When Phillip Dixon called to say that his wife, Lynne Duke, had died after a long bout with cancer, I did what friends do and put myself at his disposal.
“What you can do,” he said, “is look me in the eye and tell me that we’ll get through this, that everything is going to be okay.”
A simple request. But en route to his home in Silver Spring, it occurred to me that saying those words was not the same as believing them. I’ve heard people tell mourners things such as “Life goes on” and “This too shall pass.” But I couldn’t imagine such cliches actually bringing comfort to a grieving soul. And Phil would certainly know if I were just mouthing the words.
He and Lynne had both worked at The Washington Post. He was a gifted editor, able to intuit what writers were trying to say and help them say it better. She had been one of the newspaper’s most graceful and evocative writers. In 1995, at age 38, she became the Johannesburg bureau chief — the newspaper’s first African American female foreign correspondent.
They married in 1999, soon after her return.
Lynne died at their home Friday. She was 56. The professionals at Montgomery Hospice had helped Phil care for her until the end. He was grateful for their service and greeted me at the door with a hug. Men, especially hard-boiled 61-year-old former editors like him, don’t usually reach out so unabashedly for emotional support. In fact, we guys are often reluctant to show any kind of feelings that might make us look weak or needy.
Caring for Lynne during her struggle with lung cancer, however, had helped Phil see that such feelings do not make us look weak, just human. In reaching out, he was teaching me a thing or two.
“Lynne used to tell me that I wasn’t ‘present’ when we talked,” he recalled. “I’d say: ‘What do you mean? I’m right here.’ Now I know what she meant: being totally immersed in our conversations, intellectually and emotionally, in the moment, in the here and now.”
Ouch, I was guilty, too. Being present meant listening, not just hearing. If you told me about a problem, I’d feel compelled to give you the answer — sometimes interrupting in mid-sentence, never listening long enough to know that you just wanted to talk it out, not be told what to do.
“I wish I’d gotten it sooner,” Phil said.
Don’t we all? But at least he got it. Some of us never do.
If anybody knew how to make her point, it was Lynne. Diminutive, 5 feet tall, she was known as the “Duke of Africa,” as fearless a foreign correspondent as there was. She’d covered much of the continent south of the equator — evading extraordinary dangers while chronicling the tragic reigns of Mobutu Sese Seko and Laurent Kabila in Zaire (now Congo), covering the triumphant return of Nelson Mandela from prison in 1990, and then returning as bureau chief to report on then-President Mandela’s effort to rebuild a post-apartheid South Africa.
“I am neither an Afro-pessimist nor an Afro-optimist,” she wrote in her 2003 memoir, “Mandela, Mobutu, and Me: A Newswoman’s African Journey.” Rather, she was an “Afro-realist” with “affectionate concern for and loyalty to the African struggle . . . guided by legions of African people whose lives are built on extraordinary fortitude, unwavering hope and profound humanity despite immense odds.”
Most American newspapers no longer cover Africa — or any other place in the world, for that matter — with such passion, let alone send African American women to do it.
Lynne and Phil made a perfect match — a writer and an editor who met in the newsroom, went on to live under the same roof. Sometimes yin and yang, sometimes nitro and glycerin. Often laughing, sometimes arguing, always loving and fun to be around.
“I prayed that she would go peacefully and painlessly,” Phil told me. “This morning, I got on my knees and thanked God for answering my prayers.” He looked remarkably content, not distraught as I had expected, but like a man who knew that there was more to this world than meets the eye, that he’d felt the presence of a loving spirit when he needed it most.
“Everything is going to be okay,” I told him, convinced.
“I know,” Phil replied, smiling assuredly. Then it dawned on me: He’d known all along. Just wanted a worried friend to know it, too.
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.