When Marilee Swirczek died on July 17, all wonder vanished too. Or so it seemed.
For 24 years Marilee had taught English and creative writing at Western Nevada College. Eleven years ago I’d met Marilee on the phone and it was her witty and welcoming voice which had me quickly registering for her creative writing course. For years, I and a dozen of the same students returned semester after semester. On the first day of class, Marilee would scan our familiar faces and declare, “I have nothing left to teach you!” But she always had more to teach us. Besides, we had become family and she had become our Pied Piper.
Like a great story, Marilee herself personified those elements she taught: conflict, desire, determination and the dynamics of a colorful universe. She sparked you into doing your best, into becoming your own hero, then she demanded to know what you were really trying to say in your writing. She embodied the power behind her favorite subject, a story’s “telling detail” — a word, image or action which is so precise and illuminating its mere existence in that place and time points to things beyond itself.
Three weeks ago though, upon hearing of her death, that doorway into mystery slammed shut. My world shrunk and I sobbed. I hadn’t told her enough of what she had meant to me. I had lost my mentor. It didn’t matter she had been so much for so many others: a beloved mother, wife, sister, daughter and colleague. An advocate for the veterans. A backbone for the not-so-fortunate. A fighter on the Carson City Board of Supervisors. And a lighthouse for the tens of thousands of her students as they sought to find their writing voice.
Throughout the day, as I reflected more and more on her amazing influence, my grief eased. But the more I admired her, the more I found myself wanting to be as principled and as giving to others as she had been. And so on heels of grief, came fear and doubt. It was going to take hard work and responsibility — a lot of growing up on my part — to try to even come close to what I admired about Marilee.
I needed inspiration. That evening I found a photo of her, then a poem I’d written for her when she retired. It wasn’t a good poem but the images of how we students sought to understand “the telling detail” comforted me. I lay the poem next to the photo and before I headed out for a walk, I reread the last line: “My first phone call to you, like a warm penny, its tang and luster, its assurance and recurrence, as wondrous as a harvest moon in my pocket.”
As I strolled the neighborhood of homes with backlit windows and silhouettes of families, I thought of how growing up wasn’t only about striving, it’s also about acceptance and letting go. Maybe, if I relaxed into loss, if I acknowledged I do my best to give to others, if I tried to hold onto nothing else but wonder ...
I turned the corner and began the long walk home. The view opened into pastures and distant city lights. A flock of geese in V-formation descended through the dusky turquoise sky. Behind a white fence grazed horses, and beyond that, cattle. At some point, I stopped to gaze at the full moon lifting off the Pine Nuts, and then for no particular reason, I looked at the road in front of my feet. There lie a copper penny, gleaming in the moonlight.
Kathy Walters is the mother of a teenage boy, works for Kirkwood Mountain Realty and lives in Gardnerville. Currently, she is working on her memoir “Enough.”