My work often enters the realm of comical missed signals and malapropisms. Every trial seems to involve multiple such moments. During one, jurors were growing antsy from endless bench conferences involving multiple defendants and a cast of uber-combative (even by criminal trial standards) counsel.
“If this were a plot line in a book, no one would fricking believe it,” murmured my co-counsel as we went back to our chairs after yet another tedious, tendentious evidentiary go-round at sidebar.
A court officer approached gingerly and told us the jurors were requesting permission to watch a DVD during these lengthy conferences.
We all nodded. As the court officer was about to leave the courtroom to go into the neighboring jury room and authorize the entertainment, the judge called him back and asked if there was a particular DVD the jurors wanted to watch.
The court officer held up the DVD case. It was The Runaway Jury.
During Jim’s treatment I thought I would pick up some light, humorous reading for him at the library so he would have more entertainment options during his long hours of chemotherapy infusion.
My first attempt at picking out a book for him should have put me on alert: I had scrambled to find him a copy of Carl Hiaasen’s latest novel, Star Island, which he read during chemotherapy. I learned weeks later–when I finally got to the same book during one of my seemingly endless sleepless nights–the book had a lead character who went by “Chemo.”
After Jim died, I continued reading through the stack of books he had read and which still teeters on a small table on his side of the bed. Only then did I realize I’d done it again—at least once: unable to resist a blurb about Kurt Vonnegut’s Galápagos, which I couldn’t unearth locally, I had ordered it for Jim.
Our unforgettable final family trip, planned by Jim after he was diagnosed, was to Ecuador.
I wondered, as I turned the well-weathered pages when Jim was no longer beside me, what he had thought when he saw Vonnegut’s device of placing a small black star before the names of characters about-to-be-dispatched-through-the-blue-tunnel-to-the-Afterlife. The novel’s body count was notable, and Vonnegut had used the symbol to designate any character whose time was short.
I wondered what Jim had thought when he read about the cancer-stricken character who yearned to make a last trip to the Galapagos Islands[i]:
In April Roy was diagnosed as having an inoperable brain tumor. ‘The Nature Cruise of the Century’ thereupon became what he was staying alive for. ‘I can hang on that long at least, Mary. November—that’s not far away, is it?’
‘No,’ she said.
‘I can hang on that long.’
‘You could have years, Roy,’ she said.
‘Just let me take that cruise,’ he said. ‘Let me see penguins on the equator,’ he said. ‘That’ll be good enough for me.’
Blue-footed boobies, I thought as Jim planned our last trip as a family of six. That’ll be good enough for me.
Although some of my literary choices seemed, in retrospect, unfortunate, I know Jim found all of these books and scenes amusing, and was glad to add them to his immense reading stockpile. I know he must have thought of me as he read a scene about a recent widow who fled, heartbroken, away from a hopeful suitor: “She didn’t want to be married to anybody but Roy. Even if Roy was dead, she still didn’t want to be married to anybody but Roy.”[ii]
It never occurred to me that so many of the books I selected for my husband would strike quite so close to home. How could I go wrong with, say, anthropomorphic animal stories? So I picked up David Sedaris’s Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk. The cover featured a charming, cartoonish illustration of a romantic candlelit dinner between the eponymous leads. Perhaps I should have looked more carefully at some of the inside illustrations.
Jim read the short stories for a couple of nights running and was chuckling. Only then did I learn he was reading “The Sick Rat and the Healthy Rat,” which, he explained, featured a white rat with pancreatic cancer.
What are the odds? I had brought my stricken husband a cheerful-looking book of animal short stories, and one of the lead characters was dying of pancreatic cancer.
Jim truly enjoyed the story’s darkly comedic ending. I read the book later and was amazed to find that the other rat was a parody of those who believe sickness is self-induced–and a subscriber to the limerick form (“I heard somewhere that limericks can cure both heart disease and certain types of cancer. Can you beat that? Limericks!”).
Limericks–along with haiku, which also gets a nod in a character’s crack in the same story—make up the poetic form Jim and I had happen to have gravitated towards for many years for comedic purposes.
The same short story also contained the essence of much deep philosophical musing and debate we had engaged in over the years with afflicted friends, one of whom I simply could not dissuade from the idea that she had lived her life in some way so as to give rise to her own cancer. I shall never believe that. And that was of course long before Jim followed that friend in showing that one can treat one’s body like a temple, and live the best of lives with the purest of hearts, and still mercilessly perish from this disease.
The chipper new rat roommate in Sedaris’s story was an over-the-top caricature of the concept that people bring cancer on themselves by the way that they live (as opposed to, say, voluntarily filling one’s lungs with smoke). According to the still-healthy rat, “We blame them on our environment and insist that they could happen to anyone, but in truth we bring them on ourselves with hatefulness and negativity.” The white rat responded, after he “coughed up some phlegm with bits of lung in it. ‘So this is my fault?’”
The story ends with a limerick so marvelously twisted as to have brought a hearty laugh from Jim. Even then.