Carole Ascher – Judson Memorial 10.29.2011

Through each friendship we grow a different aspect of ourselves, which is why the loss of a friend has the severity of an amputation. Sally and I met either when, as an editor for Heresies, she worked with me on an article I had submitted, or when we sat together in long planning meetings for a Conference, The Second Sex—Thirty Years Later. I know it was after The Second Sex Conference that our relationship took its course and flourished. We had been sharply criticized for our token inclusion of black women in what was in every way a white woman’s conference, and Sally never tired of going over the arrogant racism of our planning. I had begun working in a multi-racial research institute, and so had a daily context for rethinking what it might mean to give up a white-centered universe and create anything truly multi-racial.

Over the next years, as I wrote Simone de Beauvoir: a Life of Freedom, and Sally wrote Maternal Thinking, she and I read each other’s manuscripts; and we joined with Louise deSalvo to edit Between Women, a collection of essays by women about their relationships with the women they had written about, painted, or studied. (Chastened and converted, we produced a collection that was much closer to being genuinely inclusive.) All of this involved hours and hours of working together, and self-criticism continued as a lively theme, often accompanied by gales of laughter. Barely finished with these books, we began to entertain each other with ways our efforts had failed and could have been better. Although I thought that Between Women was a contribution to critiquing the presumed objectivity of traditional biography, Sally was belatedly embarrassed at the confessional tone of Between Women, and she was particularly hard on her Virginia Woolf piece.

As the women’s movement waned around us, women’s issues became less central to me, though not to Sally. Even after we both moved on to different intellectual and artistic work either alone or with others, we talked regularly on the phone and often met for dinner, and almost anything that had happened to either of us, including what we had read in The New York Review of Books or the New York Times, would quickly engross us in conversation. I was taking care of dying relatives as Sally was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, and we lingered over restaurant meals, talking about illness and death. Actually, these were immensely good-humored talks. Although we shared a sense of privacy, we knew a lot about each other’s personal struggles, and the dark or ghoulish underside of things easily drew our laughter.

As trips even to nearby restaurants became difficult for her, we acquired a little ritual. We would agree to have dinner, and she’d ask where I wanted to eat. I’d say, “You know, I can’t stand noisy restaurants; I’d be just as happy to order out at your house,” which was true. So we’d spend a long evening in her living room, moving from the dining area to the couch or chairs, or even the floor, as we each kept ourselves comfortable.

Our relationship deepened in a new way when I moved away from New York, now over four years ago. Realizing that my coming into the city meant spending the night, Sally and Bill made their extra bedroom available to me whenever Bill’s nephew wasn’t there. Sometimes Sally was in too much pain or too restless for company, and she might disappear for half an hour, or even much of the evening, but come into my room to talk for a few minutes once I was in bed, or appear in her nightgown for breakfast together the next morning. Or, we’d have a long evening of reading aloud and talking, alone or with Bill, and I’d stay up beyond my bedtime to watch Steve Colbert with her, but Bill would tell me the next morning that she had been awake much of the night and so was finally asleep. What these years of sleepovers gave us was an intimacy one usually has only with lovers or family, a peaceful certainty of the depth of our fondness for each other.

I arrived one snowy afternoon last winter to find Sally delirious on her bed and Bill calling an ambulance. There followed an ambulance ride and confusing hours in the Emergency Room as we waited for a free hospital bed. The next time I saw Sally, she was emaciated and receiving oxygen in a rehabilitation facility on West 106th street. Her bed was strewn with books, as it had been on Bleecker Street, and she wanted me to read aloud from The Magic Mountain, which she’d asked me to buy her. Then, a few visits later, the facility had decided that her lungs were too damaged for them to help her; and I sat with her as the palliative care doctor discussed Hospice. Many years earlier, Sally had said she wasn’t interested in putting herself or her family through the entire course of the terrible disease; but she had been critical of Carolyn Heilbrun’s principled suicide. When the palliative care doctor left, we calculated with regret that by Hospice’s six months rule of thumb, she could have until fall, and I said how sad I would be without her—as I am now, and will always be. Some weeks later, she was home, and I was preparing to visit. She said, “Call the night before. Things are changing rapidly,” which was the first time she’d used a euphemism, and I didn’t imagine what she meant. But when I called the evening before travel, Bill told me Sally had died.