violin pegs and sheet music

Something about Sondheim

Karin Kallmaker Readers and Libraries, Substitute for Love

It was my intention to write about the release of Christabel this week, but while attending a production of Side by Side by Sondheim something unusual happened. During the song “I Remember Sky,” I was lulled by the simple subtlety of Sondheim’s words and music. The yearning for sky, for light, for life outside of the one where we are trapped – it struck a chord, putting me in thoughtful space.

That’s not unusual — I’ve always found that art calls to art. What was unusual was that instead of thinking about how I could possibly capture that kind of mood with such economy, or to what use I could put such a melancholy sentiment, it called up a memory of a woman I met at a reading.

A little over six years ago, after finishing the usual fun of talking about a book and to the readers, a woman who had remained seated until after most of the people had left finally rose and came over to me. She was immaculately dressed in elegant trousers, vest and jacket, gloves and carefully, precisely chosen jewelry. Her short, graying hair was meticulously coiffed. She walked with the assistance of a beautiful cane of polished wood. After introducing herself (and I don’t recall her name now) she complimented me on my work, specifically Substitute for Love.

After chatting a little, she returned to that particular book and explained that she wanted to tell me that my presentation of the form of lupus that Reyna’s mother suffered had been accurate and complete. She knew this because it was the form of lupus she had.

I believe I started to prattle a standard thank you, then it sank in. That kind of lupus, even in its early stages, caused pain in the joints and on the surface of the skin, and was usually not diagnosed until it had passed its milder symptoms. It was ultimately fatal by causing catastrophic organ failures.

I got tears in my eyes, and so did she. I can’t recall if I said anything coherent. The care she had taken with her appearance, riding in a jostling car, even the fortitude it had taken her to rise and cross the room to talk to me — her sacrifice was humbling. I wanted to hug her, but it would have hurt. I asked her to keep in touch with me, but I’ve never heard from her again.

Six years, and given the progression, it’s entirely possible that she has passed on. I’m chagrined that such a gesture could have sifted down in my memory to the point of its nearly being forgotten. It took Stephen Sondheim to call it up again so I could remember her generosity and, by sharing it, honor her, wherever she may be.

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