Approximate Reading Time: 17 minutes
Another in what may be an ongoing series. Confessional enough?
I recently had occasion yet again to inform a reader of these essays that this blog is not to be mistaken for a diary, a confessional, or as an embodiment of factual accuracy. It fell, I am afraid, on heedless ears, as often happens in these situations. That’s a topic, the growing Age of the Égoïste, for another time.
There’s an old saw about being careful what you say to a writer because he will use it. The smart writer, of course, dresses up the facts, alters, twists, omits, amends, and invariably in the name of truth. It’s a higher truth, the allegiance to which most writers pay only lip service, if they say anything expressly about it at all. I take it seriously, hence this protestation.
If I were being not only cautious—not mentioning names or changing them, or only first names, and always, but always, omitting all but the barest essential salient facts for context; not to mention being mindful that someday, with a rare likelihood, I might have to look an attorney in the eye and tell him, “I did everything I could to make sure the subject was not identifiable… what were your fees again?”—but scrupulously conscientious, I would offer a caveat prominently, if not in every post, that would be of the ilk of Mark Twain’s famous foreword to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.
Like Twain, I do not seek to bury, or reveal, any moral in these stories and essays. And any reader, whether a regular or a newcomer, knows, and knows quickly, that the deliberate style I embrace here is designed to prevent detection of a “plot.”
However, the twists and turns of the reality of my life leave me increasingly feeling that perhaps I should be more confessional, at least from time to time. And simpler in the expression (confession sort of demands it: Guilty your honor, guilty as charged). And I have made small attempts at this. The accounts of my dinner (purely visual, one cannot be more real in two dimensions than an essentially unadulterated, if artful, photo rendition) and my lunch, in somewhat earlier posts this late fall are two such. The dinner “essay” consisted of a photo with no comment.
There were the inevitable admirers of my brief account of lunch, all monosyllables and simple sentences. My luck. Strunk & White people.
The greater penalty I pay, however, is at the bank of friendship. I cannot pretend that the core of readers of this almost non-existent blog are people who don’t know me. Let’s face it. I write enough words to cover a Federal highway in restoration. I just don’t spread them out. Blog followers are hungry for new bits on a more frequent regimen, so they can read and move on. Most blogs are entertainment: sound bites and provocations, conversation starters at the meta-water bubbler of the ether, inspirer of tweets and comments on the Facebook Wall. My blog entries are thoughtful, for me at least, and meant to engage, if not embrace, the reader, and not just any reader, but the reader who loves writing that is mindfully the work of a writer who is engaged himself in concentrating on style, and with the objective, if there is a conscious one at all, of entering the mind of another individual by inviting him or her into mine.
The subject does not matter. Any writer worth his salt can write on any subject and keep the reader engaged, at the least, and edified and introspective when there is fundamental success. The crowning achievement, for me anyway, is the sense of truth embodied, and the catharsis effected, or the empathy evinced.
The great subjects are love and death. I should add, in no particular order, although as I’ve stated it undoubtedly is the preferred one.
There is not a person of my living acquaintance, for obvious reasons, who does not prefer the thought of having the experience of love, of loving and being loved, before one meets his fate. We do get caught up in other things. Among the bourgeoisie of my social set, the achievers, and the wannabes, and the retired and retiring who now find themselves on the express train to the condition of being bourgeoisie manqués. Some, a very few, have already arrived at this destination, without the benefit of passing through a planned retirement (which nowadays resembles more the process of U.S. armed forces standing down and withdrawing from long tragic ill-conceived military adventures abroad, than the lightning strike of a day, speeches made, catered food and wine sucked down, and murmured encomiums and promised future get-togethers, when what has sometimes been the work of a lifetime suddenly ceases to be a daily and necessary preoccupation—in short a premonition of death).
As I am not disposed to speak personally, though I seem to, of matters that are of far greater moment than the matters I bring up here on this blog in the manner I choose to bring them up, there are any number of subjects that pertain to my private life that I refer to only in the most obtuse way. It is well-nigh impossible, given my particular, and possibly limited, gifts to write about what are admittedly sometimes abstract topics in anything, but concrete terms. That is, I must use concrete language, as much as I can (and regardless of the number of syllables in the word, a spade is still a spade, as well as a trenching tool), to describe concrete actions by concrete individuals acting upon other concrete individuals or objects in what I will call, for lack of better reference, the real and natural world.
Death, as far as I know, and to the limited extent of my research, is the cessation of life (speaking of abstractions), and what there may be concrete about it is something we will not know here in this world. I happen not to believe there is any other world, but what do I know? Love, too, as much as we feel it keenly when we feel it, or are sympathetic or empathetic to it in others feeling it keenly, also is about as concrete as the square root of minus-one. I know what I’m talking about when I speak of love and death. And I of course hope you do, if I’m speaking to you about it. But do we really know what we’re talking about? Where one comes from and why? Or where we go and why when undergoing the other?
It would be nice to wrap each one up and move on. I know a lot of people who would be a great deal happier having these two very large abstractions nailed down for good, among the myriad abstractions we must deal with, and that no doubt account for the ways in which all of us (I’m talking about the number of us on the planet, now approaching seven billion) though recognizably and palpably and in many ways mechanically, biologically and chemically the same, can be so very different, one of us against another, each to each in a chain that is as long as seven billion people would make—head-to-toe, or hand-in-hand, your choice. Indeed, I could make the case, and I will no doubt at another time, because it’s another topic, that increasingly we live in a world with a greater and greater number of people who prefer that we have things wrapped up, have rules, and ceremonies, and protocols, and that we be inflexible about them, that we have certitude. I think it makes them feel less uneasy about the ineluctable facts. Love and death, that is. And we can’t wrap them up, though we keep trying.
The case has been made long since that those efforts to wrap them up, or at least to describe them, or exemplify them, or rail against them, or embrace them, or to wax poetic, are all and the only matters that make up art, whatever form it takes. And I will tell you, quite comfortably, that for my own humble efforts here, on this blog, and elsewhere, in poems, and stories, in photos, and drawings, and whatever else I have put my hand to in the almost 60 years of my 63 that I have had motor control of my hands to put them to such tasks, but especially on this blog, all I am ever talking about is love and death.
I have had experience of the one, am fortunate indeed in being able to say so. As I’m still here, I’m talking about love, not death. And I have watched at close hand, too close for comfort or ease, too close for ready escape, too close for anything but the expectation that one’s only choice is to stay, or cut and run. And I didn’t think about it. I stayed. Love kept me around.
I am not being coy. It’s not easy to speak of the slow, so slow, so agonizingly, sadly, mortifyingly slow death of another you love as deeply as you have ever loved anyone or anything on this tiny planet, third rock from a second-rate star, a sun, yes, but a mediocre one. And for all that, the only one we’ve got, so it’s the best sun I know of. Yet, accepting this concession to an ineluctable truth, it’s still not easy to watch someone you love slowly succumb to the cruel fate of disease, and its master, death.
In as few words as possible, and to speak of things I promised myself once I would not speak of here, in this space, and in this way, my wife died. She died, as I write, nine months and six days ago. When I wake tomorrow morning, some time between 3:30 and 5:30, it will be a full week in addition to those nine months. A complete gestation.
Am I better for it? Worse for it? I don’t know.
I endure it, as I have endured. There is only the choice Camus has delineated, and the alternative has never occurred to me. So like everything else in this life, we accept what we cannot change, and with any luck we do it without causing harm or grief to ourselves or others.
There is the catch. I’m here. She isn’t. It could be the reverse. No matter. The catch is the same. My grief would be hers (or so I hope and expect, as far as I understood what I understood between us; otherwise one of us was lying, and I never knew her to lie about this grave matter, and I know I didn’t lie). But that’s the only difference. An exchange of players. A reversal of roles.
In accepting that I am alive, I accept that I must live. At least I accept that this is what I want to do. I expect to. She expected me to.
The problem arises because one does not travel the world alone. All but some very few of us are social creatures. However we may choose, at least as to basics: gender, age, etc., we expect, we hope, we want and need and hope that there will be another, the other. And we seek them, him or her. And we find him or her. Or not.
If we look, we certainly find candidates. And like the late games leading to the presidential contest that engaged and enthralled us all, that’s where the fun comes.
What I have discovered in seeking candidates, finding some potential prospects, some more serious than others, all worthy one way or another, but not too many suitable, is what the most ordinary person would discover—and I am nothing if not much more than ordinary. Life in short, as I have always experienced, and as you have dear reader, mon semblable, mon frère (où soeur). Lively, energetic, funny, intelligent, variously attractive, compelling, feeling, complex people. Women, in my case, being the ones I’ve met.
And as we get to know one another, as we must, we discover that the facts of the life we encounter are facts we must deal with, react to, respond to, feel something about.
There is no greater provocation than death.
The women I have met have all reacted differently, however subtle the differences, to the news that I am newly (and lately less newly, and soon, even less so, no doubt, though the end of the newness is not distinct, but, like all things, save the winner of Presidential elections and sporting events, is a relative, if not a slippery thing) widowered.
But it is in death, and how it fits in my life that I have discovered a truth I could not have known, having only known the usual deaths, of forebears: parents and elders, and at such an extremity of the life we’re offered measured in years, less a matter of consequence than of forbearance. An influence, but not an impact. A loss, but not a catastrophe.
This latest death, of my love and my life and my wife, was a catastrophe. Make no mistake. I didn’t.
However, we all react to these tragic complications, these deep, ineradicable wrinkles in the quotidian fabric of our lives in different ways. Consummately.
And yet. And yet. For some. For many, if my experience is representative, there are rules, and rules, like the attention due any life that must be paid, rules must be obeyed.
There is a “too soon” and a “recent,” a taxonomy of temporal events. I have always understood these terms (though this is no mere semantic matter) to be relative. No matter.
The nearness of such a death as I had to, and must need, endure make me toxic.
Whatever my allure. However I comport myself. The words I say. The actions I take. Irrelevant.
It doesn’t matter if life beckons. If the call of love is faint or strong, echoes in the wilderness I retreated from when I found a home so long ago with the woman I loved, do love, even unto death, the wilderness to which death has forced me to return, no matter. It doesn’t matter the condition of my heart, neither the capacity for nor the openness to feeling for another.
Who I am, and what I am, what I feel, and what I say are of no consequence. Death has taken the wheel, and I must stay for the ride, buckled in, sedate, calm, and accepting. When death will let me exit at the curb, I am free.
In the meantime, I am in transit, in transition (though from what to what is never clear). It’s a life, but of living death.
I can’t be trusted. I can’t be handled, except with sympathy.
I may entertain. I may pay the cost of meals, of amusements, of gifts, and travel. I may be myself, or someone else—for both of these beings are seen as through a veil and therefore indistinguishable. Yeah, I’m a nice guy, but too bad about my wife.
Some few are undaunted by these mortal facts, and I have a taste of normalcy, of sense, and decency, of sensitivity, but not caution, or vigilance, or fear in their presence. And if I’m lucky, life proceeds once again without impediment, because I wish it to, as do they. But these are happy and rare accidents. I remember these. Like hurricanes in Hartford, Hereford and Hampshire, they hardly happen. They rarely occurred before, and as far as I can tell, my luck has only gotten worse.
The result is the message I leave you with, an important message because it adverts to our understanding of the only universal truth: death. We may will that death shall have no dominion. Triumph in the end perhaps, but no dominion. Not in life. It’s a logical impossibility. But for some, the impossible is ineluctable. It transcends their own will, their wishes and desires, and they submit. Fear is powerful. Timor mortis conturbat me.
And what I must suffer, in addition to all else and what else I suffer, in silence and in private, because who in her right mind would share these with one who starts, as we each must when we meet, as a stranger, is the allotment of dominion so many are willing to give death. Where it deserves no space at all.