Death takes away people's lives so quickly, friends whom we assume are getting on with their lives and then the word comes, "Nancy Johnson died in Sweden." So many years later. I knew she had been doing healing work overseas, in the northern countries. Then a packet of photographs left at LHA from Dinah, the few fragments of our friendship. And last night, after not sleeping well and after weeks of not feeling well, in my early morning sleep, Nancy enters a large almost empty house, I am sitting in my chair--and she drags suitcases by me, "aren't you going to help me?" and feeling immediately guilty, I leap up and follow her out the door, determined to lighten her load, but it is too late. The next moment Nancy is lying on a pallet, close to death, a cancer death, and I am bending tightly over her, seeing the toll so much has taken on her--her face, pinched and wide eyed, almost touches mine. Here in Australia, into the early morning I see my old friend when I did not see her, in her extremity, this woman who had struggled to rescue so many, now I see in her depleted need. And I think of how many times she needed to be relieved of her burdens and I was not there.
And all day she has been with me. All the Nancys I knew--her laugh, her belief that some divine spirits can walk above the earth, her pitching in to cook for mobs in the New Hope kitchens, her body, large breasted and slim waisted, with whom she did not always feel at home, her scars from too much of one thing and not enough of others--her determination to take on her "missions," her love of her sisters and their children, of her own found children. Her down home turn of a phrase. I remember the visit, in the 70s I think, I made with Nancy and Dinah to Salt Lake City to meet their families or what remained of them.
Nancy speaking of her childhood, what she had to flee from and her rage at a cousin who sat me up on one of his palomino horses, an under- exercised horse bursting with life, and let it run wild with me on a race track--a massive animal power under me, muscles bursting out from oaten skin, a hundred times I almost died, my whole body thrown over the horse's shoulders--but somehow the man had had his fun and caught up with us and slowed his vibrant animal down. I can still remember the terror in my thighs as I willed myself not to let go, not to fall head over head under the animal's hoofs. Perhaps he was showing this New York gal what real life was like. And the vet, who held Nancy's cat by the scuff of his neck, as he slashed the abscess open--"never met a Jew," before he said. The extreme domesticity of her mother's life, the doilies, the cakes, the cookies, the never ending cooking, the thick limbs from hard work. From Selma, Alabama to the Lower East Side of New York, from the first walk the three of us took together as I showed them the gay Village, to the doors of the old Firehouse on Wooster Street, through the thick organizing years of the 70s and early 80s, to the streets of Parkslope and Nancy and Dinah's rough hewn apartment with the sleeping loft, so dangerous in its own way, through all the years passing down until this morning in West Brunswick, Melbourne, Australia.
I once extolled the gift of touch, and I still do--Nancy layed on hands to ease the human heart and now far from old friends, and through the motes of memories, I cherish her. When I saw that image of Nancy, the one you have seen, with her arm around me, and heard of her death, I knew both that all the years of separation were real and yet there I was, back on 9th street, sitting at the round wooden table listening to Nancy, her long legs tucked under her, telling me tales of the West and the hopes she had for their sojourn in the East. This journal, my writing, means nothing if it does not keep alive those human spirits who in their courage and difference, in their play and their visions, in their touch and in their stumbles, brought all the wonders of life to me.