A man my friend loved died very suddenly and, like my husband, far too young.
“I wish I had spent every second with him,” she said.
“But you can’t live your life like one of you is about to die,” I told her.
I reflected only afterwards that that is exactly how Jim and I and our children lived our lives for the better part of a year.
It is the knowing—not just the earlier, arguably premonitory flashes–that made those months so surreal.
I identify with the professor who wrote, “If something distasteful or painful lies ahead, it poisons all the time in between.” He quoted Julius Caesar, in which Brutus mused that “between the acting of a dreadful thing/And the first motion, all the interim is/Like a phantasm or a hideous dream.”
The “upcomingness” of that professor’s own dreaded occasions “festers in [his] mind, envenoming” the preceding days.
As Tim O’Brien’s semi-reliable narrator put it in The Things They Carried, “In some respects, though not many, the waiting was worse than the tunnel itself. Imagination was a killer.”[ii]
That professor’s dreaded occasions? Faculty meetings. I am a professor’s daughter; I understand each of us has his own dreaded events.
I always have been irritated by use of the term “being present for” something, which I take as a bastardization of the popular conception of being “in the moment.” (I’m not particularly enamored of that phrase, either.)
Unlike my husband, I am easily irritated.
Years ago, at a concert in a Portsmouth church, the young woman sitting on the bench a few rows in front of Jim and me loudly and repeatedly announced to a friend she evidently had not seen for some time that that she was trying “to be present for” significant events in her life.
“Where else did she plan to be?” I whispered in Jim’s ear, to which I always had to crane my head upward. “Is she prone to random bouts of teleportation?”
As usual, Jim humored me.
A Jose Donoso character was born a “monster,” a mass of deformities; the wealthy man who believes he is the child’s father and that his son is the end of his genetic line decides to create a world populated only by other monsters, in which there is nothing upwind or downwind; there is only the “enchanted present,” “the limbo of accident, of the particular circumstance, in the isolation of the object and the moment without a key or meaning that could subject him to a rule and, in subjecting him to it, cast him into the infinite void it was necessary for him to avoid.”[iii]
Had Jim survived until mid-June he would have called up The New York Times on the I-pad given his colleagues gave him, knowing he would want to read as much as he could while in treatment. He would have read an article that–among people who knew Jim–he alone would not have recognized as describing him.
Although I am reading a novel in which anthropomorphic death takes a hiatus (for entirely understandable personal reasons); perhaps John Hiatt sang it best (with his road band. . . The Goners)—and lustily at that: “Time is short and here’s the damn thing about it/You’re gonna die, gonna die for sure/And you can learn to live with love or without it/But there ain’t no cure.”
Richard Thompson infused similarly zestful joy in a song he played on an outdoor stage at Portsmouth’s Prescott Park, while Jim and I sat just a few feet away as Jim happily took in the summer night—a night when no one but I knew Jim’s innocuous-looking fanny pack housed a chemotherapy arsenal steadily being pumped in through his port:
Let me ride on the Wall Of Death one more time
You can waste your time on the other rides
This is the nearest to being alive
Oh let me take my chances on the Wall Of Death
You can go with the crazy people in the Crooked House
You can fly away on the Rocket or spin in the Mouse
The Tunnel Of Love might amuse you
Noah’s Ark might confuse you
But let me take my chances on the Wall Of Death
I was a wreck at the time; Jim never was.
In “Philosophy as an Art of Dying,” Costica Bradatan wrote of the commotion attending known imminent death among philosophers who “found themselves in the most paradoxical of situations: lovers of logic and rational argumentation, silenced by brute force. . . . What was left of these philosophers then? Just their silence, their sheer physical presence. The only means of expression left to them, their own bodies – and dying bodies at that.”
It is hardly a novel observation that the same body that can tenderly touch, that nourishes a baby, that feels the adrenaline and exhilaration of an outdoor adventure, is subject to the pain of labor and of injury and degeneration, the ravages of an invasive tumor as it impinges on nerves. As put by a character in Baltasar and Blimunda, “in order to invent heaven and hell a man would need to know nothing except the human body.”
“Why,” asked Bradatan, “is Socrates such an important and influential figure? Mostly because of the manner and circumstances of his death. . . . [H]e crafted one of the most famous endings of all time: his own.” He continued: “The worthiness of one’s philosophy reveals itself, if anywhere, in the live performance of one’s encounter with one’s own death. . . . Tell me how you deal with your fear of annihilation, and I will tell you about your philosophy.”
Jim, like our sons, tended to be spare with words. This man of few words was a man of consistent action and belief, philosophical in a way few people are. Bradatan equated the fear of death with the fear of annihilation; Jim distinguished the two, and feared neither.
As a physician my husband knew what the process of dying is like. Faced with the knowledge of his imminent death, he never wavered in his beliefs about life; nor did he doubt that I and his children and friends would make sure, as Mary Oliver wrote in A Pretty Song he remains here, on “earth, our heaven for awhile.”
Jim was unwittingly a philosopher. He caused no public commotion; he was well-known only in his circles of the world, and did nothing to draw attention to himself. He no longer subscribed to the formalities of the religious faith into which he was born, but he had tremendous faith in, as our friend Bob put it, “the inherent goodness of man” and life’s worth.
In “We are in Many Moments,” Andrew Sullivan wrote that we live in a “discontinuous, du jour present, a Smithsonian so densely packed with experiential exhibits that no lingering look, no settled examination, seems permitted. No sooner do we settle into a moment than another gallops by, all dust and flashing hooves.” But “This ‘in the moment’ cliché. . . can be misunderstood. The point is not to somehow stop time; the point is to transcend it. We are, as mortals, trapped in the ‘deadliness of doing,’ but if we can get above the practical mode of experience, we can experience moments in time that are also out of time, what Oakeshott meant when he spoke of salvation as having nothing whatsoever with the future.”
Throughout his illness and the life before it, Jim managed to “experience moments in time that are also out of time.”
It was a deep symbiosis that I understand better now: I think Jim experienced every day, and expressed in the very way he lived each day his love for us and nature and the heavens; it is a faith in life as it is, as he experienced it with us and in the wider world—a “salvation” in the moment.
(c) 2012 Stephanie M. Glennon
5 thoughts on “Skirting the Infinite Void”
Your writing leaves me speechless. Your depth of knowledge, your ability to describe and bring alive your husband, your family and your journey are precious.
I will be referring people to his site — it is profound in so many ways and helps those on the journey of loss as well as those like me, who are the spouse of a man on the cancer journey.
It also makes me wonder why cancer is such a mean disease, why it chooses some to die and allows others to live beyond any normal expectation. It is unfortunate a man such as your husband was not one chosen to physically live on. Maybe it is because your (plural) profound spirits would not have found these words and this medium to touch the lives of so many.
Thank you for sharing yourself, husband, family and memories.
Thank you so much, and my very best to you and your husband. I wonder about these questions every day. My husband, who took such good care of himself all his life, viewed this as a biological event that could have stricken anyone and never wondered “why me?” But I do.
In late summer, after my husband’s diagnosis, a friend of mine told me that a poem-of-the-day was the only reliable treat in his inbox. I decided to subscribe to the same service, and the very first poem sent to me was Dennis Caraher’s “Sweet Summer Days” (http://writersalmanac.publicradio.org/index.php?date=2010/09/21). It (especially the third verse) seemed to me to speak to some of the same questions:
The summer sun is nearly done
Frost will follow soon
Asters and chrysanthemums
Light up the afternoon
The dew is on long after dawn
Mornings are a haze
One swallow’s song is holding on
In these fading sweet summer days.
We flew across the ocean
Some fell into the sea
God will choose what we will lose
Though we may disagree . . . .
Stars they are innumerable
We’ll never know them all
But nature’s not immutable
Every star will fall
Love this point. THE OBSCENE BIRD OF NIGHT is one of my all-time faves.