Last night, whilst sitting next to my daughter’s crib in the middle of the night so she could fall slowly back to sleep, I pulled up Facebook to find that it was a friend’s birthday. I clicked on her name intending to write the very plain, “Happy Birthday, Izabelle!” (or something similar) on her wall. I wondered if I might even be the first to post given the time difference between London and Seattle.
As I read through the posts on her wall that ended nearly two months prior, it quickly became clear that Izabelle had fallen suddenly ill back in December and died within a month of diagnosis. But she couldn’t have. She was just here in London, sitting at my kitchen table and making plans. Plans to move and plans to write.
Izabelle and I became friends through work. We were colleagues at a large company and she was more than a generation older than me. She made no attempt to hide the fact that she worked to live and not vice versa, and that living for her was enjoying her family, traveling, reading and writing. She was a creative person, begrudgingly tolerating the bureaucracy of corporate life in order to fund her real passions.
She reminded me that I was creative too. In our discussions we would set aside the sarcasm we each expressed to and directed at the world and we would trade our sincere beliefs on politics and religion and books and theatre. She encouraged me to write and we exchanged our work with each other. She suggested I read the Brothers Karamazov and I gave her my dog-eared and note-marked copy of Democracy in America.
When Izabelle visited us last November she was thrilled to be in London and was looking into enrolling in university here just to get a year’s visa to stay and write. She was smiling and optimistic. Just seeing and speaking with her recharged my artistic batteries. This little, older (but not old) and wonderfully spirited Polish lady had become a source of creative inspiration and encouragement.
Izabelle was a liberal through and through and a fan of public broadcasting. In 2010, PBS’s Bill Moyers shared his favourite poem and invited others to do the same on the PBS website. Far down on the page is the following posting attributed to Izabelle Gorczynski:
St. Kevin and the Blackbird
By Seamus Heaney
And then there was St. Kevin and the blackbird.
The saint is kneeling, arms stretched out, inside
His cell, but the cell is narrow, so
One turned-up palm is out the window, stiff
As a crossbeam, when a blackbird lands
And lays in it and settles down to nest.
Kevin feels the warm eggs, the small breast, the tucked
Neat head and claws and, finding himself linked
Into the network of eternal life,
Is moved to pity: now he must hold his hand
Like a branch out in the sun and rain for weeks
Until the young are hatched and fledged and flown.
And since the whole thing’s imagined anyhow,
Imagine being Kevin. Which is he?
Self-forgetful or in agony all the time
From the neck on out down through his hurting forearms?
Are his fingers sleeping? Does he still feel his knees?
Or has the shut-eyed blank of underearth
Crept up through him? Is there distance in his head?
Alone and mirrored clear in love’s deep river,
‘To labour and not to seek reward,’ he prays,
A prayer his body makes entirely
For he has forgotten self, forgotten bird
And on the riverbank forgotten the river’s name.
Reading through the pages upon pages of messages from Izabelle’s friends and family around the world—the messages shared with her in her final days and those posted posthumously—it became clear that the impact she had on me was not unique. She loved and was loved. Just as when she lived, so too in death she abates my sarcasm, if only for a moment, and causes me to live sincerely. I am grateful to have known her and better for it.