Duke and Marguerite took us water-skiing on Kentucky’s Cumberland Lake, where, as a child, I watched my father rise from the wake and rule the waters, my shivering hand waving through the spray from my plump orange vest. After dinner at Duke and Marguerite’s house, I played Kick the Can with their older, crush-inducing sons, and caught fireflies in the dark. When Mother went in the hospital, my brother and I were invited for dinner in their palatial home. I dressed in a best frilly dress, David in a coat and clip tie, and we held hands to knock at their tall imposing doors.
Duke was my father’s boss, mentor, colleague, and finally, always, friend. He died this week at the age of 98.
Separated for years after their teamwork as President and Provost of a seminary, they still found their way toward each other in yearly meetings, voluminous correspondence, intellectual pursuits. After my father’s diagnosis five years ago, Duke was too old to travel, and my father no longer enjoyed the freedom of the road; they simply couldn’t see each other for a final gathering up of their shared life. So, Duke took to calling once a week. Even after my father’s voice gave out, Duke called to talk to Mother, and let his voice reach over the phone and grab my father by the shoulder in an embrace.
I wonder how my father takes this loss into himself. So many of his lifelong friends have now gone on, leaving him here to witness their lives as a whole. The ones to whom he might have whispered doubts or fears, or conjured the past, or sighed about what is gone. Grady, John, Tom, Duke, not to mention his dear wife of sixty years. Others he loves are far away, and no longer able to travel, and the phone is a weak link for one who cannot speak.
I think that we all long for a witness to our lives. Marriage does that, offers a lens which makes it possible, as Rilke put it, for each to see the other whole against the sky. Friendship that endures does that. Gives the gift of seeing your life whole, flawed and unfinished, but somehow complete. It is a gift, indeed: to be not alone in knowing ourselves, but to be seen, beginning and end, and in that seeing, loved.
So, I wonder what it is like to lose your witnesses. Difficult, I am wagering. And so I write to my father, in hearing of Duke’s death: I will be your witness. Younger, yes, and not carrying the whole of you, and yet, I can witness you witnessing your friends – the arc of their lives, rising from the wake and ruling the waters, and then sinking back into their depths. I can do that. And remember with you. The fireflies caught. The dinners blessed. The night skies.