I don’t know Amy Krouse Rosenthal. But, like a lot of people in Chicago and now on the internet, I feel I do. She’s the author of last week’s devastating New York Times Modern Love essay, “You May Want To Marry My Husband,” a love letter to her husband, Jason, in the form of a personal ad, written as she dies from cancer.
Many of us knew about her cancer; she’d discussed it in interviews last summer when her most recent book, “Textbook Amy Krouse Rosenthal,” was released. But it was a painful shock to learn she was dying.
I am not familiar with her children’s books, which include “Little Pea” and “Uni The Unicorn,” but I do know her books for grown-ups, which read like letters from a very dear friend. “Encyclopedia Of An Ordinary Life,” which came out in 2005, told her life story in the form of an encyclopedia from A to Z, from her childhood in Northbrook and adolescence as one of the only Jews in Lake Forest, through her years working in advertising and her current life with her husband and their three children. She described “Textbook Amy Krouse Rosenthal” as her thoughts about being human, organized by subject. But, like a lot of her work, it had an interactive component: At certain points in the book, readers could text the book’s number and receive a video clip or a piece of music that related to what she’d just read.
Krouse, who is 51, has most often described herself as a person who makes things. Most of those things were intended to bring joy, or at the very least make the world more interesting, and many of them are preserved as videos on her website, whoisamy.com: the time she left Hostess Ding Dongs on random porches in the Lakeview neighborhood where she lives; the time she and two friends clipped 100 1-dollar bills to a tree on Southport Avenue and waited to see what would happen, the time she organized a group to stand outside the Belmont Avenue el station and cheer on commuters coming home from work.
Her biggest project was “The Beckoning Of Lovely.” It was intended as the culmination of a video called “17 Things I Made.” This was a visual list of 17 things she’d made, including her books, her children and her wedding vow, and ended with an invitation for viewers to join her in front of the Bean sculpture in Millennium Park downtown on August 8, 2008, at 8:08 p.m. to make one more thing. She expected maybe 30 people; 400 showed up. So, together they made many more things: “a grand entrance” (with a handspring), “a splash” (in a nearby fountain), “someone’s day” (by giving a random woman a bouquet of flowers and a hug). At the end of the video of that event, Rosenthal asked viewers to send her more lovely things; more than 500 people from all over the world did. “The Beckoning Of Lovely” continued with three more annual gatherings, all at the Bean. Friendships were formed. People fell in love. Jeff Ruby, a columnist at Chicago magazine, described it as the reverse of Project Mayhem of “Fight Club”: Project Warm Fuzzy.
I never experienced any of these events personally, but the videos are evidence that she somehow managed, for brief periods, to turn Chicago into a magical and surprising place full of kind and loving people.
And now it’s almost impossible to watch the end of the first “Beckoning Of Lovely video,” where a group of strangers stand together and flip over sheets of paper that read, “Make the most of your time here,” and not cry.
WMAQ-TV reported on Monday that Rosenthal was in hospice. She had abandoned her most recent project, #Project123, a list of three things that she posted on Instagram at 1:23 every day and had intended to keep going for 123 days, on February 1. “In the last few days,” she wrote, “this cancer—oh, did I mention I have cancer?—has increasingly (and rudely) robbed me of my natural energy and focus.”
Jason Rosenthal issued a written statement about the Modern Love column on Wednesday. “It is Amy’s gift with words that has drawn the universe in,” he wrote. “I didn’t know exactly what she was composing. But I was with her as she labored through this process and I can tell you that writing the story was no easy task. When I read her words for the first time, I was shocked at the beauty, slightly surprised at the incredible prose given her condition and, of course, emotionally ripped apart.”
It’s strange and sad to look back on old interviews with Rosenthal now and see that even before her cancer diagnosis in September 2015, she seemed to have a sense that her time was running short. In an interview that May with her friend Claire Zulkey, Rosenthal decided to pass the questions on to her husband, their daughter Paris, and a few random strangers and then give her own commentary on their answers. In reply to, “What was the last thing that annoyed you or you were crabby about?” one of the strangers, Nicole Coyle, suggested, “The last thing that really annoyed her was that her Wednesday went by way too quickly to do all things she wanted to do.
Yes, Nicole. And if you replace the word ‘life” with “Wednesday’ and put a period after the word ‘quickly’, the sentence also holds true.”