The Monarchs, Music, and the Meaning of Life: The Most Touching Deathbed Love Letter Ever Written
By Maria Popova
UPDATE: Carson — her epoch-making cultural contribution as a scientist, and the courage to love outside society’s predetermined boxes that sprang from the same unusual source as her visionary science — is the crowning and closing figure in my book Figuring, where this letter appears.
As if classifying platonic relationships weren’t complex enough a task — one that requires a taxonomy of friendship types — what happens when the platonic and the romantic begin to blur? In an exquisite love letter, Sartre spoke of “turning abruptly from friendship to love.” And yet what if friendship and love weren’t opposite points between which to pivot but loci that overlap in varying degrees? Under the Romantic ideal of love, we’ve come to expect that every great romance should also contain within itself, in addition to erotic passion, a robust friendship. But we hold with deep suspicion the opposite — a platonic friendship colored with the emotional hues of romantic love, never given physical form but always aglow with an intensity artificially dimmed by the label of plain friendship. Perhaps we need not label these kaleidoscopic emotional universes after all; perhaps resisting the urge to classify and contain is the only way to do justice to their iridescent richness of sentiment and feeling.
A heartening testament to that possibility comes from the life of the pathbreaking marine biologist, conservationist, naturalist, and wonder-wielder Rachel Carson (May 27, 1907–April 14, 1964), who has contributed more than any other person to awakening the modern environmental consciousness — her 1962 book Silent Spring, published eighteen months before her life was cut short, led to the creation of Earth Day and the founding of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and sparked the environmental movement as we know it today.
But beneath Carson’s blazing intellect and her protective affection for the natural world lay an interior world as rich and passionate, animated by the same intensity of intelligent love.
In late 1952, just before Carson moved to Maine’s Southport Island with her mother, a local housewife named Dorothy Freeman wrote her a warm letter welcoming her to the close-knit island community. (Carson was already a famous author — her 1951 book The Sea Around Us had broken records by remaining on best-seller lists for eighteen months.) Their correspondence blossomed into a fast friendship aglow with anticipation of their first in-person meeting.
On December 30, 1953, Rachel visited the Freemans’ home and stayed for a night. “Reality can so easily fall short of hopes and expectations, especially where they have been high,” she wrote to Dorothy as soon as she returned home. “My dear one, there is not a single thing about you that I would change if I could!” She enclosed a Keats verse — “A thing of beauty is a joy forever: / its loveliness increases; it will never / pass into nothingness; but still will keep / a bower quiet for us, and a sleep / full of sweet dreams.” — and added:
I am certain, my dearest, that it will be forever a joy, of increasing loveliness with the years, and that in the intervals when being separated, we cannot have all the happiness of Wednesday, there will be, in each of our hearts, a little oasis of peace and ‘sweet dreams’ where the other is.
Dorothy was married and devoted to her husband, but she soon took on unparalleled centrality in Rachel’s life. Although their relationship was mostly epistolary, it grew replete with such intense tenderness and was articulated in such romantic language that the label “friendship” fails to contain it — Rachel addressed Dorothy as “darling,” often “my very own darling.” The closing sentiment of a letter penned in February of 1954 — “Darling — always and always — I love you so dearly” — was typical of their mutual tenderness. In another letter planning their first visit since that initial meeting, Rachel exhales: “But, oh darling, I want to be with you so terribly that it hurts!”
And yet their relationship was never a secret. Dorothy shared their letters with her husband, to which Rachel responded with sincere gladness:
How dear of him to say what he did. Perhaps this is the final little touch of the perfection in the whole episode… It means so very much to me to know that you have such an understanding, loving and wonderful husband… I want him to know what you mean to me.
For the remaining twelve years of Rachel Carson’s life, it was Dorothy’s love and daily devotion that warded off the scientist’s aching loneliness and her struggles with depression, fomented her creative and intellectual imagination, and nourished her visionary spirit as she gave form to some of the most influential ideas of the twentieth century in her writing. In early February of 1954, she articulated Dorothy’s centrality in her world in an immeasurably beautiful letter, found in Always, Rachel: The Letters of Rachel Carson and Dorothy Freeman, 1952–1964 (public library):
I don’t suppose anyone really knows how a creative writer works (he or she least of all, perhaps!) or what sort of nourishment his spirit must have. All I am certain of is this; that it is quite necessary for me to know that there is someone who is deeply devoted to me as a person, and who also has the capacity and the depth of understanding to share, vicariously, the sometimes crushing burden of creative effort, recognizing the heartache, the great weariness of mind and body, the occasional black despair it may involve — someone who cherishes me and what I am trying to create… The few who understood the creative problem were not people to whom I felt emotionally close; those who loved the non-writer part of me did not, by some strange paradox, understand the writer at all! And then, my dear one, you came into my life! … I knew when I first saw you that I wanted to see much more of you — I loved you before you left Southport — and very early in our correspondence last fall I began to sense that capacity to enter so fully into the intellectual and creative parts of my life as well as to be a dearly loved friend. And day by day all that I sensed in you has been fulfilled, but even more wonderfully than I could have dreamed…
I feel such a joyous surge of wonder every time I stop to think how in such a dark time and when I least expected it, something so lovely and richly satisfying came into my life.
This letter was intended as an answer to one penned a few days earlier, in which Dorothy had contemplated their relationship and asked Rachel in transcendent astonishment: “Don’t you ever marvel at yourself, finding yourself in such an overpowering emotional experience?” A week later, Rachel revisited the question and offered an even more direct answer:
I have wondered since … whether I may have forgotten to make it clear that — besides all the intellectual satisfaction I perhaps dwelt on at great length — it truly is for me, as for you, “an overpowering emotional experience.” If I didn’t, I think I can now trust that your heart knows it. I was thinking today, with what depth of gratitude I hope you know, how wonderfully sustaining is the assurance of your constant, day-and-night devotion and concern. Without it, I truly don’t know what I would be doing now, when there are a good many otherwise dark days.
Perhaps the most beautiful aspect of their relationship was its deep mutuality and the enormous generosity of spirit with which each beheld the other. With a grateful eye to the immensity of what Freeman is contributing to her life, Rachel wonders what she is contributing to Dorothy’s in turn:
Since one of the things about you that impressed me from the beginning was the lovely quality of your family life, I knew … that it was not lack of love. No one could be with you and Stan even a short time without realizing how devoted and congenial you are. And I wonder whether the very fact that you have experienced, and have yourself poured out, so much love, has not made you all the more receptive to the devotion offered by this newcomer in your life. You wrote so beautifully, weeks ago, of how one’s capacity to give love grows with the exercise of it, so perhaps the more love we have received, the more we are able to absorb and in that sense no one ever has enough. And I do know that the facts that we are, to an incredible degree “kindred spirits,” and that for many reasons we need all that we mean to each other, probably lie at the heart of our love. But the more I think about all we both have said, the more I feel that there is something that perhaps will always remain elusive and intangible — that the whole is something more than the sum of the various “reasons.” Henry Beston [one of Carson’s favorite authors and heroes, who had recently reviewed her book Under the Sea-Wind] says in the review I’m sending you today: “the sun — is always more than a gigantic mass of ions, it is a splendor and a mystery, a force and a divinity, it is life and the symbol of life.” Our analysis has been beautiful and comforting and satisfying, but probably it will never be quite complete — never encompass the whole “splendor and mystery.”
This “splendor and mystery” continued to unfold and expand between them, growing only richer with time. Two years later, Rachel writes to Dorothy:
My own darling,
For your birthday, this is to tell you — as if you didn’t know — how dearly and tenderly I love you. You have come to occupy a place in my life that no one else could fill, and it is strange now to contemplate all the empty years when you weren’t there. But perhaps we shouldn’t regret those years — perhaps instead we should just give ourselves over to wonder and gratitude that a friendship so satisfying and so full of joy and beauty could come to each of us in the middle years — when, perhaps, we needed it most!
Darling, do you know how wonderful it is to have you? I hope you do.
I love you.
In the spring of 1960, just as she was finishing the draft of the two chapters in Silent Spring dealing with the carcinogenic effects of chemicals, Rachel Carson was diagnosed with breast cancer. By December, despite surgery, it had metastasized. She continued to work tirelessly on the book and other projects through increasingly debilitating illness.
In September of 1963, shortly after her testimony before President John F. Kennedy’s Science Advisory Committee became instrumental in the first regulatory policies on pesticides, she wrote a stunning letter to Dorothy. It contained a contemplation of her own mortality so profound, so poignant, so tenderhearted and transcendent that it could only be articulated to the person who knew her heart most intimately. She writes:
This is a postscript to our morning at Newagen, something I think I can write better than say. For me it was one of the loveliest of the summer’s hours, and all the details will remain in my memory: that blue September sky, the sounds of the wind in the spruces and surf on the rocks, the gulls busy with their foraging, alighting with deliberate grace, the distant views of Griffiths Head and Todd Point, today so clearly etched, though once half seen in swirling fog. But most of all I shall remember the monarchs, that unhurried westward drift of one small winged form after another, each drawn by some invisible force. We talked a little about their migration, their life history. Did they return? We thought not; for most, at least, this was the closing journey of their lives.
But it occurred to me this afternoon, remembering, that it had been a happy spectacle, that we had felt no sadness when we spoke of the fact that there would be no return. And rightly — for when any living thing has come to the end of its life cycle we accept that end as natural.
For the Monarch, that cycle is measured in a known span of months. For ourselves, the measure is something else, the span of which we cannot know. But the thought is the same: when that intangible cycle has run its course it is a natural and not unhappy thing that a life comes to an end.
That is what those brightly fluttering bits of life taught me this morning. I found a deep happiness in it — so I hope, may you. Thank you for this morning.
In another letter written three months before her death but delivered posthumously, she revisits the subject of her mortality from the perspective of her relationship with Dorothy, the great gift of her life:
When I think back to the many farewells that have marked the decade (almost) of our friendship, I realize they have almost been inarticulate. I remember chiefly the great welling up of thoughts that somehow didn’t get put into words — the silences heavy with things unsaid. But then, we knew or hoped, there was always another chance — and always the letters to fill the gaps.
With a lucid and almost shockingly serene awareness of her imminent mortality, she adds:
I have had a rich life, full of rewards and satisfactions that come to few and if it must end now, I can feel that I have achieved most of what I wished to do. That wouldn’t have been true two years ago, when I first realized my time was short, and I am so grateful to have had this extra time.
My regrets, darling, are for your sadness, for leaving Roger [the eleven-year-old orphan son of Carson’s niece, whom she had adopted], when I so wanted to see him through manhood, for dear Jeffie [Carson’s cat] whose life is linked to mine.
But enough of that. What I want to write of is the joy and fun and gladness we have shared — for these are the things I want you to remember — I want to live on in your memories of happiness. I shall write more of those things. But tonight I’m weary and must put out the light. Meanwhile, there is this word — and my love will always live.
In her final letter, written as Freeman was en route to a deathbed visit but only delivered two weeks after Rachel Carson’s death, she writes:
You are starting on your way to me in the morning, but I have such a strange feeling that I may not be here when you come — so this is just an extra little note of farewell, should that happen. There have been many pains (heart) in the past few days, and I’m weary in every bone. And tonight there is something strange about my vision, which may mean nothing. But of course I thought, what if I can’t write — can’t see to write — tomorrow? So, a word before I turn out the light.
Darling — if the heart does take me off suddenly, just know how much easier it would be for me that way. But I do grieve to leave my dear ones. As for me, however, it is quite all right. Not long ago I sat late in my study and played Beethoven, and achieved a feeling of real peace and even happiness.
Never forget, dear one, how deeply I have loved you all these years.
Always, Rachel is an achingly transcendent read in its entirety. Complement this particularly poignant portion with Oliver Sacks on the measure of living and the dignity of dying, then revisit Carson on why it is more important to feel than to know.
UPDATE: Carson — her epoch-making cultural contribution as a scientist, and the courage to love outside society’s predetermined boxes that sprang from the same unusual source as her visionary science — is the crowning and closing figure in my book Figuring.
Published January 13, 2017