She sings of finding a better man.
He came from misty rivers
He took me from the valley
My world became him
He dreamed my future
We spent days together
Days like a lifetime
The darkness held us
There were no others
We're alone in our world
We are in an orbit
We're moving from here
And toward each other
October 11, 2016
Audrey, I know I don’t say this very often, but I really appreciate everything you’ve done for me. I hope you know it, even when I don’t say it. I don’t want to be all gushy every time I see you. I don’t think you want that, either. But, I need to say, you’ve been a good friend. For a long time. I was talking to one of my sons about you, about our friendship, just last week. He told me I needed to say everything I told him to you, directly to you. He’s right. He always is. Both of my sons have surpassed me in so many ways. I am so grateful for that. And for you.
Since that first time, the morning I ran into you, here, at the coffee shop, a couple of years ago now, you have been the one person who listens, I mean with empathy, not like others who listen, but clearly feel uncomfortable. They are uneasy, restless, afraid that you expect something from them, expect them to fix something that is unfixable. That day, that morning, you were working on your laptop. You closed it. Stopped what you were working on. I’m sure it was something to do with your job, your business, your marketing business. Maybe, you were just on social media, but I don’t think so. I’m sure you must have been busy. I didn’t recognize you at first. You could have ignored me, and I would have never realized it was you. Instead, you said hello, even though you hadn’t seen me for years, maybe eight or so, since you were in my World Lit survey, when you came back to school. You asked me to sit down. You said that you had heard about my wife dying, you said you were sorry, you asked how I was doing, as if you really wanted to know how I was. You didn’t have to do that—to reach out.
For some reason, I talked to you. I wasn’t talking to anyone, then. Not even Charles. Or Lincoln. Sometimes to my sons. I knew they needed to talk, and they probably wouldn’t talk unless I talked first, so I forced myself, from time to time, to talk to them, tell them what I was feeling, even when I had convinced myself I was okay. But there were things that I didn’t feel like I could to say to them, at least then, so early, things that they knew anyway, things about how hard it had been. They didn’t need to hear their dad struggling when they were struggling themselves. At least, that’s how I saw it. Maybe that wasn’t right. I don’t know.
It’s hard to be able to open up about some things. I know this is not making much sense. I probably sound like I am talking in circles about generalities. I’m telling you things you already know. I guess I need to hear myself say them, to know that I have said them to you, to acknowledge, to create a record this has happened, has been happening, to say I know that it has occurred. It needs to be marked, almost as a trail, in case I need to find my way back to the trailhead. It has meant a lot. Means. It still does mean a lot. Even during those times when I am doing well.
I’m not saying that other people weren’t there for me. They were. They were concerned. They wanted to know how I was doing. They wanted to help. But I learned from all the years my wife and I—the whole family—were struggling, the years we were struggling as a family, that you couldn’t say everything to friends, even the closest friends. You would just wear them out. People want to see a story arch. They can understand—maybe that’s not the right word—they can comprehend, . . . Yes, process is better. They can process a story when someone gets sick, struggles, then gets better. They can even process it when someone gets sick and dies. For so long, we were just stuck. My wife was sick and continued to be sick. Bad things kept happening. There was no story arch. It was flat. Nothing but flat. The same—for years. It is hard for people to keep hearing that things are bad and they are the same. And we, as a culture, we just are not prepared for long-term suffering. We are prepared to step in, bring over a casserole or two, then get back to the complexities of our own lives. The day to day problems we face, the amount of work we all do, the things we have to monitor, gage, keep track of—we can’t be expected to be away from this business for long.
Her doctors had a particularly hard time with this, with the sameness, enduring it, knowing what to do. I am sure they feel powerful when they can make someone better, good about themselves, certain about their place in the world. I am sure they can rationalize their part in the story when someone dies. It was this person’s time to die. They had done all they could. That sort of thing. They, doctors, I don’t think they know what to do when a patient doesn’t get better, when a patient keeps suffering. I am sure this is why Haartz was convinced she was making herself sick. He couldn’t fit her continuing illness into his view of himself. None of his training prepared him for this. Nothing in our culture—not movies, not novels, not songs—none of it tells us how to deal with prolonged suffering that continues, seemingly for no apparently reason.
Some people say the Book of Job. That’s the one cultural artifact people point to. One time when I was talking to Charles, telling him some of what was going on, he told me that I needed to read the Book of Job. He was probably feeling like I would soon lose all of my oxen, a cloud of locusts would descend on my house, or I would be covered in boils. Charles is Catholic. Devout. That’s his frame. Who knows what I am? I never paid attention in Bible school. I didn’t read the Bible on my own, even as literature. I knew the basics about Job, but I can’t say that I ever read the entire book through. . . . Yes, surprising. I know. Unusual for someone who has spent a life in books, who goes to books for comfort.
One night, a few weeks after I talked with Charles, I pulled out the Bible that my grandmother had given me when I was ten, the one I carried to Sunday School each week and never read. I picked it up. I started to read Job. There is one passage that struck me. I memorized it. Sometimes, I said it over and over to myself like a mantra: “Call now, if there be any that will answer thee; and to which of the saints wilt thou turn? For thou shall be in league with the stones of the field: and the beast of the field shall be at peace with thee. And thou shall know that thy tabernacle shall be at peace.” That passage helped. I have no idea why, but the words are comforting. When read in isolation, at any rate, if you don’t think about an interpretation. For a while, I found comfort in it. Then, one day, I asked myself, What the fuck does that mean? I will be in league with the stones of the field? The field shall be at peace with me? I needed for my wife to be better. I needed some bills to be paid. I needed to walk across campus without people looking at me, without seeing that concern—fear, maybe even fear—in their eyes. I couldn’t make my wife better. I couldn’t make my friends less afraid for me.
Part of the curse of having so much training in literature is that I can’t look at a passage like this in isolation for long. I keep rethinking it. Putting it in context. Twisting it. In the end, I don’t know that I found much hope in the Book of Job. It started to make me feel worse. It started to make me angry.
I don’t understand how people see a story of hope there. Job placed his trust in God, and God offered him up to Satan as a theological experiment. Yet, Eliphaz continues to advise Job to trust in God. He says, “Behold happy is the man whom God correcteth.” As Eliphaz utters these words, Job might be thinking, “But I didn’t do anything wrong. God told Satan I am perfect. So why should God be correcting me?”
God took all of Job’s oxen and camels and children. God destroyed his tabernacle with a tornado, I think. Something like that. He had some band of lunatics kill all his children. Why? To correct him? To prove to Satan that Job loved his God? I’ve heard preachers say that God took these things from Job, so it was part of a plan. If there is a God, a God of love, I can’t believe that destroying people is part of His plan. I can’t believe this. I’ve heard people say, but God, once Job proved his worth, gave him back his possessions, gave him a new wife, new children. Yea, I can see the thing about God giving Job back his wealth and camels and oxen, but a new family? How about giving him back his same wife, his same children? I mean, he's God, he could that, right? Jeez, what was God doing? Telling someone whose dog died to go to the pound and get a new dog, one that will be as good as the dog who died, like any dog is as good as some other dog? Most of us would not say something that stupid to someone who lost a dog.
In some ways, I guess, I can see how people can relate to Job. We live in chaos. It's beyond our limitations to imagine building a life in a chaotic world, so we seek order. In Job’s day, that order came from God. Even today, for many people, it comes from God. When Job loses his possessions, when he is afflicted with disease, his questions his source of order. He wonders why God forsakes him. Since the eighteenth-century and the invention of probability, we are more likely to ask, “What are the odds?” We seek the order of numbers. We have a pretty good idea of how long we will live, of how many bad things will happen in that span.
We don’t sacrifice animals to the glory of God. We hedge our bets. We invest in the Stock Market. We buy insurance. We exercise. We take vitamins. Swallowing handfuls of vitamins is our most optimistic act. Instead of buying alcohol or paying bills, we buy vitamins. Despite what most people say, we can’t really feel their effect. We hope the investment will pay off, at some point in the future. Like Job, we look outside ourselves for an agent or an act that will ease our anxiety, that will convince us life will be better. Predictable. In the end, none of it provides any security. Every vitamin nut I know died at a young age.
When friends who followed my wife’s endless illnesses asked how we handled it, I didn’t know how to answer them. I usually answered, “An hour at a time.” They usually nodded as if that was enough for them. It was bullshit. Pure bullshit.
I don’t know how my wife worked through each crisis and then bounced back. She always bounced back. If she started to feel better, even for a half a day, she would head for the lake to go fishing. Even when she was struggling, she was reaching out to people. She had people move into our house, down in the finished basement, while they were in crisis. Then, their lives turned around, and they left. I think she was often hurt because people went away, people she had helped, people who should have remained her friends. But she kept reaching out, kept helping people.
I never had that kind of optimism.That was too hard for me. I would sit on the couch waiting for the next disaster. I started to develop this way of thinking that I called the End Game. It was pure fatalism, but it was the only frame, perspective, that helped me to function. I couldn’t see any order or rationality at work in our lives. I couldn’t see any way to make the hardships go away. I focused on the End. I accepted that we probably wouldn’t be alive six months from now. Not just her, but me also. If I knew that my life would soon be over, if I accepted that I could not control the events in my life, I would accept that the only areas of control left to me were my attitudes and actions. I would try to do the right thing. Not because I saw some reward in the future. Not because this might make the chaos disappear. Simply because I could be at peace with myself. It was the acceptance of embracing a path that held no chance of any reversal, any resolution, that was moving inexorably toward loss and death. And, then, there would be one thing that I felt I could control, at least a little bit. I could not change the events, I often told myself, but I can try to play out the life we were given as well as I can. No heroism. There was no heroism in this. No self-pity. No hope. I could try to do what needs to be done. I could feel that I was doing what could be done, even it the results were darkness, nothingness.
In Hemingway, in one of the vignettes in that early collection of short stories, In Our Time, a man is being led to the gallows. . . . I know, yes, you’re right, this is starting to sound like a book club meeting. You can always make me laugh when I am talk about the darkest stuff. Yes, today we are doing a book club together. We’ll drink our coffee and talk about Hemingway. He was such a nice man, you know. Little Ernie was so good with a gun and a fly rod. Funny. Anyway, in this vignette, the guy—the one being led to the gallows—gives in to fear. He wets himself. I haven’t read it for years, maybe since I was in grad school, so I may be remembering it wrong. But that is what I remember. I think for Hemingway, this story had some sort of macho message. This man needed to be brave in the face of death. Be brave until the end. I don’t think of it as bravery or manliness. It, this vignette, is about accepting your fate, your death, which will come soon. You accept it. That frees you. It wasn’t that this guy was a coward. He just didn’t accept his fate. He didn’t try to control the last moments of his life. The only thing that matters, the only thing you can control at that point, is trying to do the right thing, even if that has no effect on anything outside yourself. You carry it out to the end. Not because you have hope. But because you have no hope. You only have the ability to play it out as well as you can. That’s all.
In this notion of the End Game, I found a certain peace in the release of expectations. I didn’t have hope that everything would turn out okay in the end. I didn’t rage against the injustice of it all. I just tried to do what I could to deal with it moment to moment. I could—at least, sometimes, sometimes, I think, in some moments—feel some comfort in this way of thinking. It was as if a calmness came to me from a mist covering a river and the only sound was the water moving over the rocks and I could only see faint images of the shore. It was a feeling I had, sometimes, when I was in a river, fishing, watching my fly line unroll into a mist. Even in the chaos, even when the light had been altered by the mist, when I seemed to be submerged, I knew what to do. I could, at times, reach that kind of calm.
I don’t know if you remember that day in the World Lit class when we discussed “Matryona’s Home,” that Solzhenitsyn story. I wanted them to see her as being exploited by her family, by her community, by everyone who came in contact with her. But I was also trying to explain how the main character, Matryona, had accepted a certain kind of life that most of us would never accept. She had no hope of things improving. She only had some pride in doing some small amount of good, of trying to do the right thing.
The class almost revolted against me. I think they saw Matryona as being the archetypal mother, a kind old woman, someone like their grandmother. You were the only one who understood what I was trying to say. When we see meaning in the suffering of Job or Matryona, we are locked into this notion that something comes of despair. Even now, even when things are better, when life is less difficult, I have trouble accepting that notion that we grow stronger from “anything that doesn’t kill us.” I don’t—I can’t—accept that. I don’t want to glorify suffering.
Art? . . . Yes, I understand the art thing. Of course. If we can find someway to express what we are experiencing, even if we are making sculptures out of tooth picks and pipe cleaners, that fills some sort of need. As Bakhtin says, we aestheticize our lives—we must do this. Suffering might even make art better—richer or deeper or truer. The songs that I started to write after my wife passed, some of them were just silly, but I started to realize that most of them were about how men treated women. They even seemed to tell a story, so I started to put them in an order and even write some songs to fill in some gaps. I am sure all of that was part of my grief working its way out. Whenever you’re close to a woman, you learn about her past. Always in her past are men, usually several, sometimes many, who have treated her badly. My wife had more than her share of this. Over the years, she told me the stories. She was reluctant to tell me at first. She might have thought that I would have a typical male reaction and want to hunt down the bastards who hurt her and hurt them. It’s hard not to be angry. It’s hard not to want to hunt these guys down. That makes us feel better as men. It doesn’t help the women. It just makes them afraid to tell us about the men who harm them.
She might have also thought that I would think less of her, like she was somehow responsible for the pattern of their behavior. So, it took a long time for her to tell it all. I am glad she told me. But holding the stories was a burden, a weight. I have images of her being hurt. It's almost like I was there. This is what came out in the songs. They’re not that good. I will never be good enough at guitar to perform them. I have a terrible voice. I have even stopped playing them. By now, I have probably forgotten how half of them go. Even though no one will hear them, they helped me move through something, through some kind of loss. I could process some of the weight I had been carrying. But to even suggest a pile of crappy songs is justification for any of her suffering is beyond my understanding. Even if the songs were good, even if I had written great poems rather than songs, I don’t think that act of creativity in any way makes sense of the suffering, or that it means something good came of it. I won’t accept that. I will never be Job. I can’t accept his suffering. I can’t accept that kind of God.
I haven’t talked to anyone about this, not even Charles, or maybe especially Charles. I am sure he would argue that the Book of Job demonstrates the love of God for his people or something like that. I don’t see it. I feel like I can tell you things I am unwilling to say to anyone else. You have that ability to listen without needing to fix it or comment on it. And, if I go too dark, you pull me back. Sometimes, you seem to understand what I am feeling before I understand it. Sometimes, you tell me what I am feeling. Thank you of that. I wanted to say that.
I’m sorry I kept rambling on and on. I didn’t mean to go into all that. I am not sure if it made any sense. It seems like a mush of, something, I don’t know what.