“We experience pain and difficulty as failure instead of saying … literature has come out of it.”
Trigger warning: several bummers ahead. Yes, your groaning is my groaning, and though this post will dig some dark coal, there is a writing diamond or two herein as well. And before we mention that effing virus, a little rehash:
Six months ago, my cat Malibu disappeared. I was deeply bonded to her, time and again laughed at her antics, worried when she was sick, looked to her regularly for comfort and companionship. Though I know she’s not coming back, I still scan for her striped shape in the nearby fields.
A few days ago I saw her sleeping on our bed—but it was just a crumpled-up shirt. She was semi-feral when we got her, so we continued to let her roam outdoors in the daytime. That felt right, but now I feel I failed her, that I failed to protect her. I still see her, purring with eyes shut in my lap. Six months later, the loss is daily.
Loss is a hollow place.
We try to help where we can, and try to survive our own trials and stresses, illnesses and elections. We work really hard at not being driven crazy by noise and speed and extremely annoying people, whose names we are too polite to mention. We try not to be tripped up by major global sadness, difficulties in our families or the death of old pets …
—Anne Lamott, Stitches
Two days before Christmas, my old boss skied into a tree at Tahoe and died. Though I hadn’t worked for him for years, I had always admired his goofy gusto, and how he drew others into his mad enthusiasm for skiing, diving, boating, hiking. At his memorial a month or so ago, many people testified to his fundamental decency.
On a cliffside above the beach, surrounded by the large memorial crowd, his son, a professional dancer, improvised to acoustic music a hard-twisting, and soft-flowing, and fully mesmerizing dance, a tribute to his father. Those movements were so knifing and experiential I can’t accurately describe their immediacy, but the dance made me burst into tears.
“They understood that the meaning of life is connected inextricably, to the meaning of death; that mourning is a romance in reverse, and if you love, you grieve and there are no exceptions–only those who do it well and those who don’t.”
—Thomas Lynch, The Depositions
A Visit to Vision Land
A month ago, my best friend’s wife died of pancreatic cancer. She’d become ill out of nowhere in the fall and died in less than six months. My girlfriend and I visited her a few weeks before her death and spent an hour or so with her on her bed. It was one of those times of astonishing transcendence: She was so even keeled, grounded and so communicative in her ease.
She was an accomplished person, but I’d always admired her modesty, her always seeming balanced and real. After we left her from the visit—at the end her reassuring me that everything would be fine, while I garbled out some blubbery froth—I thought she seemed like some kind of guru or saint, the spectacular way she looked at calendar’s end and nodded to it in grace and understanding. It was dazzling.
My friend—I’ve known him for 50 years—said she was much like that until the very end, when she went into an area he described as “vision land”: “… comfortable, chatty, but saying lots of stuff that was either delusional or cosmic or both.” Seeing her passage was a profound experience for him, and for their two teenage sons. It reminded me of the cliffside dance above, presenting again that there is vast depth in our often unseen nature, but it doesn’t come out much, because we have to shop, and pick up carpet nits and the like.
Meanwhile, someplace in the world, somebody is making love and another a poem. Elsewhere in the universe, a star manyfold the mass of our third-rate sun is living out its final moments in a wild spin before collapsing into a black hole, its exhale bending spacetime itself into a well of nothingness that can swallow every atom that ever touched us and every datum we ever produced, every poem and statue and symphony we’ve ever known—an entropic spectacle insentient to questions of blame and mercy, devoid of why.
—Maria Popova, Figuring
A week ago, an old pal emailed me that his wife has “… an entity in the right lung, the size of your thumb between the knuckle and the tip. Showed us in the scan. Turns out some lymph nodes have been invaded too.” This is a woman who just weeks ago had to have a truly brutal surgery as a result of excessive radiation for cancer treatment last year. The surgery had gone well and they were hopeful about prospects. Needless to say, prospects don’t look that good now.
“Then one day I have to run to catch a bus. I am so out of breath when I get there that I know in a flash all my preparations for the apocalypse are doomed. I will die early and ignobly.”
—Jenny Offill, Weather
One more, if you can stand it. (I can’t.)
Less than a week ago, a friend of mine who made it through breast cancer and treatment a couple of years ago told me she’d just gotten a CT scan for some discomfort, which turned up fluid around her heart, which can be indicative of a virus. Or metastatic cancer. Time will tell, whether we want to turn back the clock or not.
Are you still with me? If not, I understand. I’d recommend looking for a cookie, or seeing if there’s a spring bird singing in the garden, or pouring a shot of 100-proof Knob Creek for company while you sit on the porch. And I’m sure many of you could recite, in your own rhythm, the litany of grief that I have above, tied to the sinews of your family and friends. This is life stuff, shared by all of us.
I don’t know what to advise anyone about matters of grief and distance. You have to go with what feels right and console as you can. We are humans, we respond to genuine human sympathy. I’ve taken enough acid, mushrooms and peyote to be convinced that we sometimes walk through the walls of the everyday into something else—though the ultimate extinguishing of the candle on this side is another thing indeed, one for which we never seem prepared.
Since I have a tendency toward gloom, I’ve been using a light-therapy box daily since September. I don’t think it’s doing anything, but considering how sour the news is now, I’ve remained close to my usual baseline gloom, so perhaps it is working. I’ll keep using it, though spring has—hard to believe—sprung.
But There Is the Writing
For those still reading, all that death and desolation got me thinking about death and how it relates (finally!) to writing. To reference a 1960s product, death combines (and spatters) all the colors in the Spin-Art of our emotions. When death veers into the room, it sharpens our attention, and its aftermath often makes us reassess our place in the grand scheme, whether the reaction is terror, disquiet or even relief. So it is with death in fiction. (Spoiler alerts in named works ahead.)
We work hard, we enjoy life as we can, we endure. We try to help ourselves and one another. We try to be more present and less petty. Some days go better than others … Most of us do the best we can. We show up. We strive for gratitude, and try not to be such babies.
—Anne Lamott, Stitches
A death in a novel doesn’t have to be a cataclysm. In John Williams’s Stoner, which I read last year, the protagonist William Stoner quietly, resignedly accepts his life force ebbing in much the same way he accepted some agonizing (at least for me, the reader) failures in his stoic life. The understated way he went about his work and personal life, which yet had a deep inner glow, builds a momentum of reader empathy that makes his quiet death devastating.
The death of Inman in Cold Mountain, a book I loved, was so moving, and so well developed because his tortured journey home built and built and built in challenge and error, seeming more steps backward than forward; but he had to get home to his lover, home to the mountain he loved. He made it, though it turned out his real home lay further off in the empyrean.
And then there’s a mass shooting, a nuclear plant melts down, just as a niece is born, or as you find love. The world is coming to an end. I hate that. In environmental ways, it’s true, and in existential ways, it has been since the day each of us was born.
—Anne Lamott, Stitches
And all the glitter and glow of The Great Gatsby ends up with him shot dead in a pool, because of a mistaken judgment by the man who kills him. Fitzgerald worked the weight of this by showering us with Gatsby’s optimism and cheer and gleeful displays of ostentation only for him to die in a confused state of emotional unraveling. You sense something bad coming, but it still surprises.
I defy you not to be wrenched when George kills Lennie in Of Mice and Men to save him from the murderous hands of an ugly mob. Their odd and enveloping friendship is so deep and intimate it seems a privilege to see it as a reader, and such a blow to have it taken away.
In four billion years, our own star will follow its fate, collapsing into a white dwarf. We exist only by chance, after all. The Voyager will still be sailing into the interstellar shorelessness on the wings of the “heavenly breezes” Kepler had once imagined, carrying Beethoven on a golden disc crafted by a symphonic civilization that long ago made love and war and mathematics on a distant blue dot.
—Maria Popova, Figuring
Even when death is oblique or unclear, like with the Nina character in Amor Toles’ great A Gentleman in Moscow, her death-like absence causes the Count to fundamentally become her daughter Sofia’s father, which is a pivotal turning point in the book. The mother is gone, but a reluctant—yet loving—proto-father emerges to consequential effect.
And like the loss of my beloved Malibu, it doesn’t even have to be a human death to move you and make you question how and why the universe works. I read Charlotte’s Web many times as a kid, and always teared up at Charlotte’s dying, even if it was presented as the natural order. I’d probably get glubby reading it again now.
“His hand reaches out slowly and touches his book and returns to his dark chest. Nothing else moves in the room.”
—Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient
So, death. There’s a saying something like, “Death is the biggest trip of all. That’s why they save it for last.” Death has always come, and death will come tenfold in these viral times. May it spare your loved ones. If it has a place in your writing, may it illuminate, confound or extend the emotional depth of the story.
Be safe, tell the ones that matter you love them, and wash your hands.
But until that day comes, nothing once created ever fully leaves us. Seeds are planted and come abloom generations, centuries, civilizations later, migrating across coteries and countries and continents. Meanwhile, people live and people die—in peace as war rages on, in poverty and disrepute as latent fame awaits, with much that never meets its more, in shipwrecked love.
—Maria Popova, Figuring
Postscript (as though this hasn’t gone on long enough)
My father died at 93 on New Year’s Day in 2011, finally succumbing to complications related to his years of Alzheimer’s. I was down in LA visiting that Christmas days before his death, and though he had occasionally been struggling with exactly who his children were, we were all grateful that he still recognized my mom.
Though in that time he was mostly in bed, we brought him out into the living room in a wheelchair for a while every day for him to see and share a different part of his narrowing life. I was reading a novel on the couch when he turned to me and said, “Hey Tom, watcha reading?” To that point, a week in, he’d only been able to greet me with a “How you doin’?” and “Good” as the total of our conversations.
I showed him the book cover and told him a bit about the book and he said “Good” and went back to sleep. Though not a big reader himself, he knew I loved to read. I left that day, and that was the last conversation we had, and it was about books, and for that, I’m glad.
I will die.
You will die.
The atoms that huddled for a cosmic blink around the shadow of a self will return to the seas that made us.
What will survive of us are shoreless seeds and stardust.
—Maria Popova, Figuring
So, my WU friends, has death figured in your writing, as a pivotal point or as a rumbling in the distance?