Elegy for Innocence

On December 30, 2020, Lois Diane Sasson succumbed to COVID-19. She was a survivor of multiple cancers, Lyme’s disease, and various respiratory illnesses–and she was not young. She was also highly intelligent, witty, an impassioned feminist, an artist, and my friend of 46 years. We were friends as young women, as maturing and then middle-aged women, as old women. Conversations about periods, lovers, and politics gradually got replaced by conversations about aches and pains, doctors, and politics. Yet we retained the elastic, enduring innocence of our youngest friendship, the way women’s friendships oddly can–as “girlfriends.” She was my proverbial sister, perhaps the last of the truly great dames.

It is inconceivable that Lois actually could die. She was just too much alive, texting to the very last “Can’t talk, can laugh,” because the oxygen mask muzzled her speech. “At least I’m stoned,” she texted, high on morphine. When she became furious at her condition, fighting for her life exhaustedly for almost 3 weeks, she texted “Trump hate helps.”

So I found myself joining those legions of people all over the planet, traumatized when Covid comes to squat on your doorstep, separated from isolated persons you love, wringing your hands in helplessness, never apart from a cell phone because news, good or bad, might come. Because you can’t reach them, can’t touch them, can’t be there.

But surely not Lois! Lois is somehow forever in motion, intensely present. Tiny, elegant, fastidious, and with a dry, devastating sense of humor, she was the opposite of the fair-weather friend; she was the foul-weather friend. If you were down and out, needed a place to stay or money or someone to talk to, or needed, well, anything, there she was, solid as a rock, grounded, organized, practical, wise. Only in normal everyday life could she seem at times maddening, spreading the largesse of herself all over the place. Generous beyond a fault, she was like a massive waterfall over one’s head, in relentless dynamic flow, whether you were thirsty or not.

Lois missed the latest Trump obscenity, his inciting violent insurrection against the US Congress, an act that resulted in chaos and five deaths, an act that rent the fabric of our Republic’s innocence as had been ripped apart only once before, in Civil War; an act that’s not yet over. Her outrage, spewing from that petite, chic, frail little body, would have been palpable. Where WAS everybody? The police, Capital and DC both? The FBI? Homeland Security? Where indeed. Now, it turns out, some of them knew beforehand. Now, it turns out, this mob wasn’t only comprised of less educated white working-class grievance-prone men or of crazies, though both were certainly present. Now, it turns out, some desecrators were elected politicians, conservative business owners, veterans and members of the military, of the cops, of Congress itself. What united them was fostered ignorance and stoked rage—and being almost totally white and almost totally male.

For the rest of us, it’s time we realized that the ridiculous and the lethal can be the same thing. This was an orgy of testosterone poisoning and adrenaline. Sledgehammers, bike racks, and lead pipes became battering rams. Flag poles were turned into javelins. Fifty-pound fire-extinguishers were used to bash in skulls. All this, along with the horrifically easy availability of bear spray, Mace, teargas, ammunition, and of course guns. The slow, steady, drip of videos keeps coming in, and what looked at first to be a rowdy protest now comes into focus as a planned, organized, deliberately murderous, attempted coup. This nation was moments, seconds, away from assassinations of the vice president and speaker of the house, and a likely massacre of public officials in the United States House of Representatives and the United States Senate.

Lois’s sweet face and small, delicate, bellowing mouth would have been spewing obscenities not only at those who committed the violence but all those who minimized the peril, euphemized the blatant racism and sexism, trivialized the anxiety, dismissed the fear. She would have sent blistered speech in the direction of Republicans who got concerned only once NIMBY had been activated (you remember NIMBY: Not In My Back Yard). Her capacity for indignation at injustice was matched only by that for love.

Such love! That love committed innumerable quiet, behind-the-scenes and under-the-radar acts over decades, in the service of women’s rights: donations, connections, contacts, giving of funds and time and self. That love brimmed over from learning (and then insistently relaying to you) the full life story back three generations of the cab driver who drove her to meet you. It encompassed great food and wine (lobster drenched in butter, her special scallops with just a hint–a perfume, she would wink–of garlic; fried potatoes and onions with rosemary, ripe summer tomatoes with basil in rich Sicilian olive oil)—The Best! she’d proclaim, waving her arms like a conductor, The Best! But not just food. That love was a cornucopia spilling sunsets and Brahms, Billie Holiday and Marlene Dietrich, winter-beach walks and Art Deco design and high brow and low brow but never ever middle. And all humanity. And me. How she loved my little garden in the city! The Magic Garden, she called it. She would sometimes surprise me with an un-birthday present out of nowhere, like an exquisite fringed white orchid, ”just because.”

We’d always planned to hold an anniversary party for our friendship. Why, we wondered, do they have anniversaries for relationships like marriages or lovers but not for friendships that may last as long or longer? Having missed the chance a number of times, we were now aiming for the golden, the 50th anniversary of being friends.

We never made it.

The mostly white, mostly male mob that destroyed the innocence of the Congress of the United States last Wednesday, and has vowed to do so again, has no way of fathoming such love. For one thing, that takes noticing detail: love specifies, hate generalizes. For another thing, it requires an appreciation of beauty, however uncommon. Lois, among other vocations, was the designer of fine jewelry, including the award bracelets specifically cast for the Women’s Media Center Gala Annual Awards: Visible and Powerful, they announced. Like her. For a third thing, such love requires a sense of humor. There was Lois, in ferocious defense mode, about my ex-husband: “I’ll flay him for a rug.” Lois, mulling a photograph of my new lover, “Hmph. Definitely not a vegetarian.” Lois, snorting wryly, “With my luck, when I’m dying and people say ‘Look there, see? See the light? Go into the light!’ I won’t be able to find the goddamn light! ‘Where? Where I’ll yell, where’s the freakin’ light?’” And we would dissolve in laughter till the tears fell. And I’d say “OK OK I promise I’ll stand there and beam a flashlight at your eyes so you can see the goddamn light, OK?”

Except I wasn’t there. They wouldn’t let me be there. So now I call your empty apartment, the phone’s ring echoing through the silence, just to hear your voice, brisk and chirpy, on the answering machine: “This is Lois. Leave me a message, make it short and sweet.” And I laugh softly, till the tears fall.

Today you might add, “I’m well out of it, baby; it’s yours to deal with, now.” And you’d be right. It’s ours to deal with now. The terrorists. The inauguration. The election we won. The lives we lost.

I don’t know what next week will bring, dearest Lois. But oh, beloved friend, your fringed white orchid bloomed today.