Old Friends

Old Friends

The Psychological Perspectives issue with my article about the death of a beloved valley oak on our ranch, “When an Old Friend Dies,” had come in the mail the day before. As I sat down to look at the article in print, the phone rang. “I am not sure that you know, but Mary Jo died yesterday morning,” my friend Michael said.

Mary Jo was 100 years old, so this should not have been a surprise, but it was. I immediately remembered the summer day years ago when Mary Jo visited our ranch. Even then she was old, but she wanted to see the beautiful valley oaks that were grafted together in the meadow next to our home, ancient and mysterious, and so her caretaker brought her. Although the day was 100°, she insisted we walk the quarter mile to the knoll where they grew. The goats came with us, and the llama, and Donald followed her with a chair in case she needed to sit. She was still vibrant, even in her early 90’s. We warned her of the stickers in the tall, golden grass, and she simply said, “I will sacrifice a pair of stockings.”

The grafted valley oaks. Mary Jo on the right.

The grafted valley oaks. Mary Jo on the right.

She had been an important mentor through some difficult times for me, having been one of two control analysts in my training. When the other died unexpectedly, she had called me within an hour of the news: “I will help you,” she said. “I am here with you.”

And she was, guiding me with her wisdom and her confrontation, with her confidence and her love. After my certification, a small group of us women analysts met with her, reading The Secret of the Golden Flower, and discussing life. We began this reading group with a personal tour of a Taoist art exhibit at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, led by Mary Jo, a docent there, perhaps the oldest. I write about this experience and a dream that preceded it in two blogs, “A Big Dream” and “Another Elder Story“.

She traveled extensively, and to China more times than you can count on both hands. She toured Iran during the time of the Iraq war, and after the walk to the valley oaks. She told me once that she spent days at Chartres Cathedral studying the Rose Window.

But death and aging cannot be cheated. After Iran, she did not travel again. She lived in a multilevel home with many stairs, something that scared us all as she became increasingly unstable. As she lost her eye sight, several signed up to read and study the books that she loved, a rich experience for many of us.

Late in my time with her I responded to her need to get a cat by taking her to the Human Society —at her insistence. Not only did she get a cat, she got two, and fiercely confronted the personnel when they suggested that two kittens at her age when she was legally blind was inappropriate. She pounded her fist on the counter, demanding the kittens, and for whatever reason, they let her have them. There are people who cursed me for my part in this, as the kittens climbed her curtains and shredded her furniture.

My relationship with Mary Jo ended in the way mentor relationships sometimes do: roughly. Although the details are ones that I hold private, suffice it to say that I experienced the darker side of a woman that I had revered.  Perhaps age pushes psychological complexes; diminishing capacity and health issues humble us. There is so much unknown as we lose abilities and faculties that we have defined ourselves with through the years. And then, the end of any long training relationship  is often a shock when one looks behind the screen to discover that the idealized image is different from the human being.

These last years it was hard for me to place where I was with her. At the time of her death, I had not seen her in two years. Nothing that had happened changed the value of what I received from her, but at the same time, I did not know how to hold her in my heart.

But the synchronicity of the arrival of “When an Old Friend Dies” and the call telling me of Mary Jo’s death brought a warmth. I like to think she moved through in that synchronicity, because I felt my heart open in gratitude and love to have known the breadth of her. I wish her well on this last journey. Safe passage, Mary Jo!