Case Study The Private Elegy

In early April two years ago, I wrote in my journal:

Last night I took my daughter Erin to Ann Rowland's horse farm called "Windy Hills." Ann died during the weekend, and I saw her several times leading up to her final hours.

Anyway, Erin and I brought her family some bread last night, at twilight. Ann's daughter Andrea gave Erin her high school jacket and some "Black Beauty" books. Ann's son, Josh, took Erin up to a hilltop rink where he and she rode his prize-winning Paso Fino bareback as in "The Black Stallion." Only Josh's stallion was roan and beautiful as the two rode with a purple sky like a backlight. The moon was full and Venus shone in the far sky.,

I can't believe Ann's gone.

Ann Howland, a local psychologist, was one of my best friends and confidant. She died of cancer and would cringe if I used the euphemism "after an extended illness." Ann believed in telling the truth. She loved words because she knew their power to heal pain and help us carve paths to each other.

That's what elegies do. The impulse to write one is at once human and humane. In Appalachia, where I live and where Ann had her horse farm in the hollows, people publish their elegies in the local newspapers. It's a tradition here. Coal miners —some of the toughest, most hard-bitten Americans you will ever meet —compose elegies when they suffer a loss. So do professors, loggers, farmers, social workers, merchants, doctors, pensioners and the unemployed. Their poems appear in the classified ads under the "In Memoriam" or "Card of Thanks" sections. On Sundays, when as many as a dozen elegies can be found in the classifieds, I always turn to that section first to scan the poems. They come in all forms — rhymed, free verse, even prose paragraphs — whose sole purpose is to soothe rather than impress.

One Sunday I opened the newspaper expecting to find the usual selections. Instead I came upon this elegy:

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