Letter to an Unknown Woman: Amy Krouse Rosenthal

Letter to an Unknown Woman

Just one more walk around the garden,
One more stroll along the shore,
One more memory I can dream upon, until I dream no more.
 Just one more time perhaps the dawn will wait,
 And one more prayer it’s not too late,
To gather one more rose before I say goodbye
And close the garden gate.         Burton Lane, Alan Jay Lerner
           

Amy Krause Rosenthal

Amy Krouse Rosenthal

By now, many of you have heard of Amy Krouse Rosenthal. She was the amazing woman who, upon learning that she had terminal cancer, decided that she would leave this world not with a whisper, but a bang-- and according to a "Plan Be" filled with all the things she loved to do.

In her last essay, Amy Rosenthal wrote that in September of 2015, she was experiencing pains on her right side symptomatic of appendicitis. One evening, the pains were sufficiently severe that she and her husband Jason went to the hospital emergency room, fully expecting to be told that Amy’s pains would necessitate an appendectomy. After several hours and many tests, that was not the diagnosis they received. Amy had ovarian cancer, and it was terminal. Just like that,  Amy's earth stopped spinning on its axis, the moon disappeared, and the music of time ceased to play. So many things that should have been on Amy's horizon dipped below it, and her world became a place of “would nots.”

  • She would not take that trip with her husband and her parents to South Africa.
  • She would not tour Asia with her mother.
  • She would not have a writer’s residency in some exotic locale.
  • She would not see her children marry and have children of their own.
  • She would not grow old with her husband and experience the “best that was yet to be” promised by the poet Robert Browning.
  • Would not, would not, would not.

Her past had been lived. Her present was limited. She had no future. Of all the things that crowded her mind that fateful evening, the foremost was Jason—her husband of nearly thirty years. She wanted more time to be with him, to look at him, to share the joys and pains of everyday existence with him. She wanted MORE.

Who Was Amy?

 Amy Krouse Rosenthal was a Chicago writer, film maker, and radio talk show host. She attended Tufts University and went to work in California after graduation. After a short time, she moved back to Chicago to pursue her writing career. And write she did. Between 2005 and 2017 (the year of her death), she published more than thirty children’s books. Three of her books made the Best Books for Family Literacy in one year.

The New York Times called her books terrific. She had a lively imagination that could take the most mundane subjects and make them uplifting. Imagine a piglet who hates being messy. That is Little Oink.  Then there is Spoon, about about a once-happy little utensil who  decides that life as a Spoon isn't so great; and that Fork, Knife, and Chopsticks  have it so much better. But do they? By the end of the book,  Spoon  has discovered he has unique qualities and reminds us how important it is to celebrate what makes us each special. I Wish You More is a book of  good wishes that appeals not just to children, but to readers of all ages: wishes for curiosity and wonder, wishes for friendship and strength, and wishes for laughter and peace. Then there is the magical Uni the Unicorn. Uni, who is like all the other unicorns in so many ways, is different in one. She wants to become friends with a real, human girl. Piglets, utensils, unicorns: all I can say is, I wish I had written every one of them.

Many of Amy’s books made the NYT’s Best Seller List: I Wish You More, Uni the Unicorn, Plant a Kiss, Exclamation Mark, Cookies, and Duck, Rabbit. (Duck, Rabbit was read at President Obama’s White House during an Easter Egg Roll.) In addition to bringing magic to lives of children through her books, Amy was a frequent contributor to Chicago’s NPR affiliate WBEZ and to the TED (technology, entertainment, design) conference.

Amy wrote two memoirs, both of which became best sellers. Encyclopedia for an Ordinary Life, published in 2005, was named one of Amazon’s top ten memoirs of the decade. NPR said of it, “What a delight it was to spend time with this “ordinary” person, learning her quirks and hangups, her likes and dislikes, her everyday (and not) adventures, including the inspired way she attempted to get out of paying a parking ticket—all arranged encyclopedia style from A (“Amy”, “Anxious Things That Make Me,” “Ayn Rand”) to Y (“You”), with appropriate cross references and clever drawings.” Her second memoir, a follow-up to the first, was called Textbook Amy Krouse Rosenthal and was published in 2016. It is the first book to include an interactive text messaging component.

Like many of us, Amy made short films using her iPhone and Flip camera. Some ask viewers to interact, some are stand alone social pieces, and some build on each other. Her films include: 17 Things I Made, Today is a Gift, ATM: Always Trust Magic, The Kindness Thought Bubble, and The Beckoning of Lovely. Beckoning was composed of a series of events held at Chicago’s Millennium Park between 2008 and 2011. For the first one, held on August 8, 2008, Rosenthal invited viewers to meet her in the park at 8:00 p.m. to make a thing together. The “thing” was a party. She expected perhaps 30 people; 400 showed up. They sang, danced, exchanged flowers, even fell in love. It was an evening to remember.

Beyond Biography

But all of this is the stuff of biography—and Amy was so much more than biography. She was a joyful spirit about whom her friend John Green (The Fault in Our Stars) wrote, “As a parent, a writer, a spouse, and a friend, Amy Krouse Rosenthal was what I wanted to be when I grew up.” Amy met the love of her life, Jason Brian Rosenthal, on a blind date set up by her uncle in 1989, when they were both 24. For Amy, who initially had “ zero expectations” for the date, it was love at first sight. By the end of the evening, she knew she wanted to marry him. It took Jason a year to arrive at the same conclusion. But once he did, they were married and embarked on their “happily ever after” journey. They had three children, two boys and one girl, all grown now, and their lives really were "such stuff as dreams are made on." Sadly,  "happily ever after" was shorter than they had hoped.

Following that fateful emergency room visit in 2015, Amy and Jason entered a phase of their lives Amy called “Plan Be”.  She continued to write. He took time from his law practice to care for and be with her. For as long as they could, they lived what remained of her life in the present. They did the things they enjoyed. Amy even got a tattoo, its message suggested by a reader: the word “More.” She remarked that it was her first spoken word and might well be her last.

You May Want to Marry My Husband

Now I come to the part that brought Amy Krouse Rosenthal to national attention. In March 2017, Amy wrote an essay that was published in the Sunday New York Times. It was called, “You May Want to Marry My Husband.” She called it "a valentine that didn’t come in a vase." In it, she shared with readers all of the extraordinary qualities of the man to whom she had been married for 26 years in the hope that one very special person would come forward and share with him the years she would not have. She spoke of his style, his intelligence, his love of music, his sense of humor, his whimsy, his ability to cook and fix things around the house, his artistic talent, and his good looks. She noted wistfully how she would miss looking at his handsome face. (If you would like to read the entire piece, here is the link: www.nytimes.com/2017/03/03/style/modern-love-you-may-want-to-marry-my-husband.html) Ten days after the essay was published, Amy Krouse Rosenthal died.

Letter to An Unknown Woman

I called this piece, “Letter to an Unknown Woman,” because, even though I was not fortunate enough to have known Amy Krouse Rosenthal personally,  I wanted to write about her. I hope her family will not think me presumptuous for doing this. I just want to tell her that she has made an impact on my life.

Dear Amy,

 I did not know you personally, and sadly, now I will never know you. I really wish I had. You seem like the kind of woman with whom I would like to have spent time and shared thoughts. As a writer, I feel a kinship with you. I admire your style—your ability to connect with readers in a very personal way. Your ability to say things with insight and humor. Your optimism and magical thinking. Your generous spirit and loving demeanor. And, if I may borrow from one of my favorite writers, “the pilgrim soul in you.” I am sorry they were taken so soon.

 I loved your generosity in wanting to share your husband’s extraordinary qualities with another special someone. Sadly, I cannot take you up on your suggestion. Two reasons: I am old enough to be his mother, and I am already married to my own Prince Charming (nearly 50 years.) I wish I could have given you a few of those years—but that was not within my power. I do want you to know, that I believe you lived more and felt more in the short time you were here than most people who were granted much longer lives. You had a profession you loved, and you were good at it. You had a husband you adored, and he felt the same about you. You had children whom I am sure you raised to be decent, caring individuals. You had a sense of wonder few of us will ever experience, and you shared that wonder with the world. Your legacy is rich and enduring. While I know you would trade all of this for more time on this earth with those you loved, know this: you mattered!"

 I will read and share your books. I will pore over your memoirs. I might even get a “More” tattoo. Through all of these, I will, at least, make your acquaintance. So good-bye, Amy. “And flights of angels speed you to your rest.”

 Love,

 Shirley

Interestingly, as I wrote this, WBEZ was playing “Dance of the Blessed Spirits.”

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