Words and Pictures Help
Muchafraid went over the river singing
Though none knew what she sang
|William Windus Too Late|
In response to Goethe's “Erlkönig” (1782), Edvard Munch's The Sick Child, and Frost's “Acquainted with the Night,” three threads of reveries interwoven in my mind because they are all shaped by how necessary poetry, life-writing, novels, essays, movies, letters from sympathizing friends have been to me since my beloved husband of 46 years died. My need for these remains as great as ever; if these should ever stop working or be taken from me, it will be time to me to die too.
The first: the pressing compelling urge to rescue my beloved, suddenly diagnosed with esophageal cancer: This is what Goethe's father frantically seeks, holding tight, denying, hurrying, hurry, hurry, and what he fails to do. It is what family members, friends, a whole culture, and especially unscrupulous doctors, layering over the uncertainty of limited helpfulness, survival rate, and not outlining as graphically as conscience should tell them to, the harsh effects of treatments, pressure people to do. The heroic battle metaphors are part of this coercion.
I succumbed, and at first with reluctance, and then deluded hope, he did. When shortly after the profoundly maiming operation, the cancer metastasized into his liver, and his last two months became a worse agon of starvation, I still saw myself as having failed to rescue him. I should have pushed the frighteningly expensive options that might not have been there. Like the father, I remain stunned over a year later, the image of him dead in my arms, turned to stone, locked in their curvature.
He had said to me he wanted to do nothing, and that it's not a case “if but how I die,” and I wouldn't, couldn't listen. By September it was far too late to take him on one last trip to England. All I have left to bring are his ashes, in an urn modeled on one from an opera he chose (found on the Net by a friend).. It sits on my mantelpiece next to a small stuffed toy sheep we bought when we visited Stonehenge together. The words engraved on the cover:
If I should die
think only this of me
that there's some corner of a
foreign mantelpiece that is
for a while England.
I am Skyler White. (See Dan Miori's “Was Skler's Intervention Ethical? Hell, it shouldn't Even Be Legal,” from Breaking Bad and Philosophy, edd. David R. Koepsell and Robert Arp [Chicago: Open Court, 2012, pp 27-39). I wish my Jim had found a Jesse and cooked meths to pay for a fantastically magically able oncologist we were told of who lived in Boston and just might have deigned to see us. But Jim would not listen to this. He didn't like breaking laws anyway.
Munch's The Sick Child reminds me of my second: our culture's continuing intolerance of grief, covered up by the pretenses of toleration for the first few months, the “grief support groups” counseling modes of getting over it. I take Elizabeth Kubler-Ross's famous stages to be a codification of cant. Munch's Edwardian image, the communicated sense this is TB, consumption we are looking at recalls another very like image, William Lindsay Windus's Too Late (1858), a rare depiction of a woman in the later stages of TB. She can still stand supporting herself with a stick. At the time Ruskin and the Art Journal (important periodical) attacked this picture so mercilessly that Windus gave up on trying for a prominent career as a painter. We are in the midst of a vast cancer epidemic and where are the pictures of its realities. Our medical fiction films hardly come near this, nor the edge of decency used by the medical community to enforce its profit-making. The small percentage of fundamental research compared to sums put into chemotherapy, operations “prolonging life.”
A rare exception: Wit, original screenplay by Margaret Edson, best known in the unexpectedly commercially successful movie starring Emma Thompson, directed by Mike Nichols.
Ms Bearing (the heroine's allegorical name): “Wasn't that … Grand? (She gets up without her IV pole.) At times, this obsessively detailed examination, this scrutiny seems to be a nefarious business. On the other hand, what is the alternative? Ignorance? Ignorance may be … bliss; but it is not a very noble goal … So I play my part (Pause) I receive chemotherapy, throw up, am subjected to countless indignities, feel better, go home. Eight cycles. Eight neat little strophes. Oh, there have been the usual variations, subplots, red herrings: hepatoxicity (liver poison), neuropathy (nerve death). (Righteously) they are medical terms. I look them up … It has always been my custom to treat words with respect … I can recall the time – the very hour of the very day – when I knew words would be my life's work … [a few pages later, another scene) My only defense is the acquisition of vocabulary” (Edson, Wit, 1999 ed, pp 40-41, 44)
And third, Frost's “Acquainted with the Night:” among those books, poetry, novels, memoirs, essays, plays, movies in which I've found support since Jim died is an anthology of poetry with this title interwoven in its title: Insomnia Poems: Acquainted with the Night, ed. Lisa Russ Spar (Columbia UP, 1999), which includes this poem, among many other well-chosen poems. Well-chosen for what? It's not that they are about insomnia or getting through the night: I get through all right , but only with a powerful enough prescription sleeping pill (i.e., trazadone). I try to remember those which have helped put calming rhythm into the way I inwardly experience being alive and words like recognition, acknowledgement, shared analogous experience, confronting truth in meaningful words. I hate the meretricious uplift, “healing” imposed on books or films, all falseness.
These have gotten me through days as well as nights: Fred Shepisi's film, Last Orders; Sherwin Nuland's How We Die, Joan Didion's A Year of Magical Thinking, Donald Hall's Without, Juliette Towhidi's Calendar Girls, Robin Swicord's The Jane Austen Book Club, finishing reading books my husband did not get to finish, poetry he loved (Empson, Basil Bunting, Clive James's more recent poems), listening to the classical music he and I loved together, my own long-beloved books read many times, Jane Austen's, George Eliot's Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda, Anthony Trollope's, certain poems of Wordsworth, widow's poetry, older woman's, individual passages repeated. Blogging, writing myself.
For this column I reread Philip Larkin's “Aubade” in Spar's volume, which ended on the work of living, how “Postman like doctors go from house to house” in this “uncaring intricate rented world” and reminds me I am not so alone though none have explained to me my compelling urge to stay alive though what to do with my life without him outside my imagination I know not.
© Ellen Moody