I Wish My Friend Could Have Read Her Own Obituary
Anne Garrels may not have been the Queen of England, but she left an unforgettable legacy.
I wish my friend Anne Garrels could have lived just a few days longer. She died early last Wednesday, but if she’d held on a few more hours, I like to imagine that she would have been able to enjoy (even while pretending to dismiss) the torrent of admiration from colleagues and listeners for her work as a foreign correspondent with National Public Radio. I wish she’d been able to read the glowing obituary that The New York Times had prepared for her. Couldn’t they have shown it to her on Tuesday, when she was in hospice care, instead of holding it for Thursday’s paper, when she was gone? As usual, the Times kept its finely wrought tribute from the one person it would have meant the most to. I wish she’d known how important she was especially to younger women in journalism—her drive, her honesty, her voice, her wit, her elegance, her courage. Maybe she did know, but I never heard her say so. And now those women can’t tell her.
This year I’ve lost several friends and one close family member, and it always seems to go this way.
Queen Elizabeth died the day after Annie, and I couldn’t help slightly resenting how quickly Her Majesty’s ascension to immortality intruded on the Garrels minute. At least the Queen got to have her platinum jubilee before she died. She got to stand on the balcony of Buckingham Palace while she was still alive and gaze down and wave to her subjects as they thronged the Queen Victoria Memorial and demonstrated how much they admired and loved her. She got to read the tributes as they poured in from all over the British Commonwealth. She got to bask in the historic achievement of having lasted on the throne for 70 years and done so without complaint.
Annie’s achievement was to have risked her life countless times and pushed herself to her limits in the Soviet Union, China, Bosnia, Kosovo, Chechnya, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and, perhaps most significantly, Iraq, in order to convey to her listeners with truthfulness, eloquence, and compassion the all-too-human reality of historic events, especially of war. Between these two accomplished women, it’s hard for me to see why the Queen’s death should matter more.
I met Annie in Baghdad early in the war. I didn’t know what I was doing, and she did—better than just about anyone—but she never let this fact disturb our friendship, which crossed the Atlantic and took root and grew in the Berkshire Hills, where she lived with her husband, Vint Lawrence, and where I often visited. No doubt Annie could be sharp-elbowed in the field, but I never felt the slightest poke. It’s strange, but I don’t remember having many conversations about work with her. Journalists, and I’m no exception, are addicted to gossip and tale-telling and invidious comparisons and undying grudges, but there was little of that with Annie. We mostly talked about family, politics, books, gardening, and dogs. My late pug Fred and I once spent a couple of nights with Annie, Vint, and their three big Labs—I needed a place to get some writing done, and they generously gave me a room. One day Fred ate an entire bowl of food meant for those three dogs five times his size. His belly dragged on the wooden floorboards. “Jesus!” Annie exclaimed, with characteristically frank disgust and affection. Her friendship was unconditional, and we were always welcome back.
I saw Annie more often after she retired from NPR, in 2010. She kept working, and wrote an utterly original book about a small, ordinary Russian city, Putin Country. But more and more, life was taken up with illness—her lung cancer, Vint’s leukemia—and then loss. After Vint’s death, in 2016, I felt a sense of loneliness close in around her. This is also how it seems to go. The news moves on by the minute, younger people are always busy, and even the most renowned names fade from public memory. The last narrowing years are utterly incommensurate to what came before—the long life lived in all its fullness. Why should Anne Garrels have apologized to me for taking up my time? But even as her health declined, the vitality that once drove her to travel so far and deep into foreign places never dimmed for the near at hand.
I can see her standing in our kitchen with a glass of red wine, her big smile revealing the gap between her front teeth, as she interviewed our kids about their lives. Or kneeling in our garden, planting lilies she’d brought down from Connecticut. Or, a few weeks ago, eating fresh corn on her terrace in the summer evening sun, talking about Ukraine—too ill to report there, she’d helped raise a million dollars for medical supplies—and watching Moose, the dog she had left, chase after Neptune, our new one.
I wish I’d known that she was fading fast. I would have gone to see her one more time. I would have tried to tell her what she meant to me, and to so many others. “You may not care, but your legacy is going to surprise you,” I would have said. “Just hang on another day or two and you’ll see.” I wish she’d stayed long enough to read this.