Me and Toni Morrison in 2006.
On a raw and windy Thursday afternoon, four days before Christmas 2017, Toni Morrison told me she had died twice. The first time, she said, her eyes wide and searching, she slept in her bed that faced the Hudson River with windows all around her in a half-moon shape and awoke to find herself looking down at her sleeping body. She realized she was just “eyes and a brain.” She felt no weight of gravity or her body. She felt free to fly and fly fast.
She told me that she left her house on River Road in the tiny one-street village of Grand View-on-Hudson New York, just twenty or so miles north of Manhattan, and flew up and down the street with glee. She recalled with absolute clarity the joy of being free of human constraints, and she reveled in the memory of that new-found freedom and peace. But after a few blissful minutes, she heard her son, Slade, call her name and she realized that duty required her to return to her son. So, she flew back to her body. Toni told me that the act of re-entering her body was the most physical pain she ever experienced. She recounted how she had to “squeeze herself back into her fingers,” and the excruciating pain of squeezing one’s essence, one’s soul back into the physical body, still made her shudder all these years later. Toni said that feeling the weight of her own body again was unmistakably difficult. And once re-connected with her physical self, she listened again for her son’s voice calling out to her but heard nothing at all.
I wondered if the dream was a precursor of what was to come. Many years after that experience, her beloved son Slade died. Perhaps his soul called out to her asking or demanding, that she return so they could spend more time together.
Toni then recalled when she told her father about this flying experience. He flatly said to her that she had died, plain and simple. I remember how quietly she sat after telling me this. She stared vacantly at the muted television tuned to MSNBC where the ticker at the bottom of the screen talked about the looming government shutdown just days before Christmas. But I could tell she was no more watching that television than climbing Mount Everest. A wistfulness passed across her face. She was, for a moment, lost in her memories of flying free.
I remember that visit with precision. It was one of the last times I spoke with Toni before her health deteriorated to a point where she no longer recognized me or maintained the ability to speak with clarity about anything in this world. At eighty-six years old, her body had begun to fail her fast. An oxygen tank sat unused behind her, nasal sprays, lotions, cough drops, and all the accouterments of the old and infirm seeking solace in anything a drug store might provide now covered the tables once littered with books.
Toni leaned back in her reclining chair with a blanket over her legs and closed her eyes. I noticed how pale she looked, her once vibrant face tinged yellow, sickly. I understood why that memory appealed to her, and I wondered about a line she’d written in Song of Solomon: “If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it.” I wondered if that quote derived from the dream or the other way around.
She did not tell me about her other dying experience, nor did I press for more information. I knew she would tell me if she wanted to, and clearly, that second experience was one she preferred to keep private. To change the subject, I asked her what she was working on. Toni was always working, always thinking, always imagining stories in her mind long before they found a home in pencil on yellow legal pads or bookstore shelves or in classrooms around the world.
Toni didn’t say much about the story this time; only that her main character was a young man, who loved to look up at the stars at night. Frustrated, she knew nothing about constellations and had no idea where to look. I laughed. Google was not Toni’s friend. For years, I argued with her about the merits of using a computer and the Internet to conduct background research. She balked at the mere mention of it each time. “Everything I need to know, I can find in my head, or I can ask my assistant!” was usually her snarky reply.
I flipped open my iPhone and showed her an app called Sky Guide, where one can point the phone in any direction, day or night. She was so excited she nearly jumped out of her chair. Twenty minutes later, after trying every password imaginable, I finally had the app loaded on her iPhone and watched with amusement as she moved the phone from left to right, up and down, eyes shining bright at the idea that she could now see what her character saw. In those moments, I saw a master at work, like watching Leonardo da Vinci find a shadow in the Mona Lisa or Michelangelo shape the marble for the Pietà.
Toni and I were Grandview neighbors for almost ten years. During that time, I learned how much she loved a good party, three fingers of quality vodka, and a room with a view. She thoroughly enjoyed my cooking and often called to ask me for what she referred to as my “famous chicken cutlets.” She prized that recipe so much she once asked me to cook for her and the noted theatre director, Peter Sellars, when he came for lunch. Later that year, when I stood in the aisle at Lincoln Center to watch their highly anticipated joint project, Desdemona, Peter yelled across four aisles “Chicken Cutlets!” as he waved to me.
As a fledgling writer, I asked her once to read a script I’d written. Three days later, she invited me over to talk about it. I recall at least three panic attacks in the two-minute walk to her house. For three hours, I sat with Toni as we talked through notes she’d taken on my script. It was one of the single most remarkable experiences of my life. She did not speak to me a Nobel Prize winner to an unknown writer. She did not talk to me black woman to white woman. She connected with me writer to writer, human to human. Her ability to understand basic human emotions and the human experience made her a gifted artist. Her humbleness made her an exceptional teacher. Her use of language, of words, of sentences and syntax, made her a master.
The last time I saw Toni, I had stopped by for a visit in early April 2019. Hurricane Sandy blew me back to Connecticut where I now reside, but now and then, I stopped by to see Toni and talk with her. On that day, she did not seem well. A recent stroke had limited her ability to communicate. I asked her out of habit what she was working on, and she told me she was working on something new, something important. She told me that she was rising early, as was her custom, to write. The nurse standing next to her shook her head from side to side, gently letting me know this was not entirely the case. Toni believed that she was still writing, but she wasn’t.
I tried not to show my sadness. I tried not to show Toni that I knew the truth. I tried not to focus too intensely on that faraway look on her face. When I left an hour later, I sat in my car for a long while as the engine idled before headed home toward the setting sun over the brand new Tappan Zee Bridge. I had not brought her chicken cutlets for this visit because I had been too rushed, and I regretted that. I knew I would never see her alive again.
One night several years earlier, Toni sat in my living room sipping vodka looking out at the same Hudson River view, talking about telling stories. She said that she was tired of telling her students to stop writing about themselves. “Writing about oneself is so boring. No one wants to read about your life. Go tell a story. Imagine someone’s life. Make something up. Now that’s interesting,” she said with that sharp twinkle in her eyes that I loved so much.
On this day after her passing, I feel a real, tangible void in my world and the greater world around me. Many famous people, past presidents, noted writers, and leaders, will eulogize Toni far more powerfully than I ever could. I was her neighbor, her friend, her sometimes maker of chicken cutlets. Together, we looked out at the same Grand View, and for that, I will be forever grateful.
Our shared Hudson River view