The Life of Helen Keller, A Series - Part 7 Friendship, Life & Death
Despite being twenty-one when she first met seven year old Helen, Anne knew she had found a life-long friend. Of the little girl, Anne wrote, “Have I not all my life been lonely? I have never loved anyone, except my little brother, and I have always felt that one thing needful to happiness is love. To have a friend is to have one of the sweetest gifts that life can bring, and my heart sings for joy now; for I have found a real friend - one who will never get away from me, or try, or want to.”[i]
Over the next forty-nine years together, Helen and Anne built a friendship unrelenting to time, age, or disability. Nearly inseparable, Helen and Anne went through school together, traveled the world, and even lived with each other (even after Anne married). Their friendship transcended the physical absence of sight or speech, reaching a spiritual depth.
In being a deaf-blind individual - locked within the confines of her mind - Helen found the key to escaping loneliness through human connection. By breaking this isolation and interacting with others, Helen was able to truly discover herself. Helen expressed this in relation to Anne, “All the best of me belongs to her - there is not a talent, or an aspiration or a joy in me that has not been awakened by her loving touch.”[ii]
Unfortunately, the eventual death of Anne separated this earthly relationship. In her sadness and despair, Helen's secretary, Polly Thompson, came to fill the void left by Anne's departure. Wherever Helen traveled, Polly was not far behind, and their friendship bloomed into an everlasting one.
To Helen, friendship was everything; she saw her life as a "chronicle of friendship." Helen once wrote, "Without their loving care, all the courage I could summon would not suffice to keep my heart strong for life."
[i]Anne Sullivan, Letter to Mrs. Hopkins, (May, 1887).
[ii]Keller, The Story of My Life, pg. 40.
Life & Death
With Anne's frail hand in hers, Helen felt her dear friend's life slip away. At the age of seventy, Anne Sullivan Macy died on October 20th, 1936. For the first time in nearly fifty years, Helen was alone.
“I live over the last few minutes of her earth life: her darling hand growing cold in mine...the smell of opiates heavy in the room...sorrowing friends who drew me away so that her body might be prepared for the funeral...the Gethsemane I passed through an hour later when I touched, not Teacher’s blessed face, but fixed features from which expressions had fled.”[i]
In shock after her friend's death, Anne's funeral allowed Helen to feel the full weight of Anne's departure. Helen felt the “stupor of grief, and every nerve acquiver. It does not seem possible that the pain flooding through my heart can ever be stilled but I know it is a sign of returning spiritual health.”[ii]
On a reviving trip to Scotland with her friend and secretary Polly Thompson, Helen felt that Anne was still with her. “My soul was so conscious of her presence I could not - I would not - say she was dead, and I do not now.”[iii] Helen's ill heart healed over time, finding solace and peace in her continued work for the blind. In the absence of Anne, Helen developed a closer and deeper relation with Polly.
“Death,” wrote Helen, “cannot separate those who truly love. Each lives in the other’s mind and speech.” This was certainly true of Anne and Helen. In teaching Helen to communicate, Anne taught Helen to think, and therefore live. By continuing to live life to the fullest, Helen would always be with her beloved "teacher."
After living a long and remarkable life, Helen died peacefully in her sleep on a sunny afternoon, June 1st, 1968. Nearly twelve-hundred people attended her funeral, with countless other mourners coming to her public resting. Helen was laid to rest in Washington D.C., with her beloved companions, Anne and Polly at her side.
[i]Helen Keller, Helen Keller’s Journals: 1936-’37, (New York: Double Day, Page & Co.,1938), pg. 277-280.
[ii]Keller, Helen Keller’s Journals: 1936-’37, pg. 277-280.
[iii]Keller, Helen Keller’s Journals: 1936-’37, pg. 277-280.
© Matthew Gordon, 2011