“He cannot be dead,” said Paul, my father’s editor at Playboy. “It is Friday. I am sitting here looking at a pitch letter he sent me on Monday.”
Things you don’t realize will be part of your job description: returning voicemail messages left for your father, who has suddenly died.
“Well, Paul,” I said, “Maurice always said he wanted to be found dead slumped over the typewriter, a blank sheet of paper rolled into the platen.”
“This could be the last time,” sang a very young Mick Jagger with the Stones, back in 1965: warning of impending break-up/heartbreak --- that compelling story we love to live and replay in our youth, but which turns out to be a minor dress rehearsal for the infinitely larger narratives of love and loss which will come, over time, to pervade our lives. (Heart images throughout: paintings by Jim Dine).
But any time could be “the last time.”
Here’s an unalterable reality: anything can happen to anyone at any time. No exceptions, exclusions. No security in the usual sense. Why did it happen to me, wails the dancer who gives birth to a dwarf, the fiddle-playing carpenter who loses 3 fingers in a table saw accident, the sudden widower whose wife died from complications following surgical removal of a benign growth between the first and second toes on her left foot.
I get steamed when I go to a workshop and right at the beginning the leader says (as many workshop leaders do), in a calm, reassuring voice, “Now we are going to create a safe space here this weekend…”
I know what is meant, and how well-intended this meaning is. But I also know, with that one sentence, that they are still green to life’s bittersweet, gorgeous, implacable nature. They think life can be safe! They think they have some realistic say-so in the matter! I think, "How can they possibly believe this?"
But I know how they can and do: They have not yet ripened.
Lately I have been thinking a lot about time, the unknowable “last time”, deadlines, as well as those realities of life that are at essence unalterable --- what the Buddhist-Jungian David Richo calls “the givens.”
How could I not? I outlived my father, as most adult children in modern societies do. My mother is 98; the most pressing thing that she has outlived, at the moment, is her money. I am myself 60, thirteen years past the before-and-after moment when I became a 48 year-old widow, and began the long process of outliving my four-years-younger husband.
And, I am a writer, who also works with writers and would-be writers. And one of the things writers (including me) say all the time is, “I don’t have enough time.”
Like asking “Why did this happen to me?”, saying, “I don’t have enough time,” is the not-yet-cracked code which initiates you: which means welcome to the club, human being. You, like every other human being or creature (“a crush of other debtors,” in the words of the poet Wislawa Syzmborska, whose poem “Nothing’s a gift” starts with the premise “It’s all on loan”) , inhabit a body in which you will move through a series of events, some lovely, some terrifying, some boring or aggravating or divine, most unpredictable.
This movement is called “your life”, or, perhaps more accurately, “your life time.” And there is never enough of it. Or so it appears.
Would-be writers often tell me they want to write but have no time. They ask me sincerely where I “find time” or how I “make time.” Between calls from my mother’s caregivers, between appointments to get my teeth cleaned, between out-of-the-blue e-mails that offer terrific opportunities but only if I stop what I am doing right now and answer, between remembering that it is Tuesday and therefore the trash must taken down to the bottom of the hill --- between all this I am forced to say: No one “finds time.” No one “makes time.” We all just allocate time.
If you want to write, you have time to write, though almost never as much as you want or feel you need. Yet there it is: the same 24 hours a day belong to you as to every other creature on this beleaguered, perplexing, lovable planet, temporary home from which we will at some unknown time be permanently exiled.
You can choose to use part of the 24 hours to write (or do anything else, of course). Or not. Simple: it’s choice. Writer Neil Gaiman says, “This is how you do it: you sit down at the keyboard and you put one word after another until it’s done. It’s that easy and that hard.”
Professional writers under contract work under two deadlines. One is the known deadline: the date that the article or manuscript is due to the publisher. The other is the unknown deadline: the moment when time’s up; when they no longer have that 24 hours a day for an unknown, but presumably somewhat indefinite period of time.
The moment when this second, unknown and mostly unknowable deadline becomes clear is the moment the writer realizes the car, on the black ice-covered road, is not in his or her control and will hit the telephone pole. The moment when the doctor says, “I’m sorry. It’s inoperable.” The moment the heart explodes in the chest, breaking out of the cage of the sternum.
There’s a reason why the word “dead” is in deadline. And don’t you forget it.
Writers who are not under contract --- and for that matter everyone else --- still work under a deadline: this second one. David Richo, who I mentioned earlier, believes “the givens” of life have two contradictory meanings. He asks us to hold one in each hand. The first, in essence, is the one I have already described: a given is a non-negotiable reality, often appearing harsh, which you, being merely a puny mortal human like the rest of us, cannot alter or control. But the second meaning of “given” is… a gift. A gift: something given.
I can speak to this clearly. Being seasoned with a full and conscious knowledge of mortality and loss is a gift, though one that usually comes wrapped in horrific wrapping paper.
I was given it for the first time when I was a month past my eighteenth birthday, when I was raped at gunpoint. At one point, trying to escape the abductors, I tried to slip out the car window, and I screamed “HELP” so loudly my throat remained raw for several hours.
One of the rapists looked at me and shook his head wonderingly. “Baby,” he said, “You just signed your own death certificate.”
In the next five or six hours before the two men let me go --- a letting go that, until they did it, I was mostly sure would not happen --- one of the leit-motifs that ran through my mind and heart over and over was all I had not done.
Some you would expect; did the people I love know how much I loved them? But some, you might not (unless you, too, are a writer): those poems in the bottom drawer of the dresser; why had I never finished them? And the first three chapters of that dystopian novel that I got discouraged by and stopped…
I do not recommend being raped at gunpoint and thinking you will not survive it as a motivational or time-management tool. I do not defend the actions of those who violated me, or rape in general, in any way. I could just as easily not have survived. (Anything can happen to anyone at any time.)
But the fact is, I did survive, and the terrifying knowledge of unsafety and death’s proximity was both a theft and a gift. The latter became more generous, over time, than the former. The latter, in fact, has never stopped giving.
For six months or so after the rape, if even the most gentle and affectionate of lovers stroked me, even if a friend or parent so much as placed a hand on my arm, the skin they touched would rise in a long, strange welt, a line of white framed in red, itching, dramatically visible. This gradually ceased, and has never recurred.
But the knowledge of what Andrew Marvel called “time’s winged chariot” has never faded. In some strange way, I owe the fact that I have fifty published books out, and countless magazine articles, to say nothing of innumerable unpublished pieces, to the visceral grasp of mortality I had when one of the rapists showed me the pearl-handled revolver, showed me its six cylinders, showed me that two contained bullets and four did not, held it to my head, spun, and clicked.
Nothing happened. But I still write, and live, as if it might have.
And as, in one sense, it will.
Still, I have never reached the point where I can view the death of my husband, Ned, as a gift. To even imagine seeing it thus feels obscene. It feels like pure subtraction, still.
Thank God I no longer dwell in that bewildered terrain, steep, barren, rocky, split by chasms and moraines, that is grief. After the sudden death of someone you not only loved but counted on as unthinkingly, their presence as certain and unquestioned as, say, waking up with the same number of arms and legs as you went to bed with: after this, the grief in which you reside, in which you carry on, has a sound track inaudible to everyone with whom you converse (“How are you?”).
You shop for ever smaller amounts of food; you are cooking only, and barely, for one, or you are by yourself, refilling the birdfeeder, running a bath, stroking the cat, looking out as the tree-tops dip on a windy day, in that long long silence that is the remainder of your life.
But the soundtrack, audible only to you, continues without cease: it is one long unending unremitting inner howl.
No. I do not live there now. Yes, I see much good, much that is a gift, about my life as it is now, a life that would not have unfolded as it did had Ned lived. But I cannot see his death as having purchased for me where I live now, the twenty mile view to New Hampshire, the heated political discussions and middle-of-the-night word-play with my present, dear partner, a filmmaker. I cannot see it as having bought me singing, painting, drawing and collage, participating in improv, none of which I did when Ned was alive because they sort of encroached on ‘his’ areas, though neither of us would have seen it that way at the time.
And though in one sense I suppose that is what his death did do: bought, by creating such endless empty space, room to be filled. But "gift"? No.
As Richo says (and I have quoted this before, in a post called Famous Peaches, Dripping Juice, which is on my other food-centric blog, Deep Feast), “Some feelings, for example, those associated with grief about a heavy loss, may never lead to full resolution. There is a note of inconsolability in some grief no matter how much we cry or how mirrored we may be by those who care about us. We can say yes to the given that some experiences remain unresolved and unfinished. There are some aches which never fully abate. This is not because we are inadequate but because reality is sometimes just that stubborn --- another part of the mystery of life.”
One of those mysteries, for me, remains the fact that a few years before his death, Ned and I came close to breaking up, due to an extended and secret affair he had. But we did not. Instead we pick-and-shoveled through our individual choices and decisions, spading up youth and breaking up the soil to reach maturation, digging in and accommodating the experiences --- including painful and difficult ones.
That this enriched us individually and as a couple is an understatement. Not only did we have a period of pure and unadulterated delight in ourselves and each other, so new had we become, but, as it turned out, we created a fertile, black, healthy soil from which we both kept growing and growing.
It is because this ground was so rich that I was, eventually, after his death, able to do that most sacred and frightening of tasks: begin again.
Because those experiences with Ned, following the affair, had to do with maturation and ripeness, they --- as his death would later underline for me, and as being raped, six years before I met him, had also presaged --- stated clearly that life is brief and not in our control.
That we must use what we have while we have it: use it to love, and use it, if we are writers, to write.
Here is a poem I wrote, maybe a year after Ned and I had rediscovered ourselves and each other, reinvented our marriage and sexuality… all as a result of the affair; or rather, what the two of us chose to do with the affair. I am no more defending his doing that, or excusing his affair partner, than I am the rapists their actions. But their behavior, it turned out, did not excuse the growing up I needed to do; and that Ned, too, brave soul, chose to do, with vigor and courage.
Why did we "need" to go through that to wake up? I don't know. But sometimes, as Richo noted, “reality is that stubborn.” I seemingly needed to be hit over the head with a two-by-four to get it.
"It" being the reprieve that life gave me, twice: after the rape, and after the affair: this is your life, your love, don't waste it.
Please note: this poem was written after the affair but while Ned was still wholly alive. His actual death, about a year and a half after I wrote this, was of course hidden from both of us by the opaque curtain that is always drawn between present and future.
No matter how healthy you and those you love are, or how much money you have invested, that curtain hides what’s ahead for you. That is why I believe one must keep the "dead" in "deadline."
Live with it. You have no choice.
The phone at 3:00 a.m., (or doorbell), news
you thought you’d never get (but always, somewhere, feared):
the ending. Finished. Disappeared.
The X-ray spot. The bruise that will not heal.
This is the clinic. We are sorry to inform you.
We regret. He never knew what hit him.
Some messages will cleave your life,
before from after. No leniency or warning, time to kill
or to outwait. No call from any governor known to man
commutes or lessens or dilutes, or can, the usual sentence:
too late. How many second chances are there? Precious few.
What’s done is usually done, done to.
How many first “I love yous” are finally said
by hard old broads or bastards, in death-beds?
You’ll overlook your water (being human)
until the storied well runs dry.
You’re going to miss the always-leaving boat.
Your choice, to flag it down or never even try
to catch it. Rash and stupid, take for granted,
simply take. Glue eyelids shut and then complain
that it’s too dark to see. Or else, accept
the commonplace believing: glittering
towards the new, alluring counterfeit, you plan
to fake out history, bury grieving.
But zombie grief will rise, like loss, undead.
I use the pronoun ‘you’ , but may mean ‘me’ instead.
How many second chances are there? Precious.
Few. I wonder at the fearful stun of joy: at
knowing all we do, and all our parts, and what
was nearly lost. Of what remaining life would be
I cannot dare to reckon up the cost, without
your skin to mine, or face, or laughter; cannot begin
to name the ways we daily learn to conjugate our hearts.
I’m glad we had it in us to be tough.
Death will tenderize us soon enough.
“That the paper be blank was important to him, “ I told Paul, Maurice’s Playboy editor. “You know… it meant that he could have been about to do anything, and we, the people still alive who found him, would never know. It was the mystery of it. “
“Well, I get it.” said Paul, and I could almost hear him shaking his head over the phone. His tone, though, was not grim, was respectful, admiring, even a little amused. “I mean, Crescent. That pitch was sent on Monday. It’s Friday. He and that piece of blank sheet of paper he wanted … he damn near made it.”