sent me a pdf of the book within a few hours of my writing.

Once, I asked him who his favorite saints were. He listed Francis, Catherine of Siena, Mother Teresa. And Meister Eckhardt,“no matter what mother church says,” for saying that the only prayer we need is thank you.

Once (I discovered recently) I wrote a cryptic note to myself about him in a notebook: POKE BRIAN D AFTER CONF AND HE WILL SEND ME ESSAY ABOUT COW.

Once, our friend’s newborn died. The baby had the same heart condition as one of Brian’s sons, which Brian wrote about in THE WET ENGINE. Unlike Brian’s son, this baby did not survive his early surgeries and died at six weeks. I did not know that a coffin could be that tiny.

We gave the family a copy of THE WET ENGINE, and later I wrote Brian a letter about it. I’m a cradle Episcopalian, not from a tradition of confession, but I treated him like my confessor on that day.

I wonder how many of us did that. He wrote about so many intimate things, with such compassion and good humor — first kisses, parenting, peeing, sins large and small — it felt hard to believe that it wouldn’t be okay to tell him anything.

Once, when my husband had a forthcoming novel about a Catholic priest and was trying to place excerpts from it, he wrote Brian at his magazine. I can’t tell from the website: do you ever publish fiction? my husband asked. Brian fired back: NOT ON PURPOSE.

Once, in our very first correspondence thread, he wrote to ask me to send him poems for Portland Magazine, and I never did. Let me repeat that in case you missed it: one of my favorite writers wrote me and said, “Holy moly, I don’t know you from a hole in the wall, but sweet mother of Jesus I love your poems,” and I did nothing.

In fact, until I was sifting through old e-mails to write this elegy, I did not remember that he ever asked me for them.

I can’t believe I did that.

So we lost him, and several weeks later, I for one am still deeply sad, for all kinds of reasons.

But I am also a little afraid. Losing Brian has made me think about my own deepest challenges, which include letting go of my work and knowing when to speak up. I hope I think of Brian every morning when I sit down at my desk. Through his example — as a fecund, open-hearted writer and spouse and seeker and friend — I want to be a better writer and person in the time I have left the earth.

After Brian died, I was amazed to learn through social media how many friends we had in common, and how many people loved him and his work. These were not just the usual suspects, fellow writers or magazine editors, but people from surprising corners of my life.

It turns out that Brian had a long friendship with an old journalism colleague of my husband’s — in fact, Brian and this editor were friends while my husband and the guy were working together, decades ago. Brian even knew the priest who’d buried our friends’ infant, though they lived thousands of miles apart.

What commonplace lessons these are, really. I’d attended a lot of AIDS funerals by the time I turned twenty-five. I thought I had come into adulthood with the hard stuff licked. Instead, I learn the same lessons over and over. None of us has forever, and love is all there is. Repeat ad infinitum.

Maybe only the saints are able to learn those lessons once and for all, while still alive.

Goodbye, Brian. And thank you.


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