“Robert dying: creating silence. Myself, destined to live, listening closely to a silence that would take a lifetime to express.”
In the Magificat, the earliest known Marian canticle (and Latin for “my soul magnifies”), Mary discovers that she is pregnant and wonders aloud that God “hath regarded the humility of his handmaid”: “For He that is mighty hath magnified me.” Although I am not Catholic, I came to understand why followers love Mary so dearly when I had my children. To feel blessed because you have been miraculously gifted with this child, but to also know that this perfect little biscuit must also some day die, as we all must, is the most glorious—and piteous—magnification of joy and mortality one’s soul can endure.
Perhaps it is especially since Patti and Robert both shared both devotion to, and abnegation of, Catholic iconography and the faith itself that I can’t help but draw a constellation connecting Mary and Patti. They share the joys and pains of mothers whose beloved offspring belonged to them and yet were somehow born wanting to belong to everyone—and, more, to a higher purpose.
Patti is mother to her own actual children, but she had long been so to Robert: through his early, difficult years when he was straining to hear his true calling; when, via his trademark sacred profanity, he became the object of desire to legions of followers; and in the last years of his life, when he was publicly persecuted for his work. The parallels aren’t neat, and Robert Mapplethorpe was no Jesus, but still. They’re there.
What illustrates the comparison most painfully, for me, is that Patti discovered she was pregnant at the same time that she learned that Robert had been diagnosed with AIDS. Patti, having been busy with family life in Michigan for years, hadn’t spoken with Robert in some time, and when she picked up the phone to call him, and heard that he was hospitalized with AIDS-related pneumonia, she cried, instinctively covering her belly. “He was carrying death within him and I was carrying life.”
Mary and Patti: our ladies of sorrows. As Mary hears Simeon’s prophesy about her son’s rise and demise, Patti—knowing that Robert was now living on borrowed time—recalled her early sense of foreboding about Robert: “Every fear I had once harbored seemed to materialize with the suddenness of a bright sail bursting into flames. My youthful premonition of Robert crumbling into dust returned with piteous clarity.”
Yet, there they are, both with their perfect babies. There is Mary, pictured, as she most often is, as Madonna and child—her predestined Savior. There is Patti with her newborn daughter and dying soul mate. When the two reunited in LA after Patti’s daughter, Jesse, was born, Robert asked to take a picture of mother and child: “I held Jesse in my arms, and she reached out to him, smiling,” she writes. “‘Patti,’ he said, pressing the shutter. ‘She’s perfect.’ It was our last photograph.”
And Patti, as mother to her brilliant, wayward, and courageous son of sorts, writes of Robert’s corporeal and spiritual beauty: “…it occurred to me looking around at all your things and your work and going through years of work in my mind, that of all your work, you are still the most beautiful. The most beautiful work of all.”
On a personal note, I am amazed to report that I now have my own Patti/mother story. By way of background, I have always given each of my three children royal monikers, for our mutual amusement (and my abiding hope that some amazing painter will one day fancy making a regal portrait of them). My eldest, 12, is Zuzu the Just, for her ferocious sense of ethics and fairness; my youngest, almost 4, is Will the Undaunted, for his intrepid cast of mind and body. My middle child, 9, is Frances the Blessed, because she is a sort of changeling, who does not believe that any lines exist between magic, science, and spirituality. Her career goal, she told me a few months ago, is to be “a quantum physicist who discovers the dimension where souls are located.” Awesome.
Naturally, I took Frances (or, as we more often call her, “Frankie”), as my date for Bryn Mawr’s Hepburn Award ceremony in Patti Smith’s honor. We had brought her a present, a talismanic piece of jewelry, a necklace made by our friend J. Rudy Lewis: a bronze wishbone on a leather cord, with one of our favorite things that we’ve heard Patti say before and after her concerts.
Patti noticed Frankie right away, and leaned down to accept our gift, for which she thanked us graciously, but also with alarm: “But what am I going to give you as a present?” she asked Frankie. She searched her jacket and pockets and smiled, drawing out her gift, a simple silk black ribbon of the sort she is famous for wearing. “I have had this in my pocket for five years, all during the time I was in Japan, and it is my good luck charm,” she said, pressing it into Frankie’s palm. “And this is my present to you.” Frankie whispered, “Thank you,” amazed and mute with honor.
After the ceremony, some faculty, including me, were to have our photos taken with Patti. When it was my turn, Frankie shyly told Patti the words that were inscribed on the necklace we had brought her: “It says, ‘I’d like to thank God I’m alive.’” Patti leaned down, hugged and kissed her, looked at Frankie in the eye and said: “And I am, honey. I am.” Patti then politely shooed the adults away and told Frankie that she would like to have her photograph taken with her.
And there they were, the most beautiful works of all: my blessed baby, Frankie, and the magical survivor and genius, Patti Smith. My soul was magnified.
Patti singing J. Carroll's "People Who Died" (But we're alive!)
Frankie, the Blessed